What freedom entails: facing the good and the bad consequences of our decisions

For men and women to be free from paternalistic domination from others and free to make our own choices necessarily means that we are in turn subjected to the vicissitudes and the consequences, for better or for worse, of those decisions. It is a fundamental concept that for us to remain free, we must not in turn be “protected” by government from the downside risk of flawed choices or bad luck. It was in fact this form of “protection” that for centuries kept peasants under the feudal domination of their class superiors – the knights, earls, and dukes under which they served and whom they paid exorbitant rents to. Predictably, famine only ever struck the peasants when harvests failed, while nobles and priests always maintained a relatively bountiful diet. Ostensibly, this was the price to be paid for protection by the lords of the castle and his soldiers and mercenaries. The reality was that for most peasants throughout the ages, the only real danger to their lives was in fact the deprivations of the lords supposedly protecting them.

Alas, for centuries and the better part of human history, this system kept a stable class of hereditary beneficiaries in control of a never growing and largely agrarian-based economic pie. People lived consistently on the modern equivalent of $3 a day and under a Malthusian system in which population growth led to a decrease in individual agrarian and artisanal wages, wages which only rose again the next time a plague wiped out swaths of the population and the supply of labor.  On that note, this never growing economic pie also led to no real advancements in science and medicine, and those frequent plagues (thought for centuries to arise out of miasmas in the sky that needed to be avoided by clustering indoors and blood that needed to be let out of the body – an ignorantly fatal combination) killed noble and peasant alike. In the words of Thomas Hobbes, life for the vast majority of our ancestors’ histories was lived in “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Shakespeare poetically wrote of death as, “the arbitrator of despairs, just death, kind umpire of men’s miseries…” Let me pause for a moment and express my extreme gratitude to have been born into the relative bounty and ease of modern-day American life. Whatever our problems, they pale in comparison to the way humanity lived for thousands of years; well into the 1800s most people lived in these Hobbesian conditions. Many millions of people on earth still reside in dark removes of similar medieval conditions in places such as Somalia and Afghanistan.

Deirdre McCloskey, in her remarkable book, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, makes the above points eloquently and with her unique ability to draw upon an impressive panoply of analogies, anecdotes, and historic intellectual luminaries’ thoughts and writings to buttress her points. I highly recommend the book and credit it with much of my facts (i.e. the $3 a day factoid, Malthus’ theories). In direct contrast to the idea that we as individuals need protection and on the topic of the reality and essential connection between freedom and potential loss, she observes:

“The ideas of equality led to other social and political movements not uniformly adorable. Hannah Arendt remarked in 1951 that ‘equality of condition…is among the greatest and most uncertain ventures of modern mankind.’ Alexis de Tocqueville had said much the same a century earlier. And Scottish equality has a harsh, even tragic side. It entails equal reward for equal merit in a marketplace in which others, by freedom of contract, can also compete. As John Stuart Mill put it in On Liberty, ‘Society admits no right, either legal or moral, in the disappointed competitors to immunity from this kind of suffering; and feels called on to interfere only when means of success have been employed which it is contrary to the general interest to permit – namely, fraud or treachery, or force.’ Yet in the real world, unhappily, if the poor are to be raised up, there is no magic alternative to such competition. An ill-advised and undercapitalized pet store, into which the owner pours his soul, goes under. In the same neighborhood a little independent office for immediate health care opens half a block from a branch of the largest hospital chain in Chicago, and seems doomed to fail the test of voluntary trade. Although the testing of business ideas in voluntary trade is obviously necessary for betterment of the economy (as it is too by non-monetary tests for betterment in art and sport and science and scholarship), such failures are deeply sad if you have the slightest sympathy for human projects, or for humans. But at least the pet store, the clinic, the Edsel, Woolworth’s, Polaroid, and Pan American Airlines face the same democratic test by trade: Do customers keep coming forward voluntarily? Does real income rise?
We could all by state compulsion backed by the monopoly of violence remain in the same jobs as our ancestors, perpetually “protected,” though at $3 a day. Or, with taxes taken by additional state compulsion, we could subsidize new activities without regard to a test by voluntary trade, “creating jobs” as the anti-economic rhetoric has it. Aside even from their immediate effect of making national income lower than it could have been, perpetually, such ever-popular plans – never mind the objectionable character of the violent compulsion they require – seldom work in the long run for the welfare of the poor, or the rest of us. In view of the way a government of imperfect people actually behaves in practice, job “protection” and job “creation” often fail to achieve their gentle, generous purposes. The protections and the creations get diverted to favorites. Laws requiring minority or female businesses to be hired, for example, tend to yield phony businesses run in fact by male whites. In a society run by male whites or inherited lords or clan members or Communist Party officials, or even by voters not restricted by inconvenient voting times and picture IDs, the unequal and involuntary rewards generated by sidestepping the test of trade are seized by the privileged. The privileged are good at that.”

