Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Independence and Certainty

In our age of post-Kantian skepticism and relativism, it follows, according to the skeptics and relativists, that anyone claiming epistemological or ethical certainty is either a deluded fundamentalist or a wannabe or actual dictator.

Inquisitors and jihadis are certain of their convictions and maim and kill those who do not agree with them. Hitler was certain and viciously imposed his will on his own citizens and the world and, of course, the Jewish people. The implication is that Inquisitors, jihadis, and Hitlers are selfish, independent personalities.

The argument often does not go this far, though it is implied, and some, including Holocaust scholars, have said as much.* After all, this train of thought continues, no one is omniscient, and because of our inherent fallibility, we must allow freedom of speech. This is what makes a society free.

Lack of omniscience means inability to be certain, which means we must invite and relish criticism to clarify our thoughts, and perhaps gradually get closer and closer to the truth, though absolute truth can never be attained.

This is what logical positivism and its offspring have taught us. Claims of certainty are dangerous. We have to talk things over and aim for consensus, sometimes through voting. This in essence is the epistemological justification of democracy.**

In other words, anyone who believes in absolutes believes in absolute authority. The independent personality is one who asserts facts as absolutely true, and that is what is dangerous.

So does this mean the boy in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes should request a vote before speaking up, assuming the emperor is tolerant of critics(!)? In addition to the self-contradictions of skepticism and relativism, this question is a reductio ad absurdum.***

It does not follow from human fallibility that absolute certainty is authoritarian or that strong, independent personalities are actual or wannabe dictators. Nor is the argument from fallibility the fundamental defense of freedom of speech and the free society.

In a single sentence, the answer to the issue is a sound, objective theory of universals that allows the identification of sound, objective values, which in turn defines social relationships in terms of individual rights, that is, freedoms to take action without coercion, including the freedom to express oneself on one’s own property or on that of someone else with whom one has contracted to make that expression.

Freedom of speech presupposes property rights, and democracy, if it is not to be a form of dictatorship—democracy, remember, killed Socrates—presupposes and is restrained by all individual rights, which therefore means democracy in a free society is demoted to the relatively minor function of selecting our leaders, along with other non-rights-violating details.

Democracy is not the arbiter of truth (or “approximate” truth) or of ethical or legal behavior.

The sound theory of universals is Ayn Rand’s (1, 2). It is a theory based on the contextual nature of knowledge that allows certain truth to be asserted as absolute within a specified context. Because knowledge grows over time, adjustments to earlier absolute certainties may have to be made, as Newton’s theories were adjusted by Einstein’s.

Incidentally, something over the years must have been right, true, and certain about Newton’s and Einstein’s ideas, because in the use of both theories, spaceships have gone to the moon and back.

Truth and certainty—by peaceful, independent-minded, non-authoritarian scientists—do seem possible.

Yes, we are fallible and not omniscient, which means we must submit our expressions to evaluation and criticism and be prepared to defend them, but this is not a justification of freedom of speech.

In order to survive and flourish, humans must exercise their inborn, volitional capacity to reason. Because this exercise of reason is not activated by our genes or environment, we must be left free to choose—that is, it is right or moral for us to be free from the coercion of others, especially the government—to allow each of us as individuals to generate and sustain action to achieve our chosen values. Trade is our means of social cooperation.

The source and justification of individual rights is our nature as rational beings. It is right and moral to be free of any initiation against us of the use of physical force.

Thus, whatever we say or write, either on our own property or on that of the others cooperating with us, is, at least sometimes, an assertion of truth and certainty. It is right and moral for us to make these assertions, first, because our freedom of expression is consonant with and required by our human nature and, second, because our speech, writing, and expressions derive from our rights to life, liberty and property.

Inquisitors, jihadis, and Hitlers of the world, in contrast, do also make assertions of truth and certainty, but they back up their assertions with a gun. Their expressions are not open to evaluation and criticism because they tolerate no disagreement.

They are the authoritarians, the dictators, who at root, as Stanton Samenow demonstrates, are criminal personalities. As liars and cheaters, they are not the least bit interested in perceiving and asserting facts as facts. They most certainly are not independent personalities; they are among the worst of the dependent.

