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Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Happiness (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Culture, Philosophy, Self-Improvement, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published November 26, 2009
as Part of Issue CCXX of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
******************************
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXX of The Rational Argumentator on November 26, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
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 One of the most grievous errors made by most people in the Western world today can be found in the prevailing view of happiness as constant pleasure or euphoria. This vision of happiness is not only unattainable but destructive of genuine happiness. A much more realistic and satisfying understanding of happiness can be found by combining the insights of Classical Aristotelian and Enlightenment philosophers and applying them to the vast opportunities we have in our time.

The view of happiness as pleasure or euphoria fails in multiple ways. First, it is physiologically unattainable. It is simply impossible for the human body to experience euphoria except in short, fairly infrequent bursts – the body simply cannot produce enough of the pleasure-stimulating chemicals that lead to the desired sensations. Moreover, the body reacts in the same essential manner to pleasure deserved through effort – such as the pride in having completed a creative work or in having transformed an aspect of the world – and to pleasure brought about by the introduction of certain foreign substances, such as drugs, into the body. It is well-known that a drug user needs increasing doses of a drug to experience the same euphoria; the doses that could produce it originally no longer suffice, because the body becomes accustomed to them. However, a lack of the drug altogether results in feelings of active, often severe, displeasure, because the body has come to treat the presence of certain amounts of the drug as its default, neutral state.

The same can be said of any life dominated by pursuit of pleasurable feelings for their own sake – detached from the events and conditions of the external reality. If an individual does manage to experience feelings of heightened pleasure all the time, his body will eventually become desensitized to them – to the point of viewing them as the neutral state. Every pleasurable feeling has a cause – be it internal or external. The individual will therefore come to view the cause of the pleasurable feelings as needing to be present in order to maintain even a neutral state of mind. As it is virtually impossible to maintain the causes of unusual pleasure in operation all the time, this individual will be certain to experience emotional “withdrawal” more often than he experiences pleasure.

Furthermore, a life dominated by the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake becomes a trap for the individual – preventing him from exercising his agency in the external world and instead confining him to replication of biochemical patterns within his own body that are aimed at producing the sought-after feelings. Instead of reshaping the elements of the world outside him into increasingly favorable configurations, he will become a slave to the peculiar construction of his own organism – and he will short-circuit its mechanisms in such a manner as to deprive feelings of pleasure of the utility they would have for a person who is not obsessed with them. The external reality is often quite unaccommodating; the man who focuses on his own feelings instead of observing and responding to the outside world will quickly find the outside world wearing away at his life until there is nothing left.

The sensible function of pleasure is as a reward for objectively beneficial behaviors. If an individual feels good after performing an act that improves his chances of survival, then this gives him an incentive to perform that act in the future. This is why the human capacity to experience pleasure was favored by natural selection for thousands of generations. However, this capacity evolved in a very different environment from our current one – where feelings of pleasure were largely extremely difficult to earn; good food was scarce and only attainable after strenuous hunting and foraging, and even the comfort of a shelter secure from the elements was a rarity. In our era, human beings have become extremely adept at artificially stimulating their pleasure centers without doing anything beforehand to earn such stimulation. The coupling of humans’ new possibilities with their ancient biology can explain such bizarre phenomena as obesity, recreational drug use, promiscuity, and the teenage culture in the contemporary Western world.

Pleasure can still serve its more beneficial function as an incentive for accomplishment, and, by being framed in this manner, it can be limited to a reasonable presence. But it has become much easier to bypass this much more demanding route to pleasure. The solution, of course, is not to reject our life-improving modern conveniences, but rather to alter our thinking about what constitutes a happy life.

To gain a more sophisticated understanding of happiness, it is useful to refer to two sets of historical philosophers. The Classical Greek philosophers, beginning with Aristotle, developed a concept of happiness as being inextricably linked with virtue. The Aristotelian view of happiness, or eudaimonia, did not emphasize pleasure or emotional states. Rather, it saw the truly happy man as the man who has actualized his full potential and has thereby positively influenced the external reality to the entirety of his ability. Virtuous habits – including moderation in the pursuit of pleasure – enable the individual to devote his energies toward self-actualization, which produces a longer-lasting, sustainable happiness. The Enlightenment philosophers contributed to this view by emphasizing the tremendous potential of the human rational faculty in literally reshaping the world and taking humanity out of the muck of poverty, vulgarity, and violence that it had been immersed in for most of its history. Each individual’s use of reason is his means for cultivating his full potential and for attaining true happiness. When the American Founders talked about a natural right to “the pursuit of happiness,” it was this rational, virtue-driven happiness that they had in mind.

It is important to emphasize that this view of happiness does not advocate asceticism, either. A certain sustainable amount of pleasure is preferable to complete avoidance of enjoyment – because the latter cannot be maintained indefinitely and is likely to result in an eventual reaction toward the opposite extreme of hedonism. It is also important to recognize that what constitutes self-actualization will differ considerably among individuals, and the sustainable level of pleasure will also vary in accordance with an individual’s material circumstances and psychological inclinations.

Nowhere is the sharp distinction between the conventional, hedonistic view of happiness and the rational, virtue-based view more evident than in human relationships, particularly those of a romantic nature. Those who expect their romantic partners to continually inspire them with feelings of ecstasy or euphoria are sentencing themselves to a lifetime of frustrations, breakups, and serial attempts at happiness – which will all inevitably end in the same way. A genuinely fulfilling romantic relationship is not one that continually stimulates the pleasure centers of each party’s brains, but rather one that exhibits a lasting commitment on both sides and a continual cooperation for the purpose of making life better. Feelings of love and affection should be present, of course, but they are much more sustainable in a gentle, comforting, persistent form than they could be in the form of the rapture that so many people mistakenly imagine love to be. My essay, “A Rational View of Love“, offers a more thorough exposition of this idea.

Finally, it is important to recognize that no life – and particularly no productive life – will be free of negative feelings. Whenever we seek to overcome obstacles, we are likely to encounter difficulties we cannot immediately resolve. This may produce feelings of doubt, fear, anger, disappointment, and frustration, in various mixes and degrees. As the world is severely flawed in most ways, it would be unreasonable for us not to have a substantial amount of negative feelings about it. These feelings should not be banished from our brains; indeed, they can serve as useful indicators of the problems in our lives and can motivate us to resolve them. Many people today make the mistake of abandoning any aspect of life they may occasionally feel negatively about – be it a job, a relationship, an educational pursuit, an independent creative work, or a set of ideas. But a negative feeling should not be the equivalent of a mental off-switch or “Keep Out” sign. Instead, it should be seen as an invitation to explore, resolve, challenge, or resist. Turning away from anything that does not trigger immediate good feelings is the surest recipe for unhappiness.

If it is not through a constant feeling of pleasure, then how can one know if one is happy? I posit that this can be ascertained by asking a single question: “Am I pursuing an overall course in life with whose consequences I expect to be satisfied for as long as I live?” This question ignores the everyday fluctuations in emotional states and arrives at the core issue: how one’s choices and behaviors contribute to the actualization of one’s potential and the establishment of a sustainable, ever-improving life. It shifts the focus of one’s attention from one’s present feelings to the future effects of one’s actions. Incidentally, however, it also has the effect of making one feel better on average, since one’s present emotional state is heavily dependent on whether one has behaved in a life-affirming or a life-undermining manner in the past. The more one does now to benefit one’s future, the better one will feel in the future. But it is a good, flourishing life itself that constitutes happiness, and, as a byproduct, results in mild, sustainable, and profoundly rewarding pleasure.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXX.

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Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Employment (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Culture, Economics, Philosophy, Self-Improvement, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published November 26, 2009
as Part of Issue CCXX of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
******************************
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXX of The Rational Argumentator on November 26, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
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The mistaken identification of wealth with money, which I refuted in an earlier installment of this series, results in yet another damaging fallacy: the idea that the only legitimate “employment” is work performed for somebody else in exchange for money. This cultural confusion has become so deep-rooted that even people who own their own businesses or function as independent contractors are classified as “self-employed” – which, despite the second component of that term, is somehow seen as distinct from being “employed,” which has become in the minds of many identical to working for a formal organization on a fixed schedule for largely fixed compensation. There is nothing wrong with the latter kind of employment; indeed, I am currently engaged in it, and it pays well. It is a practical and a tremendously useful way to earn a living for many. But the societal stigma against many individuals who choose not to pursue that path needs to end.

I am not here seeking to justify individuals who refuse to work out of sloth or rebelliousness – or individuals who choose to subsist off of the welfare system. Indeed, I am not at all seeking to justify individuals who refuse to work at all. Rather, I seek to effectuate a cultural re-identification of employment with doing actual useful work – physical or mental – irrespective of how much, or how little, money that work earns. If wealth is not money but rather useful goods and services, then useful employment is any activity that generates useful goods and services. Some such activities happen to be highly compensated with money, either because there is large market demand for them or because they are subsidized by private institutions or governments. But other such activities arise out of individuals’ volunteer efforts, hobbies and interests, and desires to improve their immediate environment. An individual who devotes himself or herself primarily to the latter sorts of activities can be as worthy of respect and just as productive as an individual who makes a six-figure monetary income.

First, it is essential to recognize that either market value or institutional advantages that result in monetary subsidies are not necessarily a reflection of genuine wealth creation or usefulness. For instance, numerous products of high culture – including philosophy, literature, and classical music – are not in high demand among the masses, who simply do not understand such products. The creators of high culture will not earn as great an income on the market as the creators of light magazines and popular music. However, these same creators will contribute a much longer-lasting value to human knowledge, refinement, and moral standards for generations to come, whereas the creators of more popular works are unlikely to remain in demand for more than two generations. There is nothing wrong with this differential in compensation, per se, as people who do not appreciate high culture are entitled to vote with their dollars however they please. But this state of affairs does invalidate any notion that the amount of money one receives from one’s work is in any manner connected with one’s worth as a human being or one’s contribution to improving one’s own life and the lives of others – both in the short term and in the long term. Many creators of more refined works have even decided that it is unwise to try to make a living from such works and depend on their approval by a mass audience; instead, they have decided to subsidize their own creations and the dissemination of these works by means of a monetary income they earn from another occupation. This allows for works of high culture to be created exactly as the author intended them to be; if the author is talented and has a consistent vision, such works will be much more likely to endure long into the future.