 The implicit conclusion is that while there are unfortunate consequences of freedom and a free market, the alternative is worse. The plea, as McCloskey states in her book’s foreword, is this:  “Perhaps you yourself still believe in nationalism or socialism or proliferating regulation. And perhaps you are in the grip of pessimism about growth or consumerism or the environment or inequality. Please, for the good of the wretched of the earth, reconsider.”

“He was good at life.” In honor of Taylor Force

Force

The tragic and untimely death of Taylor Force commands our attention and it demands that we pay our respects in our own ways for the life that was lost. Indeed, his family and friends recently did just that in Lubbock, Texas, as a recent Lubbock Avalanche Journal article reports.

For the uninitiated, Force was taken from this world while he was in the prime of his life while visiting Israel on an Owen School of Management at Vanderbilt school-sponsored trip. His loss, like so many others these days, was due to a senseless and barbaric act of terrorism as Force and multiple others were attacked by a knife-wielding terrorist. To survive tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and then die at the hands of a coward is an insult to life and decency. The only solace family and friends must feel is the inordinate impact Force had on life in the short years he had on earth to live it.  I did not know Force personally, but I can’t help but marvel at some of the intersections and connections that his story holds to mine and thus identify with him: we both grew up in Lubbock, both served as officers in the United States Army, and both pursued MBAs. One final intersection is that the Owen School of Management at Vanderbilt Dean, Eric Johnson, was a professor of mine at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and also was a faculty sponsor of  Association of Christian Tuck Students (ACTS) that I was a member of. Dean Johnson is a wonderful man that was giving of his time and talents, opening his wonderful home in the woods of Vermont to students on numerous occasions while he served at Tuck. Dean Johnson had this to say of Force’s character, “He was a very valued part of the community, a student leader…the kind of young man that we would all hope is one of our sons…one that wasn’t quick to talk but when he talked it was always with insight and impact.”

Friends and family have described Force as someone that excelled in whatever he did. And yet the leadership, talents, and success were leavened with humility and a spirit of servanthood. To me, this combination of humility and not thinking too much of oneself while devoting one’s life to service to others, productivity, personal growth, relationships with others, making an impact on life and those around you is the essence of virtue. Force’s father, said it best in the linked article above when he said, “He was good at life.”  I am impressed not only with Force’s success and path in adulthood, but his seriousness and maturity in his youth, where he achieved success as an Eagle Scout and made the remarkably mature decision to attend high school away from home at the New Mexico Military Institute, accomplishments that allowed him to obtain the Congressional District’s sole West Point appointment that year. How many of us can say that we were busy developing character and virtue in our youths? Sadly, I know that I cannot.

With the general coarsening and crudeness of our society as manifested by the fact that we are collectively on the cusp of elevating a man to the Presidency who makes crass comments on the size of his genitalia on a nationally televised debate, I can’t help but think of Force and wonder how we can create a more just and virtuous society on his life model? How can I ensure that my own son and daughters emulate such a life at an early age? I have to ponder the question of if I was to meet an untimely death, whether the outpouring of grief and emotion would include the epitaph, “he was good at life.” Aristotle would define this virtuous life as finding the right balance of decency, prudence, wisdom, courage, deliberation, temperance, and modesty, and that true happiness and life fulfilment only comes from these virtues. Jesus Christ would indicate that the ultimate commandment is to love God and our neighbors more than ourselves. Force was the full embodiment of these virtues. I pray that the rest of us can busy ourselves with discovering those virtues for ourselves.

Quote of the Week – Suicide Note of a Soviet Citizen

Show trial

“I know that if there’s a desire, one can accuse the innocent, such are the times. I do not want defamation, I do not want to suffer while innocent and have to justify myself, I prefer death to defamation and suffering.”