Brandishing and using guns, as they do, is anathema to our rational nature. Their goals and accomplishments are to silence our reason. Their “truth” and “certainty” lead to wanton destruction of humankind and civilization.

Talking and voting does not make any individual more or less independent, and it is not the means of preventing another Holocaust. Lack of certainty may indicate insecurity or insufficient knowledge to make a decision with confidence.

To link certainty to dictatorship is the red herring of all red herrings, brought to us by post-Kantian agnosticism, both in epistemology and ethics.

It is time to restore certainty to its proper place in knowledge and values.


* Years ago, I heard a Holocaust scholar say that the Nazis were certain of their convictions; therefore, it is good that we not be.

** The argument is John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian defense of free speech, restated in Jonathan Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. Rauch in 1993 was responding to an early wave of censorship by political correctness.

*** Here are the self-contradictions: skeptics assert as an absolute certainty that certainty is impossible and the relativists claim absolutely that all claims are relative. Cratylus, the Greek skeptic who stopped talking, is another reductio.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Brains or Blood? Take Your Pick – The Choice Is Not New But the Threat Is Worse

Allow me to begin this post with a couple of quotations.
The real significance of the Lenin revolution is to be seen in the fact that it was the bursting forth of the principle of unrestricted violence and oppression. It was the negation of all the political ideals that had for three thousand years guided the evolution of Western civilization.

This letter is to inform you that this university has dismissed more than 40 students on this day. . . . [The] university will not be run by threats and intimidation. It will not respond to ultimatums from students, and it will not be intimidated by the pressures of groups who are dedicated to the disruption of institutions of higher learning or seek disorganization to the point where such institutions can be controlled by violence and run under constant threat of disruption.
The first quote is from Planned Chaos (chapter 6) by Ludwig von Mises, referencing the Russian Revolution of 1917. The second is a rare statement of courage by a college administrator; it is from a letter to friends of the University of Denver (my alma mater), dated April 30,1968, by Chancellor Maurice B. Mitchell.*

The connection between the two is the “principle of unrestricted violence and oppression” practiced by the Bolshevists in the early twentieth century, then later by the New Left “revolutionaries” of the 1960s. Today, we see the same unrestricted violence and oppression on college campuses the aim of which is to shut down free speech and its consequent diversity of ideas.

Violence does not require the use of a gun or the laying on of hands. Criminal assault is a threat that does not involve touching. Preventing patrons from voluntarily entering a lecture hall to listen to a speaker, regardless of the nature of the ideas presented, is as much the initiation of the use of physical force as a pistol whip to the head.

In recent months, the violence, in addition to blocking patron entrance, has been quite physical: setting a food cart on fire and breaking windows of the venue (UC Berkeley), grabbing the hair of a sponsoring professor and sending her to the hospital (Middlebury College), and shouting and banging on the venue windows to disrupt the speaker, even when the presentation was being live streamed in an empty auditorium (Claremont McKenna College).

In the past I have referred to college administrators as spineless for their lack of courage to stand up to the belligerents and for their refusal to expel all participants from their universities, as did Chancellor Mitchell.

Subsequent criminal prosecution is the only way to dampen and stop campus violence and oppression.

“Complicit,” however, is the more correct word to describe our present-day college administrators. A brigade of police to protect the patrons and round up all perpetrators of rights violations is all that would be required. Some administrators in the 1960s were complicit, but it seems more common that colleges today order police to stand down when violence erupts.

Brains or blood, college administrators.** It’s your choice and you seem to have made it for the latter. Respect for brains, freedom of speech and expression, and diversity of ideas have disappeared from your citadels of reason.

“Bolshevists set the precedent,” as Mises pointed out in Omnipotent Government (p. 178). “The success of the Lenin clique encouraged the Mussolini gang and the Hitler troops. Both Italian Fascism and German Nazism adopted the political methods of Soviet Russia.”

And no one stood up to Lenin to dampen or stop his violence and oppression. Indeed, he was seen by many as a hero and liberator, but it is a straight line from Lenin to Hitler and Mussolini to the New Left to the violent Progressive (or Post-Modern—call it what you want) Left of the present.