Another important recognition is that some work is either impossible to transfer to the market given present technology or is prohibitively expensive to transfer. For instance, if I wish to go into my kitchen and get myself a beverage, it would be highly impractical for me to hire another individual to do this for me. If I get the beverage myself, I do not either collect or spend any money – provided that I already own the beverage, the glass, and the living space. But it cannot be denied that the act of getting the beverage was desirable to me and improved the quality of my life. Likewise, numerous actions that an individual performs to improve his or her own skills – such as reading books, practicing musical instruments, and doing mathematical problems – cannot be outsourced to other individuals and retain their value for the individual, which arises from the act of learning new skills that the individual himself would be able to use in the future. Indeed, it is true that all of us, if we have even the slightest desire to live well, will perform a wide variety of work every day for which we receive no monetary compensation at all! If we did not perform this work, it is unlikely that we would be in any position to earn any money, either.

A popular source of contempt in contemporary culture is the individual who, instead of leaving the home to work for money, chooses to remain at home and maintain it in good working order. This is, in my judgment, the single most egregious consequence of the fallacy that employment is the same as working for money. Working within the home – especially when supported by the monetary income of another family member – is a tremendously useful and life-affirming occupation; it facilitates a division of labor where various family members can specialize in the tasks they are most skilled at performing, thereby making good use of the principle of comparative advantage. Moreover, it enables a greater degree of care for any children in the household and provides a source of relief for those individuals who simply do not like working outside the home on a fixed schedule.

I note that there is nothing in this implying that any particular gender of individual should choose to stay at home, or that a family cannot function well if all of its members choose to work outside the home. Rather, I argue that a productive family can exist irrespective of which of its members do or do not choose to work for money. Indeed, for a family which has accumulated sufficient money and physical goods, it is possible to maintain productivity and a high standard of living even if none of its members earns a regular monetary income. Even if an individual has never earned any money in his or her life and, say, lives off a vast inheritance, it is still possible for that individual to perform useful and productive work. Indeed, one of the arguments that the great Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek made for the right of inheritance can be summarized as follows. Even if the vast majority of people who inherit their money will spend it unwisely, it is enough for one out of a thousand inheritors to be a great thinker and innovator. This individual, through his inheritance, will have the time and leisure to bring his vision to fruition, without needing to worry about providing for his day-to-day subsistence. The result could be a tremendous philosophical, technological, or artistic breakthrough that improves the lives of millions for centuries to come – and this result is worth the wasteful spending any other heirs might engage in.

Of course, the manner of productive work one does is often constrained by one’s current material situation. Many people will work for money, even if they wish to do something else, because they need the money to maintain the standard of living they wish to have. Increases in monetary income can go a long way toward improving both one’s access to leisure and one’s level of security and comfort. On the other hand, the same goals can also be achieved in part by spending less of the money one already earns and by living within one’s means – never letting one’s expenses exceed one’s income, which is akin to deficit spending for individuals, and not taking out interest-bearing debt, unless there is no other option, and the good the debt would fund could be seen as a necessity – such as a house. Devoting some time to managing one’s spending and establishing less expensive lifestyle choices is just productive as working to earn a salary increase.

If you wish to work to earn money, by all means do so. If you would rather focus on working in the home or doing volunteer work of any sort, this is excellent as well. Provided that one works and has useful outcomes to show for it, there is no need to feel any inferiority in one’s own case or any disrespect for others.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXX.

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Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Wealth (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Economics, Philosophy, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published November 16, 2009
as Part of Issue CCXVIII of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXVIII of The Rational Argumentator on November 16, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
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Many of the economic and personal fallacies of our time arise from the mistaken belief that wealth and money are identical. In fact, while money is in many cases an important gateway to wealth, it does not even approach describing what wealth truly is.

In our time, money may be equated to wealth even less justifiably than it could have been in times past – when most money was identified with precious metals, such as gold and silver, which had uses other than as media of exchange. Currently, money in virtually all countries consists of pieces of paper which are decreed to be money by government fiat. Legal tender laws force individuals to accept these special pieces of paper as payment for products, services, or debts. The supply of these pieces of paper is controlled by the government’s printing press – typically located at either the central bank or the treasury department.

Why do people seek and hold this money? They do so because they expect to be able to purchase with it actual goods and services – either now or in the future. This means that the money is not seen as valuable in itself; it is seen as valuable because of the other things it can obtain. However, the supply of these other things is not dependent on the number of pieces of paper in circulation. Rather, it is dependent on real factors that affect individuals’ and businesses’ abilities to produce actual goods and services. Thus, having more pieces of paper does not automatically make one wealthier. If the government simply chooses to print more of them, while no external factors affect the production of goods and services, then there will simply be more pieces of paper for the same amount of real goods and services. We would therefore get inflation: prices in terms of the pieces of paper will increase in proportion to the volume of new pieces of paper introduced. Of course, inflation has disastrous impacts on individuals’ existing savings, incentives for frugality, and transaction costs. It also constitutes an unjustified redistribution of wealth from the producers who earn it to the politically connected elites who get priority access to the new pieces of paper. Creating more “money” can often destroy actual wealth and productivity.

But there is another respect in which money is not equivalent to wealth. Consider the fact that, even without inflation, the same amount of money will not purchase the same goods and services in every area. Indeed, a tiny, cramped apartment in the center of a major city may often cost more money than a spacious house in a small town. An individual earning the same amount of money in each area would be able to have a much higher standard of living in the small town. It is quite possible that the individual’s opportunities to earn more money in a big city will be greater, but the prices of goods will not increase in a one-to-one ratio with that individual’s relative salary increase. Rather, the prices are most likely to be higher in a ratio that is greater or smaller than the individual’s ratio of salaries – thereby making life in the city either less or more attractive to the individual. How much money one makes is not an indicator of the rate at which one accumulates wealth; a better indicator is what one can buy for one’s money.

These thoughts should give pause to both advocates of the government’s power of the printing press and to indiscriminate salary chasers. Both may be devoting their time and energy to the pursuit of numerical illusions rather than substantive benefits. A much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of wealth is needed in order to truly thrive and lead a good life.

To achieve an understanding of wealth, we need to ask ourselves why we seek money in the first place. Ultimately, every unit of money – even one saved or invested for many years – goes to fund some human consumption. Money can pay for either goods – material objects – or services – human behaviors performed for the benefit of the payer. It is actual goods and services that constitute wealth, not the money. Moreover, the money price of these goods and services is irrelevant from the standpoint of the wealth of the person who owns them. If I have a table, I am no less wealthy if I cannot sell the table at all – nor am I any wealthier just because I have the potential to sell it for five million dollars. I still have the same table, and its physical qualities are unchanged. If I actually do sell it, I might become wealthier, but only insofar as my five million dollars would enable me to purchase more tables, better tables, or other goods and services I value. The important principle to recognize is that one either has potential wealth in the form of money or actual wealth in the form of the goods and services one has purchased. One does not have both at the same time in the same object. Fiat money is wealth only insofar as it can reasonably be expected to procure actual goods and services. Goods and services constitute wealth in themselves while they last. Capital goods that can produce other goods can also be described as potential wealth – but it is also true that they are not money while one owns them as goods.

A further distinction should be made. Not all material objects are goods, and not all human behaviors are services. Some material objects – such as clouds of poison gas in one’s living room – are active bads. Likewise, some human behaviors – such as people raping or murdering one another – are active disservices. The only way to comprehensively define wealth is with regard to a standard by which goods and services can be identified. The most fundamental standard from both a moral and a practical standpoint is the principle that the life of every innocent individual is the greatest and most basic good – where an innocent individual is one who has not violated this principle through actions such as murder or the attempt at murder. Thus, any object that promotes any individual’s life is a good; any behavior that promotes any individual’s life is a service. The more life-promoting objects one has – and the more life-promoting behaviors one either is able to elicit from others or is able to initiate oneself – the wealthier one is.

Everything else is a matter of means and context. How one gets wealth – whether it be through money, barter, gifts, or one’s own work and transformation of raw materials – has no bearing on the nature of that wealth; all of us who are not self-destructive pursue a wide variety of means that fundamentally aim at the goal of improving our lives. Ethically, the means ought to be non-coercive; we must not intrude on other people’s prerogatives to control their lives just like they must not intrude on ours. Wealth is still wealth, even if acquired through dishonest or evil means – but immoral means of wealth acquisition will destroy other wealth on net, through damage to property and human beings and their incentives to produce.

Moreover, it is possible for the same object to be beneficial in some circumstances and harmful in others. For instance, a piece of rope used to tie a knot may be extremely useful, while the same piece of rope strung across the floor of a room might be a tripping hazard. However, the same item or behavior in the exact same context should produce the same results; actual situations are never precisely repeatable, but we can at least estimate an object’s usefulness or lack thereof by analyzing situations where it has been applied in similar ways.

This view has practical implications beyond the scope of one’s views on economics or politics. Most items in our lives should be viewed not in terms of how we might be able to resell them to others, but rather in terms of what use they are to us personally. There is nothing wrong with resale as such, but it is not a behavior that can be imposed on all objects – and, indeed, economic bubbles are created when the expectation of resale for continually rising prices is applied by enough people to too many commodities. Those of us who acquire an item for our own use – which includes our purchases of art, furniture, automobiles, and yes, even houses – are not in the same position as businessmen who produce or acquire items for the specific purpose of reselling them at a profit. Businessmen see their inventories as potential money generators – an indirect route to greater wealth; consumers ought to see their property as useful in itself and any resale as incidental or fortuitous – a kind of loss mitigation once one is no longer able or willing to make good use of the property. We have adjusted quite well to the idea that the resale value of an automobile or a computer is virtually always much lower than its purchase price. In the role of consumers, we should adopt the same default expectation for houses – and for everything else. But the silly notion that one is entitled to resell any property at a higher price than one purchased it must be discarded, as it results in the foolish pursuit of higher-priced items in the vain hope of their further appreciation in price – without any expert knowledge of how markets in these items actually work. This turns many a layman into a speculator, while enticing him to take out loans with his fanciful expectations as collateral – as happened all too often during the housing bubble. Moreover, it engenders the disastrous attitude that price decreases – which make goods such as houses more affordable for people – are in some manner harmful. But one cannot destroy wealth by making goods easier to earn through honest work – nor can one create wealth by piggybacking off of others’ expectations of price increases.

Leave the house-flipping to the experts, and buy a house that you would want to live in, just as you buy clothes you want to wear and computers you want to use. That house would constitute real wealth for you, irrespective of its market price, and it will be there irrespective of financial market or currency value fluctuations – if you actually own the house or have a fixed-rate mortgage. To maximize your wealth, you should act in such a manner as to improve your access to actual goods and services that you value. Pieces of paper and expectations can only get you so far. And remember that your own ability to do useful work – including work that does not bring immediate monetary returns – is one of your most reliable gateways to wealth.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXVIII.