– Russian coal worker suicide note, Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power – Stephen Kotkin

The context of the suicide note is one that showcases the tyranny that can befall man once a government exists for its own sake and the rule of law becomes what that government arbitrarily decides the law is in order to increase and keep power. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, there was a typical cycle of increasing power grabs and more movements to a totalitarian and collectivist society that went something along these lines: Stalin, who was a true Communist ideologue and not simply a pragmatic totalitarian that he is often portrayed by historians to be, would have a grand design of moving the Soviet Union closer to the utopian dream of a collectivist “worker’s paradise.” In order to get the political capital required to move millions of people into this utopia, he would need to foment a pretext of class war in order to generate support of the “have nots” against the increasingly vanishing “haves.” Stalin had a firm grip on the secret police through his own self-appointments of men who depended on his patronage. During these times the secret police carried the name of OGPU, and Stalin could count on the complicity of the OGPU henchmen to drum up confessions whenever he needed them to. Then what would follow would be a show trial against class enemies that had the benefits of creating terror amongst and outside of the Communist Party, providing the cover Stalin needed to enact sweeping social and political change.

Such is the macabre script that induced the suicide note that serves as the quote of the week. Kotkin chronicles one such case in which Stalin’s overarching goal was to enact his biggest gamble yet as ruler – the mass removal of peasants from individual farms and communes into state-owned large scale collectivist farms. In the events leading up to the forced confiscation of farms, mass repression of so-called “kulaks” (wealthy peasants), and forced movement of peasants onto these large scale farms, Stalin needed a pretext of class warfare. He received such a pretext in gift from his North Caucasus OGPU leader, Yefim Yevdokimov, who presented fabricated evidence to Stalin of foreign agents and Soviet citizen collusion to sabotage production amongst industrial facilities and mines in Shakhty. What ensued was ever more repression and forced confessions through torture that culminated in a globally publicized show trial. The show trial set in motion a series of dual events that further entrenched Stalin’s power and provided the means necessary to reshape Soviet society. Firstly, Stalin was able to maneuver around his internal rivals and initiate the Great Purge. It is clear from Kotkin’s account that Stalin could tolerate no dissent and was a particularly vindictive person. Secondly, Staling was able to launch a broader Class War, in which anyone that stood in the way of forced collectivization of farms and industrial settings would be labeled various forms of epithets such as bourgeois, petit bourgeois, kulak, enemy of the state, or foreign agent. Stalin’s ultimate goal was collectivization of the farms, and the Shakhty trial gave him the pretext to neutralize, repress, and outflank members of the Politburo who were opposed to the forced collectivization of the farms as well as liquidate kulaks and force the migration of peasants to collective farms. The outcome was a tremendous famine in which millions perished due to predictable ensuing drastic decrease in agricultural production. That is a topic for which Kotkin indicates he will turn to once he publishes Volume II, which is currently in draft form.

The horrific stories one reads out of books, like Kotkins, that chronicle life in the Soviet Union (others that I have appreciated reading in the past include Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago  and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands) always give me a sense of great gratitude for having a tremendously comfortable life in the United States. More unnerving, I always question myself on how I would act in the face of interrogation and a show trial, in which I am being asked upon pain of torture and death to denounce and turn on family and friends. It is a sobering thought experiment.

 

“Virginia is Horrible; Send Cheese”

jamestown-cannibalism-findings

The American imagination of early settlements is often misconstrued as rather glamorous affairs of hearty British subjects seeking freedom and prosperous land ownership coupled with progress and harmony amongst the settlers and the American natives. The picture above representing this mythical view could have come from just about any American school account of the period. I delighted in reading an actual account from rarely discovered writings of one such settler in the Virginian colony in the 1600s that disabuses this notion entirely. As the editor of thee (allow me some Olde English flourishes given the topic, all right?) article states,  “Life in early colonial Virginia was as nasty, brutish, and short as it got for seventeenth-century Englishmen, as shown in the sufferings of Richard Frethorne.”

The life of this young man, who was sent to serve as an indentured servant by his parents in order to pay off family debts, makes paying off student loans look rather easy in comparison. Stealing, starvation, thirst, hard labor, exploitation, loneliness, despair, and constant attacks from natives are the hallmark of the wretched life of the early American settler. It is highly worth the read for lovers of English colonial and American history to get a better appreciation of our highly inauspicious origins.