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Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Health Care (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Economics, Philosophy, Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published October 12, 2009
as Part of Issue CCXI of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXI of The Rational Argumentator on October 12, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
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It is an odd society indeed where such a seemingly simple idea as health care is so severely misunderstood. Health care, as the constituents of the term suggest, is simply caring for one’s health, where health – of course – is the physical integrity and unobstructed functioning of one’s body. A healthy person is one whose body is not breaking down, one who is not in constant pain, one who is going to live for a long time unless some unforeseen external peril – such as an accident or an assault – violates the integrity of one’s body from without.

In a society where there exists advanced scientific medical knowledge, it is possible to benefit one’s health by consulting with certain individuals who specialize in aspects of this knowledge. These individuals are also useful in detecting diseases or other malfunctions that are not obvious to the intelligent layman, and they also do a commendable job in researching cures for diseases that have hitherto been without remedy. Most doctors are to be praised for the excellent work they do, and I am confident that any doctor worthy of his M.D. degree would strongly concur with the fundamental understanding of health care that I posit here.

Most people will recognize that doctors play an important and sometimes necessary role in the provision of health care. What many people today fail to recognize, however, is that doctors are never a sufficient part of genuinely effective health care. Doctors can indeed often detect signs of illness and recommend remedies, but to expect a doctor to perform all of your health care for you is just like expecting a teacher to perform all of your education for you. Doctors and teachers can both help and can even at times make the difference between success and failure, but without your participation and your vigilance, failure is inevitable.

What are other crucial components of health care? They are not esoteric, and they do not require specialized knowledge. They include eating in moderation, exercising regularly, avoiding harmful substances, practicing at most monogamy, keeping one’s surroundings clean, and avoiding risks to life and limb as much as possible. There are also numerous over-the-counter medications and first aid practices, that, if used intelligently, can enable individuals to recover from many minor and even some major perils. These habits are not just little frills added on to the body of health care; they are that body, and without them, one will be quite dead quite soon – but not before racking up absurd amounts of medical expenses. I will note that in the 20th century, human life expectancy in the West surged from the mid-to-late forties to the late seventies. Although medical advances were phenomenal during that time, the vast majority of the increase can be attributed to improvements in overall cleanliness of infrastructure and healthier habits. With the advent of sanitation, regular dental hygiene, automatic washers and dryers, and efficient household cleaning supplies, a lot of infectious diseases that formerly wiped out millions were kept at bay – mostly not by doctors, but by ordinary laypersons living their lives in a superior manner to that of their ancestors. New technologies motivated new behaviors, and these everyday behaviors are our first and so far our best line of defense against disease and decay.

Of course, some people who lead their lives in the most health-conscious manner possible can still be afflicted by catastrophic diseases for reasons that are none of their fault. As far as medical science is aware, many cancers do not appear to be caused by any active human behavior; indeed, some are an unfortunate product of poor genes. And, of course, there is the ultimate killer – senescence – which afflicts all humans, given the current level of medical technology. It is imperative that these perils be eradicated as soon as possible, and the best doctors, scientists, and media advocates are needed to enable a victory over what can justly be called the greatest threats to humans everywhere. I will add that it is a matter of justice that a person who suffers from a disease which he did not cause receive prompt, efficacious, and affordable care. But the vital question – and the question many people today neglect to consider – is how this just state of affairs can possibly come about.

Reality only works in certain ways, in accord with immutable natural laws. Wishing for a good outcome will not make it so, and even acting toward that outcome will only work if the right actions are undertaken. Any reasonable, moral person will agree that it is preferable for all reasonable, moral people to be healthy rather than not. What many people fail to recognize is that any process of improvement takes time, and that surrogate measures that attempt to bring about the improvement instantaneously are not only illusory but can also be severely counterproductive.

As a case in point, I bring forth the oft-encountered contemporary confusion of health care with health insurance. Too many people today believe that it is not taking care of oneself and visiting doctors when necessary that constitutes good health care, but rather the presence ofhealth insurance, which – at least in theory – promises to pay for some of the medical attention one receives from doctors. These individuals see statistics stating that millions do not have health insurance, and they mistakenly assume that these individuals do not have adequate health care. But it is entirely possible for a person to have healthy habits and – especially if this person is young – to not require extensive or expensive medical attention. It is also possible for a person to be sufficiently wealthy to afford to pay for the doctors he wishes to visit. Moreover, it is possible for a person to rely on the charity of doctors in providing any medically necessary attention – as was the case for centuries before health insurance came about, when most doctors would treat all patients but would charge them differential rates based on their ability to pay. In effect, with these traditional doctors, the rich voluntarily subsidized the poor on a largely free market, in a manner beyond the wildest dreams of the advocates of socialized medicine today.

Of course, the presence of health insurance cannot avert the need to seek the attentions of doctors. Indeed, a well-known concept in insurance, moral hazard, suggests that in some cases, an insured individual may actually be more likely to fall victim to a peril than an uninsured individual, because the insured individual is shielded from some of the financial consequences of the loss. Insurance can make life easier for some people in some cases, and it can also be a good safeguard for catastrophes, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient for proper health care. Indeed, the manner in which health insurance has developed in the United States is one of the contributing factors to the astronomically increasing prices of specialized medical care. Health insurance in the U. S. is not provided on a largely free market like most forms of property insurance. Instead, it is mostly tied to one’s employment by virtue of the market-distorting tax breaks that employers receive for providing health insurance. One does not need to worry about what happens with one’s car insurance if one loses a job, but losing one’s job can severely damage one in the realm of health insurance.

Since employers began to receive favorable treatment from the federal government for providing health insurance in the 1940s, the health insurance snowball has continued to embroil more people in a crisis of increasing proportions. The people who got the subsidized insurance had an incentive to spend more money than they usually would on doctors – often an outcome of hypochondria rather than of a reasonable concern for health. As demand for medical services rose, so did the cost, and so the people who did not have insurance – especially the elderly and unemployed – found it more difficult to afford even basic services. The federal government’s solution? Medicare and Medicaid, which put the elderly and unemployed in the same position to spend more freely that the previously insured had. This, of course, further increased the demand for and price of specialized medical services. With the recent vast expansion of Medicare under the Bush administration, it is no surprise that prices have further skyrocketed.

Now, because so many people have subsidized health insurance, it has become extremely difficult to afford medical care for catastrophic situations without it. This is not a necessary component of health care in a quasi-advanced society; it is a creation of bad policies that incrementally expanded the scope of the present crisis. An even worse policy is on the horizon; it is not socialized healthcare yet, but in some respects it may even be worse. The Obama administration and its supporters in Congress threaten to require everyone to purchase health insurance and to eliminate the aspect that makes it insurance – selection and pricing on the basis of the risks posed by the insureds. Forcing people to purchase health insurance and prohibiting discrimination on the basis of pre-existing conditions are the same as making the healthy subsidize the ill and charging everyone roughly the same general rates. With this kind of incentive system in place, it is only logical to assume that many people who otherwise would have lived spectacularly would begin to demand medically unnecessary attention simply to be net beneficiaries of the system where everyone ostensibly subsidizes everyone else. This cannot continue indefinitely, as resources are finite, and the inevitable recourse by the government will be the rationing of medical services – a political selection of who lives and who dies. This scenario – so common in many countries in the West today, including Britain and Canada – is the opposite of genuine health care. Indeed, denying care to an individual who could afford it and placing that individual on a waiting list on which he dies is nothing short of murder.

Only a massive shift in public opinion and government policy can extricate us from the entanglement of health care with health insurance and return us to the direct relationship between patients and doctors, as well as the optimal amount of motivation for each individual to care for his own health. Until then, stay healthy and try to make sure that you do not need the care that gets rationed – if you can.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXI.

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Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Education (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Education, Philosophy, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

 

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published October 3, 2009
as Part of Issue CCX of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
******************************
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCX of The Rational Argumentator on October 3, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
***

 

***

There are several terms that are commonly misunderstood in most contemporary societies, with devastating consequences. Among these are “education,” “health care,” “employment,” “wealth,” and “happiness.” In this series, I hope to dispel – one by one – common fallacies surrounding these terms and to replace them with truer, more life-affirming understandings.

Education is the first colossally misunderstood term that I would like to address – as misunderstandings of it create massive societal problems where none need exist, and at the same time blind many people to genuine, but oft-overlooked problems.

Dictionary.com defines “education” in several ways:

1. The act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.

2. The act or process of imparting or acquiring particular knowledge or skills, as for a profession.

3. A degree, level, or kind of schooling.

4. The result produced by instruction, training, or study.

5. The science or art of teaching.

Already the multiple possible meanings impart some ambiguity to the term. Clearly, acquiring general knowledge and developing the powers of reasoning and judgment are not the same as attending a school. Many a person has attended schools – even elite schools – and learned scarcely anything at all. While the dictionary writers at least take care to distinguish the different uses of the term “education,” a more commonplace tendency in today’s world is to package all the meanings together and to consider them inextricable from one another.

It is thus that the obsessive emphasis of contemporary societies on formal schooling operates. Abuses of the term “education” lead to a belief that schooling is both necessary and sufficient for learning, as if sitting in a classroom with thirty other similarly ignorant people is indispensable for attaining knowledge, but will also magically impart this knowledge to everyone involved.

I will preface further discussion by emphasizing that I have probably gotten the most out of formal schooling that an individual could hope to get. I was valedictorian of my class in high school and salutatorian in college, where I pursued three majors. And yet, in retrospect, I find that my best learning had always been self-initiated and self-motivated – and that I could not have succeeded in school without the effort I put in to acquire knowledge on my own.

Equating education with formal schooling is not a harmless idiosyncrasy; it is both expensive and costly. The equation of education with formal institutions leads to the demand to spend vast amounts of money on such formal institutions – as if dollars spent could purchase motivation, curiosity, and initiative. Conventional institutionalized schooling also makes substandard use of the most formative time in an individual’s life – the time when that person’s mind forms the habits and connections that shape both learning and character for decades into the future. Literally hundreds of millions of young people spend the vast majority of their time sitting behind desks, walking in lines, and being confined to “restricted areas” within school buildings, when they could much more readily utilize their talents elsewhere.

One problem with the model of Western public schools is that it creates a one-size-fits-all standard to which every student is expected to conform. The teacher can typically only do one thing in the classroom at a time. Teachers generally have no choice but to gauge the average level of knowledge and skill in the class and to teach primarily to that level. The students who know the material already or who grasp it more quickly have their time wasted; the students who do not follow as quickly as their “average” peers are often left behind. And the “average” students – to be quite blunt – generally do not learn particularly much, certainly not enough to justify forgoing twelve to sixteen years of their lives.

The second problem with Western public schools is that they segregate individuals by age groups, separating young people from those who are most qualified to give them an education – their elders – people whose experience exceeds that of the young people by anywhere from a few years to a few generations. Within public schools, and to a degree within universities as well, most young people are barely aware of anything beyond the immediate, pressing concerns of their own age group; few learn to expect the major transitions that are about to come in virtually all of their lives, and few absorb the skills needed to handle such transitions successfully. Within a peer group for which there exist no serious role models who have actually accomplished something, the lowest common denominator tends to prevail. This is, in part, why reckless, self-destructive, and delinquent behaviors among young people are so common in the West today.

The third problem with Western public schools is the manner in which uniform curricula tend to stifle the development of individual agendas of learning and curiosity in general. The teacher is paid to lecture on a certain predetermined subject material; if a student asks an interesting but tangential question, the teacher – even if he favors curiosity – must often suppress the inquiry for fear of lacking the time to do the job for which he was paid. At the same time, other students may not be interested in the same tangential questions, but might have other questions of their own; it is simply not possible to address all the questions and actualize all of the vast potential of every individual within the standardized structure of a classroom.

The fourth and most disturbing problem of public schools arises from the fact that the best children and teenagers are herded together with the worst: the bullies who mercilessly inflict every kind of petty and not-so-petty abuse imaginable on those who are better than they – for the very fact that their victims are better. Bullying creates an atmosphere of fear, stifled ambition, and anti-intellectualism – even among many students who would never engage in bullying themselves. Bullying – both of the physical sort and of the “softer” verbal sort that happens so often via the cliques and popularity contests that emerge in the schools – is the enforcement mechanism for conformity to the lowest common denominator. Its product is the unthinking acceptance by millions of young people of the latest fads, the most careless risks, and a complete unawareness of their future potential.

It is true that formal schooling could work in some cases – where every student is already reasonably knowledgeable, motivated, and respectful of others. A university course where each student desires to delve deeply and earnestly into the subject matter is a good example of this. But even universities today have become populated with students who neither need nor deserve to be there – all a result of government subsidies fueled by a mistaken perception that college and university educations are needed for even the most routine clerical jobs. As a result, the universities are rapidly succumbing to the same kinds of intellectual apathy, lowest-common-denominator teaching, and reckless behavior that have long plagued the public schools. The term “student” no longer carries a connotation of great honor and respectability, as it did even a century ago. Instead, everyone appears to have a Bachelor’s Degree these days, and to have trouble finding work at a fast-food restaurant with one. In an effort to remedy this, the best and brightest are often pigeonholed by public opinion into attending graduate school, even though many of them have little interest in subsequently becoming academicians. By the time they leave graduate school, they are already in their late twenties, almost certainly poor, and likely in severe debt. Misguided overvaluation of formal schooling has prevented aspiring lawyers and doctors from simply taking the bar and medical exams whenever they wished and receiving their licenses if they passed the rigorous exams. Instead, protectionist professional associations – the white-collar equivalent of labor unions – have collaborated with academia to make the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars on formal schooling a requirement prior to even being allowed to take these exams. The ideal of a meritocracy or natural aristocracy of talent has been replaced by the ideal of the pecking order of seniority and pull, where one must grovel and pay in hopes of someday – probably only when one’s health begins to fail – receiving the groveling and payments of others.

At the same time, societal attitudes make formal schooling a virtual requirement for self-esteem. Many bright, talented individuals who could accomplish tremendous feats if they entered a trade in their early teens are pressured to feel inferior and incompetent until they have served their time. In truth, they have nothing to feel substandard about. Formal schooling is not a requirement for knowledge, skill, or good character; it is not a substitute for entrepreneurial insight, creativity, or determination. It cannot make a person a success or prevent failure. It cannot teach a person anything he could not teach himself. It is not needed as a proof of a person’s competency, nor as a requirement to get a job. Most of what a person does for a living is learned through the experience of doing it – and schooling requirements simply serve as arbitrary barriers to deny some the opportunity of getting this experience.

Formal schooling, to be sure, has its uses – especially for training the academicians and other intellectuals of the next generation. But it would only be strengthened in this role if educational institutions did not have to deal with the people who do not need to attend them and whose education can be achieved spectacularly without them.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCX.

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Ten Principles of Classical Liberalism (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Philosophy, Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published November 8, 2009
as Part of Issue CCXVI of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
******************************
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXVI of The Rational Argumentator on November 8, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
***

Fundamental Ideas in a Philosophy of Liberty

***

I was recently asked to attempt a formulation of ten crucial principles of classical liberalism, the worldview which animated the American Revolution, the European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the libertarian revival of free-market thought in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Classical liberalism – even when it is not explicitly espoused – still has considerable residual influence on the political and economic institutions of the Western world and is having an increasing impact outside the West as well. I see the principles of classical liberalism as primarily forward-looking. These ideas need not only characterize aspects of humanity’s past. They can also guide and ameliorate our future.

The following ten principles are not exhaustive, and they have been formulated broadly to account for differences in opinion on particulars within classical liberal circles. Although different people may apply and interpret these principles in somewhat different ways, a general agreement on even these ideas would go a long way toward advancing liberty, prosperity, and peace in the world.

Principle 1. The life of each individual is an absolute and universal moral value. No non-aggressive individual’s life, liberty, or property may be legitimately sacrificed for any goal.

Principle 2. Every individual owns his body, his mind, and the labor thereof, including the physical objects legitimately obtained through such labor.

Principle 3. Every individual has the right to pursue activities for the betterment of his life – including its material, intellectual, and emotional aspects – by using his own body and property, as well as the property of consenting others.

Principle 4. The rights of an individual to life, liberty, and property are inherent to that individual’s nature. They are not granted by other human beings, and they cannot be taken away by any entity.

Principle 5. The initiation of physical force, the threat of such force, or fraud against any individual is never permissible – irrespective of the position and character of the initiator. However, proportionate force may be used to retaliate and defend against aggression.

Principle 6. The sole fundamental purpose of government is to protect the rights of individuals by engaging in actions specifically delegated to the government by its constituents. Government is not the same as society, nor is the government entitled to sacrifice some non-aggressive individuals to advance the well-being of others.

Principle 7. Every individual has the absolute right to think and express any ideas. Thought and speech are never equivalent to force or violence and ought never to be restricted or to be subject to coercive penalties. Specifically, coercion and censorship on the basis of religious or political ideas are not acceptable under any circumstances.

Principle 8. Commerce, technology, and science are desirable, liberating forces that are capable of alleviating historic ills, improving the quality of human life, and morally elevating human beings. The complete freedom of trade, innovation, and thought should be preserved and supported for all human beings in the world.

Principle 9. Accidents of birth, geography, or ancestry do not define an individual and should not result in manmade restrictions of that individual’s rights or opportunities. Every individual should be judged purely on his or her personal qualities, including accomplishments, character, and knowledge.

Principle 10. There are no “natural” or desirable limits to human potential for good, and there is no substantive problem that is necessarily unsolvable by present or future human knowledge, effort, and technology. It is a moral imperative for humans to expand their mastery of the universe indefinitely and in such a manner as will reinforce the survival and flourishing of all non-aggressive individuals.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXVI.

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Answers to Some Frequently Asked Questions on Road Privatization (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Economics, Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published September 12, 2009
as Part of Issue CCVII of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
******************************
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCVII of The Rational Argumentator on September 12, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
***

I recently received a series of questions pertaining to my articles, “The Necessity of Road Privatization” and “How to Privatize the Roads.” I make my answers available to the public, as I have heard the same questions frequently posed to advocates of turning roads over to free-market competition.

Issue: Unavailability of Electronic Technology

Question: “You suggested that electronic tolling can be used for private roads, but what if this technology is not available for some countries? If the technology were not in place, would privatization still be desirable?”

Answer: Road privatization is desirable no matter what the technological level of the society adopting it. There are several justifications for this:

1) In a private, competitive road market, the requisite technologies for providing easy, convenient access to roads for customers will develop quickly, as entrepreneurs will be motivated by profit to invest in them. After all, if customers must spend a lot of time waiting at toll booths to get on the road, they will take their business elsewhere.

2) At any level of initial technology, it is possible to have superior organizational and logistical methods that maximize user convenience. For instance, if we assume no electronic technology whatsoever and physical cash collection as the only feasible means of obtaining payment, we can still conceive of entrepreneurs having large numbers of toll booths at each checkpoint to ensure that customers can pay quickly and be on their way. Alternatively, entrepreneurs can always charge road users regular membership fees and issue members identification papers that would be checked anytime the user enters the road. It is not always possible, of course, to predict the specific form an organizational innovation will take. However, tens of competing producers, each working under the hard budget constraint of a private enterprise, are much more likely to come up with innovative, efficient solutions than a monopoly producer with a soft budget constraint.

3) Historically, some of the first major roads in the United States – the turnpikes of the late 18th and early 19th centuries – were privately built and operated, in an era long before today’s advanced technology. The roads functioned quite well for their time, facilitating inter-state commerce and the westward migration of large numbers of settlers. Private roads have existed with much more primitive technology than is available anywhere today, and so there is no reason to suppose that a given technological level is required for them to be viable. Technology certainly improves quality in this area, as in virtually all others, but the laws of economics function in a society of any level of advancement.

Issue: Different Ownership and Different Rules

Question: “If every road is owned by different people and different rules are imposed, would it not be too confusing?”

Answer: Standardization of rules often happens to a significant extent in private markets. For instance, railroads standardized many of their practices in the 19th century by mutual agreement of private railroad companies. In any business, it is useful and profitable to enable the customers to rely on some common and well-known elements and practices, and it is quite likely that many rules of the road will be extremely similar. On the other hand, this similarity will not be of the rigid, ossified sort that currently exists on government roads – where the rules are uniform and immutable, irrespective of how well they actually work in facilitating safe and efficient roadway use. Entrepreneurs would be free to experiment with new rules and arrangements, and if consumers do not like a particular arrangement, they would always be free to use a competing road. Entrepreneurs will be aware of this and so will hesitate to adopt measures that would be difficult for users to understand and to follow. Roads that do things differently and continue to attract traffic will likely need to prominently advertise the aspects that make them unique, so that potential users are well aware of the peculiarities in advance and in a concise, easy-to-understand manner. The best road innovations will take hold among other entrepreneurs and will eventually become part of a new set of evolving standards.

Issue: Private Road Monopolies

Question: “Can a road monopoly be allowed to charge exorbitantly if there’s no alternative to a place?”

Answer: It is extremely unlikely that any individual business would be able to purchase all possible access routes to a given place, as this would be extraordinarily expensive. If any alternative route exists, and a non-coercive monopoly currently charges exorbitant prices, this will be a strong signal for competitors to enter the market, buy up land on the alternative route, build their own roads, and charge lower prices than the former monopolist. If there is a single provider of a road to a particular place, even the potential of this kind of competition would keep such a provider charging reasonable prices.