To achieve better happiness, start thinking about your own death

Talk about the ultimate premortem, I found this article by one of my favorite authors, columnists, and bloggers, Arthur C. Brooks an insightful thought experiment in imagining life as if it is almost over for you. The crux of the article and mental exercise is that there is a great amount of dissonance between the actions that what we as individuals know makes us highly satisfied and the decisions we actually make as it relates to what we spend our time doing. Brooks states:

In fact, most people suffer grave misalignment. In a 2004 article in the journal Science, a team of scholars, including the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, surveyed a group of women to compare how much satisfaction they derived from their daily activities. Among voluntary activities, we might expect that choices would roughly align with satisfaction. Not so. The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship and meditation than from watching television. Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.

If anything, this study understates the misalignment problem. The American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, in 2014, the average American adult spent four times longer watching television than “socializing and communicating,” and 20 times longer on TV than on “religious and spiritual activities.” The survey did not ask about hours surfing the web, but we can imagine a similar disparity.

Thus, the imperative is for us to stop wasting time and make better decisions with our present moments. Perhaps regular exercises in thinking earnestly about the dreadful prospect of only having a year left to live will provide an aid in helping us make better choices and paradoxically make us happier.

Quote of the Week

20120218-Thucydides_pushkin02

There is no need to suppose that human beings differ very much from one another: but it is true that the ones who come out on top are the ones who have been trained in the hardest school.

                                                             -Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides is quoting from a speech attributed to Spartan King Archidamus II during deliberations amongst Sparta and her allies on whether to break a treaty and go to war against their rival Athens. Archidamus was a lone voice presenting the case for not immediately going to war and rather dedicate efforts to repair the relationship and amend Athenian behavior through diplomatic efforts. The first part of his statement meant that the Athenians were not all that different than Spartans and that he could understand their motivations and that Sparta should endeavor to make peace with them on common understandings of both of their growing power, interests, and needs of their allies. The second part of his statement is critical for understanding his nuanced balance between peace and war, namely that amongst nations the prospect of the latter prosecuted with vigor assures the former. His statesmanlike balance to diplomatic overtures was that he understood quite well that diplomacy does not always resolve issues amicably and that a polity must always prepare diligently for war in order to effectively safeguard peace. Archidamus would go on to argue that war preparedness is its own form of ensuring that diplomacy can function and that adversaries can be dragged to the negotiation table. I think of this as the ancient predecessor of Teddy Roosevelt’s, “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” version of foreign policy.

This quote also serves as an example of how much we can learn from ancient history as well as an example of the remarkable feat achieved by Thucydides in creating a historical narrative that lasted the test of time. The reader of Thucydides comes away fascinated with the similarities in human nature between then and now, a space covered by the passage of almost 3,000 years of time. The technology and fashions may change, but oh how mankind remains ever the same in our passions and lusts for power and notions of security and our penchant for “us versus them” tribalism. Thucydides supplements historical narrative with a fair amount of speeches given by political and military leaders on both sides of the war. Within these speeches are some of the finest forms of philosophy on offer from ancient times, that once again seem remarkable in their modern applicability. Thucydides’ ancient account has lasted the test of time due to his genius in weaving a tapestry of historical military facts about set-piece events and battles together with political science and speeches replete with powerful philosophy. If the reader of this blog post still has little desire to read hundreds of pages of history related to an internecine war that happened thousands of years ago in Greece, I would submit to you to at least read the funeral oration delivered by the Athenian leader Pericles. It is a fine example of the types of dialogue that occurs throughout the account.

Misogyny – the reason refugees may not be able to have nice things

Cologne
The shattered windows of a book shop are boarded over the day after populist right-wing riots in Leipzig, Germany. Photo: Getty Images

Typically, I have supported much more open forms of immigration and of harboring as many refugees as are willing and able to come, with the need to factor in safety and security given the volatile and chaotic situation stemming from Syria and the broader Middle East (previous thoughts on this outlined here). My argument has traditionally been that immigration is largely beneficial across the economic, cultural, and moral spectrums. I have also sympathized previously with the position of Angela Merkel in her unique role within Europe of welcoming millions of refugees with open arms into Germany. My sympathy arises out of the pure charity of the act, even if I had a harder time sympathizing with the prudence of the direction. It is in the very least an act of leadership without equivocation, which is more than the rudderless policies of many of her European counterparts, whose lack of decision in any direction is at least equally problematic.