In the odd event that competition does not enter the field, people might simply choose not to go to the place for which the only road requires an exorbitant fee for its use. In this case, many individuals will come to see the benefits of going to the place in question as being outweighed by the costs, and so the place will cease to become popular, and the road provider’s revenue will diminish greatly. At that point, the road provider will either need to lower its prices to attract more business or go out of business entirely.

It is important to recognize that a road monopoly is precisely what exists virtually everywhere in many countries today. This monopoly, unlike to transitory monopolies that may sometimes occur on the free market, is supported by law. The consequences of a coercive monopoly in the provision of any good are easy to foresee and identify: lower quality at a higher price. It is reasonable to believe that taxpayers are already being charged exorbitantly for the use of government roads today.

Click here to read more articles in Issue CCVII of The Rational Argumentator.

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Why Unskilled Workers Do Not Need the Minimum Wage (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Economics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published August 16, 2009
as Part of Issue CCIII of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
******************************
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCIII of The Rational Argumentator on August 16, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
***

I was recently asked whether one justification for the minimum wage might be a lack of genuine bargaining power among unskilled workers, as compared to high-skilled workers. The argument implicit in the question was that a specific unskilled worker can give his employer no reason to retain him in particular, and so the employer can afford to push down the unskilled worker’s wage to a ridiculously low amount. At the same time, the unskilled worker cannot find any opportunities to work elsewhere. I do not think that such suppositions are realistic, however.

Let us compare unskilled workers with workers who have specialized skill sets. High-skilled workers do indeed have more bargaining power within their specific places of employment, as they are more difficult to replace and more valuable to their employers. However, they also have fewer competitors to whom they could go if their current employment situation does not turn out to their liking. This is because a narrower range of employers would demand a worker with a certain specific skill set than would demand a generic unskilled worker. An unskilled worker can earn his maximum current possible income working in, say, a factory, a fast-food restaurant, or a custodial job for a variety of employers. A skilled accountant, on the other hand, can only earn his maximum current possible income working as an accountant, if that is his most valuable skill according to the market.

Both the skilled and the unskilled worker will tend to earn the marginal product of their labor – i.e., the amount of value that their labor contributes to the product they create – in a truly free market. The skilled worker will earn this because of his high bargaining power. The unskilled worker will earn this because he has so many alternatives with regard to employers. If the current employer does not pay the unskilled worker his marginal product of labor, numerous other employers will try to bid away the work of that person by offering slightly higher wages. Say, for instance, unskilled worker X has a marginal product of labor of $5 per hour, but he is only paid $1 at his present job with Employer A. Employer B sees a lucrative opportunity if he could hire X at $2 per hour and keep $3 of X’s hourly product for himself. So X is hired by B at $2 per hour. Now Employer C sees a lucrative opportunity if he could hire X at $3 per hour and keep $2 of X’s hourly product for himself. So X is hired by C at $3 per hour. This will tend to keep happening until X is hired by an employer who pays him his marginal product and therefore creates a situation where X cannot be bid away by a competitor offering higher wages.

This is a dynamic process, and it takes time to attain. In the meantime X’s skills might be improving as a result of on-the-job training and experience – so his marginal product might increase still further, and “equilibrium” might never be fully attained. Nonetheless, the market process functions to relentlessly approach equilibrium by means of the perceptiveness of entrepreneurs, motivated by profit and desiring to out-compete their rivals by means of greater perceptiveness and by offering better terms to employees and customers.

I do not think there is ever truly a situation where a worker has “no choice” about where to work. Moreover, I do not think there is ever a situation where a healthy human being is forever condemned to earn a low wage. A low initial wage is an excellent opportunity for many workers to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to earn higher wages in the future. There is no better job training than training on the job – as every job I have ever had demonstrated to me. By prohibiting people from working for pay below a certain level, the minimum wage laws deprive many workers of the opportunity to gain such invaluable experience.

Click here to read more articles in Issue CCIII of The Rational Argumentator.

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A Critique of Russell Kirk’s “Libertarians: The Chirping Sectaries” (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Philosophy, Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published June 28, 2009
as Part of Issue CXCVIII of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
******************************
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CXCVIII of The Rational Argumentator on June 28, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
***

Russell Kirk’s 1981 essay, “Libertarians: The Chirping Sectaries,” is a shallow, unsophisticated ad hominem attack on the American libertarian movement. It contains an abundance of fallacies, mischaracterizations, false blanket generalizations, and outright lies about libertarians. Moreover, its intentions are hostile and destructive: Kirk wishes to prevent the possibility of what might have been productive intellectual and practical cooperation between libertarians and some of the more reasonable conservatives. Here, I will endeavor to thoroughly refute Kirk’s arguments and to show that libertarians are not the chaos-loving demons Kirk depicts them as being.

Kirk begins his essay with a manner of intellectual intimidation, claiming that conservatives form a “majority” of the American public, while libertarians constitute a “tiny though unproscribed minority” (345). During the time the essay was written, the latter may have well been true – although undoubtedly the number of libertarians has increased since then and especially since Kirk’s death in 1994. After all, Ron Paul gathered approximately 1.2 million votes in the 2008 Republican primaries – meaning that while libertarians are still a minority, they are not a tiny minority, but are rather somewhere on par with American Jews. The former claim – that conservatives constitute a majority of the American public – is unlikely to be true. But even if it were, what is the point of Kirk’s including it in a paper comparing the contents and the merits of the two ideologies? Surely, the truth of an idea is independent of the number of its adherents. Is it Kirk’s purpose to say to libertarians, “We are more numerous than you, and you exist at our mercy? How generous we are for not proscribing you!” Or is it to make the argument, “Most people agree with it, so it must be right!”? (I am sure that Kirk would disagree with the same statement when it came to popular music, clothing, or lifestyles.) Suffice it to say, the inclusion of this comparison is not a logically necessary part of Kirk’s argument and serves to simply poison the well against libertarians by appealing to the lower prejudice in some reason that might (i.e., numbers in elections) makes right.

Judging by the detestable behavior of the Religious Right and the so-called “conservatives” of the Bush administration in recent years, I am all too tempted to agree with Russell Kirk’s thesis that conservatives and libertarians have nothing fundamental in common, but this is far too hasty a judgment in my more thoroughly considered opinion. While many conservatives in the United States – especially many conservative opinion leaders – are proto-fascistic in their agendas, many others are decent, reasonable, and well-intentioned. While the former yearn for the Ancien Regime union of a militant church and an absolutist state, the latter at least claim to be espousing the principles of the American founding – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is for the sake of the latter kind of conservatives that I write this essay, urging them to reject Kirk’s insular and alienating claims and find some common ground – any common ground they can – with libertarians.

Kirk alleges that libertarians “carry to absurdity the doctrines of John Stuart Mill,” (345) thereby equating libertarianism with Mill’s utilitarianism. While Mill’s philosophy certainly has many elements that many libertarians would find praiseworthy, there are many other intellectual sources for libertarianism – many of whom would have serious disagreements with Mill and the other extremely famous utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham. The foundation for libertarianism that differs most from Mill’s thinking is the natural rights philosophy, whose varieties are espoused by John Locke, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and many others. Even if one does not follow the natural rights route, one does not have to embrace Mill’s and Bentham’s formula of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” One can be a libertarian for reasons that have nothing to do with individuals’ subjective emotional states. For instance, one can argue that in a libertarian society, individuals will be wealthier, more productive, more moral, less violent, more refined, more differentiated from one another, or longer-lived – and any of these can be seen as ends apart from happiness if one is inclined to so consider them. I myself am an advocate of natural rights on a consequentialist foundation; I believe that absolutely embracing the principle of natural rights will enable people to maximally pursue and extend the most important of all values – the life of each individual. My kind of libertarianism does not depend on how anybody feels, and for me the existence or non-existence of the individual is more important than his happiness or lack thereof – although happiness is nice, too. Moreover, unlike many utilitarians, I do not ascribe the same degree of “valuableness” to all individuals, although I do believe that all individuals are worthy of a baseline level of respect for their natural rights and a baseline level of common courtesy. There are about as many kinds of libertarianism as there are libertarians, and Kirk is simply wrong to reduce all libertarianism to the thought of one person – even a brilliant person such as Mill.

While Kirk is not far from the truth when he alleges that libertarians consider personal freedom “as the whole end of the civil social order,” (345) he is grievously mistaken when he claims that libertarians also consider it the whole end “of human existence” (345). To most libertarians, freedom in itself is a means, not an end. Freedom serves to enable the individual to pursue and attain other values – such as prosperity, self-improvement, intellectual endeavors, personal relationships, esthetic enjoyment, and entertainment – without needing to fear the coercive interventions of others. To paraphrase Rothbard, freedom may be the highest political end, but it not the highest of all ends. Rather, libertarians recognize that the political sphere is best suited for the attainment of freedom, but is miserably suited to the attainment of any other end, as numerous failed experiments presupposing the contrary have demonstrated.

While I, a libertarian, have serious disagreements with aspects of Mill’s utilitarianism, I also have a great respect for Mill and find it necessary to defend him against some of Kirk’s attacks. Kirk heaps invectives on Mill’s upbringing by a “sour,” “austere,” and “doctrinaire” father, who gave him a better education that Kirk or possibly anyone else ever had. This is not an insult to Kirk, as few can equal the genius of John Stuart Mill, but I do find it rather disconcerting that Kirk does not respect Mill’s colossal erudition. While Kirk acknowledges Mill’s breadth and depth of learning, he alleges that “his intellect was untouched by the higher imagination” and that “Mill became all head and no heart” and “turned into defecated intellect.” What base and shallow accusations – especially coming from a man whose lack of imagination led him to disdain all of the wonderful possibilities of modern technology – including automobiles, highways, television, and computers. Premodern conservatives often accuse libertarians of having no imagination, while at the same time disdaining the technology that has cured so many great human ills without even knowing much about that technology and the ways in which it might be used beneficially. Moreover, I do not consider it having “no heart” to believe that human lives and human societies could be fundamentally and qualitatively better than they currently are – a notion that conservatives of Kirk’s stripe, believers in a fixed, unchangeable human nature and human social dynamics – emphatically reject. Embracing premodern conservatism amounts to a resignation to the massive human death, disease, conflict, and misery that have pervade the world since before recorded history. Embracing libertarianism offers an eventual way to rid ourselves of many of the perils we presently face. You decide which position displays more “heart,” if by “heart” one means a compassion for human beings and a desire to eradicate the suffering they do not deserve.

Kirk compounds his vitriol by mentioning Mill’s attachment to another man’s wife – forgetting that Mill did not actually do anything to infringe upon her marriage until her husband’s death dissolved it. It is not a mark of vice to simply have a desire which lacks legitimacy or may pose complications if actualized; it is only a mark of vice to act on this desire – which Mill did not. Mill was indeed the paragon of personal virtue; he delayed his gratification until he could do so in a manner that would not be adulterous and would not harm any human being. The same could not be said of many popular conservative leaders today – hypocrites, adulterers, money launderers, petty and large tyrants, and militant advocates of destruction. While Kirk himself was a moral though oddly dogmatic character in his personal life, the worldview he demands had many far less admirable exponents.

The essence of Kirk’s criticism of Mill’s absolute principle that the sole purpose of government force is to prevent harm inflicted by some against others is that liberty is desirable in some cases, but not desirable in others. Yet, who is to decide in which cases liberty is desirable? Can we trust any human being, however virtuous, to make that decision – whose consequences can be grievous for others – and to implement it using the force of the state? While some people are clearly more rational and virtuous than others, no person is free of flaws. The purpose of libertarianism is to minimize the impact on others that any given person’s flaws might have. It is impossible to reliably prevent an individual’s follies damaging himself, but libertarianism endeavors to confine that damage solely to himself to as great an extent as possible. It is thus that each man may govern himself as he pleases, for good or for ill, but when it comes to governing others as a master and not an impartial referee, the potential for and magnitude of damage is far too great – as history repeatedly teaches us.

The fascistic strain in Kirk comes out when he writes, “It is consummate folly to tolerate every variety of opinion, on every topic, out of devotion to an abstract ‘liberty’; for opinion soon finds its expression in action, and the fanatics whom we tolerated will not tolerate us when they have power” (346). I do not see the problem here, for words and ideas are different from actions. One may hold fanatical or simply wrong ideas and express them using words, but this does nothing to change the state of society until the ideas are actually implemented. In a libertarian society, it is legitimate to use force to stop any implementation of coercion – so where is the problem? The moment the fanatics begin to use violence, they get punished; until then, they are merely stating their opinions. Since their ideas are false, they can be countered with true ideas; the battle at this stage should occur entirely on the level of voluntary persuasion, and force should only be used when force has been initiated. To claim that opinion necessarily finds its expression in action is absurd. If I believe that I ought to have a club sandwich, that does not mean that I will go out and get it; there may be obstacles in my way that I cannot overcome – such as poor weather or pressing work commitments. Moreover, what I mean by a club sandwich might not be what you think I mean by a club sandwich. Maybe I mean a sandwich that looks like a club, or a sandwich that is eaten in a social club or off of a golf club, so what you think I want may not be what I actually want. Whenever any two people use words, the definitions of those words may be so highly peculiar to each individual that it becomes impossible to predict in advance how any given person will be motivated by any given idea. Human actions, not human ideas, can be known with certitude – and there is no deterministic pathway by which a given idea becomes translated into any given action.

But, ironically enough, Kirk’s brand of conservative is precisely the kind of intolerant fanatic who would use overwhelming force if he were to achieve power – force that would be used to abolish numerous technological advances, mandate religious belief and observance, persecute non-coercive lifestyle choices such as premarital cohabitation, homosexuality, and marriage outside of mainstream churches, and require theological instruction for the masses. Anything that the center and far left are doing today to coerce the American people would pale in comparison to a premodern conservative theocracy in the United States. But suffice it to say, a person who is intolerant and advocates persecution of contrary opinions rarely does so on a whim; he typically believes the contrary opinions to be in some way dangerous if implemented. So Kirk’s position is no different in kind from the position of an Islamic fundamentalist theocrat — say, a Taliban cleric or an Iranian ayatollah, who also considers opinions contrary to his own to be very dangerous indeed, especially when it comes to the “higher things,” if they were put into practice. Kirk might impose different prohibitions from the Islamic fundamentalists, and to a different degree, but his mode of thinking is quite similar.

Kirk believes that the great danger of our time is “the lust for novelty; and that men will be no better than the flies of a summer, oblivious to the wisdom of their ancestors, and forming every opinion merely under the pressure of the fad, the foible, the passion of the hour” (347). But this is precisely what libertarianism helps protect us against! By having freedom from coercion, the individual is protected if he chooses to defy societal fads! If the past does indeed contain much wisdom (and I believe it does), then those who refer to it will live more successful lives – if they are not punished for doing so or forced to do otherwise. By establishing the state as an agency primarily working to prevent this kind of compulsion, libertarians ensure that every individual can become as erudite, sophisticated, long-term-oriented, and respectful of the great things that occurred in the past as possible. Most libertarians acknowledge an intellectual heritage that stretches back for millennia – with vestiges of libertarian thinking found in Socrates, Diagoras, Aristotle, Theodorus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Cicero, and many other thinkers of antiquity. Moreover, most libertarians eagerly embrace the technical accomplishments of our ancestors – the technology we enjoy today in all aspects of our lives – as well as their societal accomplishments, such as the elimination of absolute monarchy, the separation of church and state, the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, and the great diminishment of racial and ethnic discrimination.

Kirk then contradicts what he just wrote in the previous paragraph by lamenting that “The perennial libertarian, like Satan, can bear no authority temporal or spiritual. He desires to be different, in morals as in politics” (347). So what do you want, Dr. Kirk? You seem to dislike people blindly following fads, but then you also resent them being different! You need to pick one or the other, because the two possibilities are mutually exclusive and encompass the complete set of possible outcomes. One is either able to be different, or one is not. If one is able to be different, then one may decide not to follow a self-proclaimed authority in matters that do not involve coercing others. If one is not able to be different, then one may not be free to defy the cultural authorities that dictate the ever-changing fads that Kirk criticizes.

Kirk proceeds to make the stale and hackneyed equation of libertarianism with libertinism (347), an accusation that requires only a modicum of empirical observation and/or study of the abstract theory of libertarianism to debunk. Many libertarians – including, as we have seen, John Stuart Mill – were and are impeccably moral in their personal lives and acknowledge that their range of desirable behavior in society is limited by moral principles so as not to harm others. Many libertarians also care about their reputations and personal respectability and so will not act in complete disregard of the opinions and preferences of others. To the extent that they desire to get along with their friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, many libertarians voluntarily embrace certain kinds of conventions and modes of behavior – but they reserve the right to violate or modify those conventions if it makes rational sense to do so. I personally follow a great deal of societal conventions that are not legally mandated, but I do not believe that it is inherently wrong to defy some of these in certain circumstances. Where human values and conventions conflict, the conventions need to go; in most other cases, there can be a pleasant coexistence of the two.

The further Kirk delves into this essay, he states a blatant lie. He alleges that “the typical libertarian of our day delights in eccentricity – including, often, sexual eccentricity” (347). Doubtless, some libertarians exhibit sexual eccentricity, but the typical libertarian? Would Kirk, if he were alive today, dare to make this generalization of all, or even most, of the 1.2 million people who voted for Ron Paul in 2008 – a reasonable estimate of the number of libertarians in the United States? My observation has been quite different: most libertarians are more sexually modest than the general public in the United States. The reason for this may have less to do with libertarianism as a doctrine, but rather with the fact that libertarianism is an intellectual doctrine and requires a great deal of mental sophistication to grasp. More intellectual people are also typically more sexually modest – so libertarians, having a greater proportion of intellectuals among them than the general public, are typically more sexually modest. It can also be said that conservative and left-liberal intellectuals tend to be more sexually modest than the general public, although conservative and left-liberal politicians are far from being so. But Kirk does not say one word in criticism of the sexual eccentricities of conservative politicians…

Kirk also establishes an intellectual strawman. He writes, “The final emancipation from religion, convention, custom, and order is annihilation…” (347). But few, if any libertarians advocate complete emancipation from any of these; they simply want the freedom to choose how, when, and if to adhere to them. Some libertarians are religious, and some are not – but no libertarian wants to eliminate religion, especially through coercion. The same goes for adherence to non-coercive customs and conventions. After all, many libertarians celebrate traditional holidays and hold doors for people! Likewise, most libertarians subscribe to Friedrich Hayek’s understanding of a spontaneous order in society – an order that is not centrally or consciously planned but nonetheless emerges out of the interactions of millions of human beings. It is impossible to eliminate every kind of spontaneous order, although these orders do evolve and replace one another over time. But no libertarian wants to jettison all order. It is Kirk’s primitive equation of order with top-down planning – what Hayek calls taxis – and more particularly, with central planning at a society-wide level – that lies at the basis of his accusation.

Kirk, and G. K. Chesterton, to whose story “The Yellow Bird” Kirk refers (347-348), misconstrue the meaning of liberty as the freedom from all limitations. They argue, instead, that limitations are quite necessary even to the very survival of the human organism. This is not controversial, but it is beside the point. The question is, rather, should somebody else be able to dictate to an individual what his limitations ought to be and to punish that individual for having a different understanding and/or acting on it? Most of us – the ones who are still alive, at least – want some limitations in our lives, which we structure according to definite patterns that we do not like to see infringed on. The alternative we face is whether we get to plan our lives, or whether somebody else gets to do it for us. It may well be that some amount of government action is necessary to give every individual the maximum possible sphere in which he gets to make his own decisions. I certainly do not reject all government, and I am even a state employee, because I think that certain kinds of protections afforded by government can maximize individual liberty. Some libertarians, the anarcho-capitalists, will disagree with me here – but virtually all libertarians will agree that the purpose of political institutions, whether they be governmental or decentralized, competing, and private, is to protect every individual’s ability to choose the limits to which he will be subject, with the exception of the inviolable limitations of not harming others and not infringing on their ability to have a similar level of choice.

Moreover, there are always the limitations posed by the laws of nature – laws that cannot be violated, although they can be used creatively to achieve our purposes. To get anything of substance done in this world, one needs to have a thorough understanding of natural laws – the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, economics, ethics, and even to a certain extent esthetics. In the words of Francis Bacon, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” It does not work to simply wish away the limitations posed by the laws and phenomena of nature. Rather, we ought to work within those limitations to make a better existence for us all. Libertarianism does not see itself as opposed to the limitations of natural law. Quite the contrary, libertarians – even some of the utilitarians among them – consider their ideas derived from the laws of nature, with their inherent limitations. After all, if libertarians truly did not believe in limitations, they would say that socialism could work if people wanted it to work – since socialism not working despite people’s best intentions is surely a limitation to what is possible!