However, the recent events categorized by hundreds of police reports filed across multiple German cities of grotesque sexual assaults perpetrated by, as many police reports and video footage attests, men from Middle Eastern and North African origin indicates the great pitfalls of such an open arms policy. As much as the idealist in me wants to believe that moral clarity, charity, and human brotherhood will prevail, the realist in me has to reason that millions of people unaccustomed (and in many ways inimical) to Western culture and values can’t possible be absorbed in such a large volume without deleterious consequences. The great negative consequences of such an action are not only the awful attacks on women, but the unfortunate right and left-wing populism that it will drive people across the globe to embrace. A lack of prudence in refugee acceptance will inevitably lead to harmful overreactions that will do lasting harm. The component in these events most at odds with Western society is an apparent culture that openly avows and practices misogynistic views and life practices, which surfaces in a complete lack of regard for over 50% of the world population and relegating them to mere chattel status. Such events on this scale (one report indicates over 600 allegations have been made by women) could not have possibly occurred spontaneously, pointing to a premeditated and coordinated plan to do evil and harm. There must be more to this than an outlier event of drunken men misbehaving. Indeed, as Bret Stephens reports in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, a recent World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report presents with remarkable clarity the lack of esteem men from Muslim majority nations hold for women. As quoted in the article, “..the report ranks the status of women in 142 countries. Bottom of the list: Yemen, Pakistan, Chad, Syria, Mali and Iran, all Muslim-majority countries. A 2013 Pew survey of Muslim views on women’s rights found that only 22% of Egyptians and 14% of Iraqis thought that women should have a right to divorce their husbands, while fully 92% of Moroccans and 87% of Palestinians thought a wife must always obey her husband.”

These are astounding revelations and statistics, and they can’t possibly align with Western culture and values. The question then becomes, how could we reconcile our moral obligations that happen to benefit our society economically and culturally as it relates to refugees? How about taking up the Stephens’ recommendation to allow women, children, and the elderly in with open arms as the immediate first step? I would add to the Stephens formula that we could still focus on family unification (male entry), but prioritizing those that are clearly being persecuted and which we can clearly get a sense that the man of the house is not a misogynist, which could be made manifest by a spouse that is well educated, works outside of the home, daughters that are educated, etc, and professions from the man that they value women in society.

This is an intractable situation with no easy answers, so would love to get others’ thoughts on the matter.

Free Austin Tice

http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-road-to-damascus/

There is so much to gather from this wonderfully written account of the disappearance and apparent abduction of freelance journalist Austin Tice. One encounters a range of emotions and thoughts about the human condition in this narrative: the tragedy and inconceivable sympathy towards Austin’s parents out of thoughts of harm coming to your own children, the feeling of listlessness and wanting to do something great in this life, trying to find the line between bravery and recklessness, the wretched state of the Syrian people, and the inevitable lack of feeling and sympathy we tend to have for those suffering that are far removed from our day to day lives.

Whatever one thinks of Tice and where he fits on that fine line between bravery and recklessness, one has to appreciate the altruism and courage in his becoming a freelance journalist in a dangerous place. His manifesto is something to wonder and marvel at:

“People keep telling me to be safe (as if that’s an option), keep asking me why I’m doing this crazy thing, keep asking me what’s wrong with me for coming here. So listen, our granddads stormed Normandy and Iwo Jima and defeated global fascism. Neil Armstrong flew to the moon in a glorified trashcan, doing math on a clipboard as he went. Before there were roads, the Pioneers put one foot in front of the other until they walked across the entire continent. Then a bunch of them went down to fight and die in Texas ’cause they thought it was the right thing to do. Sometime between when our granddads locked the Nazis and when we started putting warnings on our coffee cups about the temperature on our beverage, America lost that pioneering spirit. We became a fat, weak, complacent, coddled, unambitious and cowardly nation… So that’s why I came here to Syria, and it’s why I like being here now, right now, right in the middle of a brutal and still uncertain civil war. Every person in this country fighting for their freedom wakes up every day and goes to sleep every night with the knowledge that death could visit them at any moment. They accept that reality as the price of freedom…they’re alive in a way that almost no American today even knows how to be. They live with greater passion and dream with greater ambition because they are not afraid of death. Neither were the Pioneers. Neither were our granddads. Neither was Neil Armstrong. And neither am I.”