More than halfway through the essay, Kirk comes to his senses and acknowledges that there are some respectable libertarians out there “who through misapprehension put up the cash for the fantastics” (348). Kirk believes that these people are really “conservative[s] with imperfect understanding of the general terms of politics” (348). I would give these individuals, whom Kirk does seem to respect, a bit more credit than to think that they are simply duped by the more objectionable elements of the libertarian movement. If these gentlemen are so smart, they must know what they are doing and must have good reasons for doing so. Perhaps the other libertarians whom they support are not as bad as Kirk supposes, or perhaps the gentlemen do not as readily support the caricatured doctrinaire libertarians as Kirk asserts. Either case, or a combination of both, is entirely plausible. In every movement of any decent size, there will be fanatical, irrational, and dangerous people; I have met some of those among libertarians as well, and I do not support them or their agendas. On the other hand, there are many people whom Kirk considers “eccentrics” (this is a negative term for Kirk) who I believe are delightful, reasonable, and sane individuals. It is true that many libertarians spend too much time developing their abstract theory and not enough time attempting to implement it in the real world – but some libertarians have recognized this and are beginning to work – often quietly and indirectly – toward more tangible objectives than an ideal minarchist state or pure and functional market anarchy. But the lack of practicality among some libertarians should not be a condemnation of libertarianism itself; it may simply be a natural outcome of the politically marginalized status that most libertarians consider themselves to have. If they can only effectively think and write at this stage, then this is what they will devote their attentions to.

Following his disclaimer, Kirk makes his case for why an intellectual alliance between libertarians and conservatives is undesirable. He believes that libertarians are “mad” and exhibit “lunacy” and besides are so small a minority that they will have no impact on American politics, but one should not want to be associated with them and their “lunacy” (349). He also accuses libertarians of splitting into ever-smaller sects and rarely coalescing again. Libertarian sectarianism is, alas, all too prevalent a phenomenon for my liking – and Kirk’s criticism here has some justice as applied to contemporary libertarianism. However, libertarians are no longer a minority so insignificant as to be dismissed and have no impact. With such highly influential and wealthy libertarians as Richard Branson, Peter Thiel, T. J. Rodgers, and Charles Koch – multi-billionaires, all – on the international business scene, libertarianism can no longer be dismissed as a fringe movement. (An impressive list of libertarian celebrities has been published by Advocates for Self-Government.) The number of libertarians is growing – especially among the intellectual and economic elite – while the number of conservatives is constant or declining. I say this to refute Kirk’s allegation that libertarianism will always be insignificant and ineffectual. Moreover, the more successful libertarians – the people who have accomplishments outside the realm of developing libertarian theory – also tend to be less sectarian, so it is possible that a natural selection process will lead those libertarians to assume increasingly more influential positions in the movement.

As for the accusation of the madness of libertarians, it is an ad hominem attack and is simply unfair. I could easily say the same about Kirk’s belief that cars are “mechanical Jacobins” and his complete rejection of television and computers. I will not say that this belief is madness – just a difference of opinion. I say this because, while Kirk’s ideology seems thoroughly irrational and false to me, I do not believe that anyone can say, from his vantage point, that the vantage point of another constitutes madness. This aids neither intellectual progress nor mutual good will among people. Every person – irrespective of the content of his thoughts, has reasons for thinking the way he does. Rather than dismissing him as mad, it is more constructive to try to understand his position – for we must, after all, coexist in the same world, preferably without exerting brutal violence upon one another. This is the purpose of civil discussion – to establish a level plane of respect and consideration for all the participants and to evaluate ideas based on their content, not on name-calling. Ad hominem attacks, such as the accusation of madness, destroy the level plane of discussion in an attempt to relegate one of the participants to an automatically less respectable position. This leads to intellectual bullying and bravado by the party that performs the diminution, but it does not establish any truth, nor contribute to any mutual improvement.

Now I will refute, point by point, Kirk’s more specific arguments for why an alliance between libertarians and the more sensible conservatives is not possible.

1. Kirk writes, “The great line of division in modem politics – as Eric Voegelin reminds us – is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or libertarians) on the other; rather, it lies between all those who believe in some sort of transcendent moral order, on one side, and on the other side all those who take this ephemeral existence of ours for the be-all and end-all-to be devoted chiefly to producing and consuming” (349). I will not here address the controversy between the believers in the transcendent and those who consider this world to be sole and primary. However, I will note that politics concerns this world and the manner in which people interact in it. Thus, in the political sphere, any considerations of whether anything besides this world exists could and should be irrelevant. The purpose of politics is to establish an order here that fulfills certain desired characteristics. I fail to see why people of different metaphysical beliefs would necessarily never agree on what the desired state of affairs in this world ought to be. We all believe in this world, after all, and – despite the disingenuous protestations of some on the Religious Right – we all consider this world important.

2. Kirk writes, “In any society, order is the first need of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract liberty. Conservatives, knowing that ‘liberty inheres in some sensible object,’ are aware that true freedom can be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the constitutional order of these United States. In exalting an absolute and indefinable ‘liberty’ at the expense of order, the libertarians imperil the very freedoms they praise” (349). Kirk believes that order has primacy over liberty – but any order? What about the order of the Aztec empire, with its hundreds of brutal human sacrifices per day. What about the caste system – the traditional order of India – accompanied by ritual widow burning, violence against families that paid insufficient dowries for their daughters, and inhuman treatment of “untouchables”? What about the order of some eras of traditional China, characterized by female foot binding and aversion to foreign contact? What about the order of a totalitarian dictatorship? Surely, not all kinds of order are desirable – and some are even less desirable than that big unattainable bugaboo of complete chaos. If Kirk is willing to admit (and he probably would be) that not every order is a good order, then it follows that an order is only good if it is good for something.

Then the question must be asked as to why we want order in societies in the first place. We need societal interaction in order for us to rise above the level of bare subsistence we could attain under autarky. By engaging in societal cooperation, we each want something that the others have. Thus, we require mechanisms by which we can engage in only interactions that benefit all of us and avoid, as much as possible, those interactions that harm some of us. Most of these mechanisms are private, consensual, and even informal. But some human interactions – the violent ones – are so powerful at overriding all the others that they must not be tolerated. Indeed, the society in which nobody uses violence against anybody else is the most desirable society. If we have a government, its legitimate purpose is precisely to make sure that as little violence as possible occurs by establishing a method of promptly detecting and punishing initiations thereof. Historically, most governments have fallen miserably short of this goal and have indeed initiated much active harm – but some governments fulfill the role of protector from violence better than others. And we can always hope for and work toward future improvements. Order is undoubtedly important, but it is vital to have the right kind of order for fulfilling the primary goal of a society, which is the mutual benefit of everybody in it. But who defines the mutual benefit of everybody? Each person who fits under the umbrella description of “everybody” defines his benefit for himself, to the best of his reasoning ability. But in order to be able to pursue his definition of his benefit, every individual must have liberty. Therefore, the purpose of a political order is to preserve for each individual this liberty, so that – by partaking in the larger societal order – the individual can gain other values as well. Order and liberty are not mutually contrary, but order without liberty is not worth having; it is the enslavement of some to others.

3. Kirk writes: “What binds society together? The libertarians reply that the cement of society (sofar as they will endure any binding at all) is self-interest, closely joined to the nexus of cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor” (349). Kirk is being far too simplistic here. Why cannot both friendship and self-interest be necessary and important components for a society to work? What makes these two concepts in any manner opposed or mutually exclusive? Why can one not look out for one’s own well-being but also care about the well-being of others whom one considers friends? Virtually everybody does this, and I do not know of a single libertarian or conservative who believes that there is either no friendship or no self-interest in any actual or desirable society. Moreover, I do not know of any libertarian who believes that no dead person is important. After all, many illustrious libertarian thinkers have lived many generations ago! Moreover, I do not know of any libertarian who espouses complete apathy for the yet unborn. Self-interest, as well as friendship and consideration for the past and future, are universal human attributes; they are not peculiar to conservatives or libertarians.

4. Kirk writes: “Libertarians (like anarchists and Marxists) generally believe that human nature is good, though damaged by certain social institutions” (350). This is far from the truth. Perhaps only Jean-Jacques Rousseau – clearly not a libertarian – and his intellectual disciples held this view of human nature. Most libertarians do not believe that any universal normative judgment can be applied to the natures of all humans. Humans are neither universally good nor universally bad; rather, they have certain fairly common motivations and are channeled by internal and external incentives toward good or bad acts. As for my own more particular view, I believe that the term “human nature” is tautological and not particularly helpful, as I explain in this article.

5. Kirk writes: “The libertarian takes the state for the great oppressor. But the conservative finds that the state is ordained of God” (350). Kirk is wrong again about the libertarian view. Libertarianism per se does not condemn the state, although anarcho-capitalism does. Most libertarians are minarchists – advocates of a government limited to protecting individuals against the initiation of force. The state, so long as it confines itself to this role, is not an oppressor. When, however, it initiates force or fraud, libertarians begin to have issues with it. The “conservative” view that the state is ordained of God is rather alarming; it is in no manner distinguishable from the divine right philosophy that justified 17th-century absolutist monarchies in Europe. Surely, sensible conservatives will shy away from this view, if only for its glaring potential to be used by tyrants as a blank check to do anything they please – since they were ordained by God, after all. The sensible conservative will believe that the state is a manmade institution, subject to the possibility that it will be imperfect, unjust, or even on balance harmful. The sensible religious conservative will believe that, if God really is that great, he would not operate through the imperfections of human government – and, moreover, that his faith is most secure by being distanced as far from the state as possible.

Kirk further writes: “Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individual, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can be done only by a power out of themselves; and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In short, a primary function of government is restraint; and that is anathema to libertarians, though an article of faith to conservatives” (350). This passage is a further example of Kirk’s fascistic leanings – the desire to subject not just people’s actions ­- but their will and passions. Thoughtcrime, anyone? The moment that the state goes beyond restraining what people do and instead endeavors to control what goes on inside their minds, it becomes not merely authoritarian but outright Orwellian. An old-fashioned autocrat is preferable to a government that thwarts men’s inclinations, controls their will, and brings their passions into subjection – which leaves men as nothing more than chunks of meat with no direction of their own, controlled entirely by the great puppetmasters to whom Kirk ascribes the enormous ability of so managing other human beings!

6. For me, the most unwarranted of Kirk’s objections to libertarianism is the following: “The libertarian thinks that this world is chiefly a stage for the swaggering ego; the conservative finds himself instead a pilgrim in a realm of mystery and wonder, where duty, discipline, and sacrifice are required-and where the reward is that love which passeth all understanding. The conservative regards the libertarian as impious, in the sense of the old Roman pietas: that is, the libertarian does not venerate ancient beliefs and customs, or the natural world, or his country, or the immortal spark in his fellow men. The cosmos of the libertarian is an arid loveless realm, a ’round prison.’ ‘I am, and none else beside me,’ says the libertarian. ‘We are made for cooperation, like the hands, like the feet,”‘ replies the conservative, in the phrases of Marcus Aurelius” (350).

I do not know whether it takes a “swaggering ego” to make presumptions that another person’s experience of the world is that of an “arid loveless realm” – but these certainly are swaggering presumptions on Dr. Kirk’s part! One can appreciate the numerous wonders, beauties, and possibilities of this world without unquestioningly adhering to custom and tradition, being willing to lose one’s life for millions of people whom one does not know but who happen to be in the geographical entity rather arbitrarily defined as one’s “country,” or believing in a supernatural personified entity who made us, knows everything, and can do anything. It is sheer ignorance to say that libertarians do not venerate the natural world; many of them base their whole worldview on the idea of natural law – and a substantial portion of them like trees and animals and sunsets, too. As for “the immortal spark in one’s fellow men,” which Kirk certainly means in a religious sense, some libertarians agree with Kirk, while others prefer to pursue a more reliable physical immortality in this world. Still others believe that we do not need immortality in order for what finite lifespans we have to still be the highest values can that exist. There are substantial differences of opinion among libertarians on this issue – but clearly, the reality does not justify Kirk’s characterization of all libertarians as ignoring everything that makes the world worth appreciating. As for cooperation, no libertarian advocates autarky and many, including John Locke, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard, placed an explicit emphasis on the importance of societal cooperation to human flourishing. But this cooperation is among autonomous, independently conscious individuals – not “hands and feet” of a larger “body.”

Kirk further states, quite alarmingly, that an alliance with socialists is more preferable to conservatives like him than an alliance with libertarians: “The socialists at least declare the existence of some sort of moral order; the libertarians are quite bottomless” (351). The allegation that libertarians do not believe in a moral order is quite false and misleading. Most libertarians adhere to some explicit understanding of what is right and wrong for them and others to do – and all of then have an implicit understanding of this. One moral belief that is shared by all libertarians is that the initiation of force or fraud is wrong and should not be tolerated. Another common moral belief is that the life of each individual is a major – if not the major – moral value for its own sake, and not as the means to any other end. Another virtually ubiquitous libertarian moral value is that of honesty in one’s personal dealings – for no free-market economic system can thrive when people continually lie to and defraud one another. A wide variety of other moral values can be derived from the above in a myriad of ways.

Kirk continues to make false blanket characterizations of libertarians: “It was recently a plank in the platform of the Libertarian Party that expectant mothers should enjoy a right to abortion on demand; while to the reflecting conservative, the slaughter of innocents is the most despicable of evils” (351). While some libertarians do indeed support abortion rights, many others do not – myself included. Whether libertarians support the legality of abortion depends primarily on whether they consider the fetus to be a human person; if the fetus is a human person, then it has a natural right to life. If it is not a person, then it has no such right. Many libertarians are as strongly opposed to abortion as many conservatives, the Libertarian Party’s platform notwithstanding.

In the years since 1981, we have seen where the American conservative movement has gotten by refusing, in Kirk’s words, “to lie down, lamblike, with the libertarian hyenas” (351). (By the way, it seems rather strange for Kirk to first dismiss the libertarians as politically insignificant, but then to compare them to dangerous hyenas that would devour the conservative “lambs”!) By refusing to consider libertarian ideas, the American conservative movement has actively caused one of the greatest increases in illegitimate government activity in American history – including rampant deficit spending, the expansion of dangerous social programs, a disastrously-managed foreign war, torture, a surveillance state, restrictions on civil liberties, the precursors of hyperinflation, and enormous corporate bailouts. Russell Kirk’s intellectual influence may be felt in these developments by the discerning observer. If he were alive today, Kirk might protest that the depredations of the Bush administration were not what he wanted – but they are the logical outcome of the insular, intolerant, fascistic, and illiberal form of conservatism that Kirk promoted with considerable success. Conservatives have indeed had far more political power than libertarians in recent decades – and look where this brought us. Perhaps it is time to try something different.

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Immanuel Kant’s Ideas on Knowledge, Science, Morality, and Rational Free Will (2002) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: History, Justice, Philosophy, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 23, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2002 and published in three parts on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 23,000 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  The essay should be read as a factual exposition, not an endorsement, of Kant’s views.***
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~ G. Stolyarov II, July 23, 2014
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Immanuel Kant’s Early Life and Ideas on Knowledge

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Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in the East Prussian city of Konigsberg (modern Kaliningrad, although the post-Communist leadership of the Russian Federation is considering an alteration of its name to “Kantgrad”), in the middle-class family of a manufacturer of saddles. He lived on a moderate income, sufficient for him to attend the university within the city and display the reputation of a formidable student.

Kant was a man of rather fragile health and a “late bloomer”, and thus spent the better portion of his youth slowly obtaining knowledge sufficient to gradually ascend the hierarchy within the university. His early years were spent constantly engaging in social activities and exposing himself to both the mundane and the ideological worlds. However, his contemporaries perceived that despite his insightful mind and abundance of ideas, Kant would never emerge as a leading philosopher due to the worldly distractions that he faced.

The young Kant became determined to prove his doubters wrong. He altered his routine, beginning in his late twenties and intensifying as he neared old age, into a rigid, nearly mechanical working discipline, forfeiting most interpersonal interactions other than those with his students (he was a private tutor earning a meager income prior to having earned his doctorate in 1755). He resolved never to marry nor acquire a family that would divert him from the task of becoming the prominent thinker who revolutionized Western thought.

Kant’s first work was composed in 1746, and titled Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces. His ideology developed from that point into the formidable and thought-provoking philosophical doctrine that one would encounter in Critique of Pure Reason (First Edition published in 1781, the Second Edition in 1787).

Kant argues that there exists a difference between individual perception of the world and the absolute reality in which the human species dwells. He refers to the external world as “things-in-themselves,” of which every person possesses a varying and inaccurate understanding due to the unique manner in which an individual’s mind would process this information. This activity is known as synthesis, and involves the assimilation of data into the mind, after which it is blended with and connected to previous experiences to thus add to one’s perception.

Kant rejects the existence of a priori intuitive postulates within the human mind, claiming that so-called “intuition” is a product of having received information, then engaged in discourse on or analysis of the topic that the information concerns, and, at last, forged a conclusion, a point where synthesis forms the understanding that becomes a portion of our perception. Kant divides intuition into two categories, “sensible,” which is presented with material after which it undergoes synthesis and extracts an “insight” from it, and “intellectual,” which actually “creates” truth. Only God, according to Kant’s doctrine, would possess intellectual intuition.

Immanuel Kant’s Ideas on Science and Morality

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According to  Immanuel Kant, no person may possess inherent wisdom about reality. This is best summarized in the philosopher’s famous expression, “Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without data are blind.”

Indeed, Kant believes that in order for us to utilize our sensible intuition, we must possess two stimuli, “physical sensation” and “moral duty.” The first of the two addresses a portion of Kantian thought known as “empirical realism,” a reasoning that defines that absolute reality as the entire universe in which all human beings dwell. Every time we acquire external data from that absolute reality, our perception of it assumes a greater degree of accuracy. And what would be the optimal way of acquiring such data with only minimal if any contact with other persons’ perceptions (which are, like ours, inaccurate, only in different ways, since each human being possesses a unique arsenal of experiences)?

Scientific exploration is, therefore, the key to an ultimate comprehension of things-in-themselves. Kant was a fervent admirer of Newtonian thought and the Scientific Method, which permitted scientists to ascend to unprecedented heights in their understanding of and control over nature.

The second stimulus to action, moral duty, provides the explanation for the purpose of all human actions toward the comprehension of the universe. This portion of Kant’s doctrine has been dubbed by the philosopher as “transcendental idealism,” since it establishes a framework outside the natural world upon which correct actions are based. Kant sees the ultimate virtues to be the attempts to reach three goals which are not yet found in reality, God, freedom, and the immortality of individuals. God, the Creator and Supreme Being of the universe, must be fathomed, properly interpreted, and obeyed in accordance with his true desires. Freedom, the individual liberty to act as one wishes and to grant all others this right, must be instituted through societal reforms and a development of ideology to understand the proper order that would establish such an atmosphere. And, at last, every human being must rise to possess the right to exist for an indefinite length of time that he may obey the commandments of God and practice his freedoms. Kant states that all which is right and moral must be based upon those three principles.

As such, Kant separates the scientific realm (which describes what is) from the moral realm (which explains what ought to be), but he considers these two realms to go hand-in-hand — ultimately advocating putting the scientific realm in service to moral one.

Immanuel Kant’s View of Rational Free Will and Its Implications for Criminal Justice

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In the view of Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), all individuals possess a “rational free will” and are capable of recognizing the three pillars of morality – God, freedom, and immortality – and acting accordingly with them. Kant recognizes that every intended deed is purposeful and selected by the person who commits it.

According to Kant, no set of circumstances, no matter how great their severity, can force a person to abandon the three moral virtues unless the individual himself selects to do so. And this selection, then, permits for punishment to be distributed to an individual based on the action undertaken. Thus, every deed committed with the intention of being so done implies a moral accountability within the human responsible.

This model of thought is of immense help to understanding what actions Kant saw as necessary for the creation of justice within the real world, since, once again, every individual’s worldview is based upon that individual’s own set of experiences. Thus, any judgment by one individual of another’s set of “data” will be subjective and skewed, which perverts any prospect for objective justice. That is, unless an objective framework such as one of “God, freedom, immortality” is used to evaluate a deed and not the person responsible, while properly rewarding or punishing the latter.

A Kantian justice system would thus solely focus on what was done, rather than on the character of the person who did it. No excuses regarding a criminal’s genome, upbringing, history of mental illness, or socioeconomic status can exonerate him from receiving punishment for the criminal act. The fact that a man was abused during his childhood does not justify his infliction of similar abuse on others later in life. The fact that a mother who drowned her five children was suffering from post-partum depression does not nullify her responsibility for the act and the need to punish her to the utmost extent possible.

Indeed, a court organized on Kantian lines might be able to exercise its functions using purely objective, factual considerations. Evaluating the evidence in a specific case, the court could conclusively determine what was done, and who did it, from which the punishment for the perpetrator would follow algorithmically, being already stipulated in the law. Whether the criminal is a “nice person” or has a history of past troubles would have no bearing on the outcome – thus eliminating the need for subjective opinions entering the analysis. Neither aloof nor passionate behavior on the part of the defendant in the courtroom would have the ability to sway the court’s decision one bit.

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