It all comes from the same source. Marx and Engels made no distinction between communism and socialism, except to say that there was a lower and higher phase of communist society. Social democrats called themselves socialists to distinguish themselves from Lenin’s communism, but they shared the same goal (Planned Chaos, chapter 3). Social democracy is what the American Progressives learned in Prussian universities in the late nineteenth century.

British guild socialism of the Fabian Society is what Hitler and Mussolini took as their models of the modern fascist state (Omnipotent Government, p. 178). And Bismarck’s Prussia was modeled on the medieval guilds. Thus, communism, socialism, and social democracy, at root, are all essentially medieval ideas, premised on the illiberal notion of initiating physical force to achieve one’s goals, which is to say based on the premise of unrestricted violence and oppression.

Governments hold the monopoly on the use of physical force and when they use it for anything other than retaliation against aggressors, they themselves become the aggressors. Thus, taxation, regulation, and involuntary anything, whether the military draft or public domain laws, as well as non-objective law—vague and overly broad statutes, many of which we have today, including the deliberate nebulousness of Title IX that terrorizes college campuses—are descendants of the medieval guilds and the Marx-Engels-Lenin axis of violence and oppression.

It is time to choose brains over blood, to check our premises and adopt the true liberalism of freedom of speech, property rights, voluntary trade and association, and most importantly, tolerance for a diversity of ideas.


* The students had presented the university with “non-negotiable demands” and staged a sit-in at the Registrar’s and Chancellor’s offices. By 1960s standards this was mild when compared to the wanton destruction of research and records at other universities, among other criminal activity.

** “Brains or Blood?” was the subtle title of a one-page document co-authored by yours truly and four classmates at the University of Denver, distributed on campus a year after Chancellor Mitchell’s letter. It was a response to and refutation of non-negotiable demands presented to the university by a cabal of New Leftists. Children of the sixties? Yes, we were, but we defended our chancellor!


Monday, March 06, 2017

On the Need to Take People (Including Politicians) Seriously, Not Literally

Facts matter. And I have complained many times (1, 2, 3, 4) about the lack of concern for facts.

But what if they don’t matter? What if the people you love and work with, or the ones you admire (or don’t admire) from a distance, say, politicians, sling inaccuracies around with seeming abandon? For example, inaccuracies from ignorance, faulty and selective memory, sins of omission, exaggeration and serial embellishment, bullshit, or even fabrication?

I’ve sat at many a lunch and dinner, both personal and professional, in which hyperbole was the main course, and in many academic meetings consisting mainly of selective memory and BS.

When this happens, should we stomp our feet and cry boohoo, as the press today is doing in relation to our current president?

The press, including the anchor of a network sympathetic to the current president, continues to rail on and on about the many less than factual statements coming out of the White House.

As if other presidents have not played fast and loose with the facts! Or spent twenty-plus minutes BS’ing an answer to a simple question. Other presidents have been slicker—more polished—than the current one, as a Wall Street Journal column pointed out recently. The problem is that the press takes our current president literally, but not seriously.*

This is a mistake in human relationships—for all of us, not just the press.

As a young man, straight out of undergraduate school, I worked for a service firm in midtown Manhattan. Our task was to process certain jobs and deliver the results to customers. When clients complained about not receiving their jobs, a familiar phrase of the production manager was, “Tell ‘em it’s on the truck,” when it wasn’t. I did not whine to the manager and say, “You’re a bad person.” I did lie a couple of times, but quickly learned not to promise what I could not deliver and developed a number of techniques for keeping my clients happy.

One of those techniques was to translate misstatements of the people I worked with—the production manager was not the only one expert at misrepresenting facts—and consequently to learn how to enjoy their company. They were all respectable people who had their own psychologies. Getting to know them was key to understanding them and thereby to working with them.

Why can’t the press do the same with our current president? And tame their intemperate headlines and articles?

Children who stomp their feet and throw tantrums are insecure because they do not feel loved. The press’s personal identity today is simultaneously being attacked and ignored. They are not feeling the love!

They are not feeling the love because the press, especially those who represent the bi-coastal elites, have set themselves up—on a pedestal—as intellectual guardians of the free society.

As F. A. Hayek wrote in 1949, the press (along with other self-appointed intellectuals) filter and disseminate fundamental ideas to the populace. Their filter requires that the selected ideas “fit into [their] general conceptions, [their] picture of the world which [they regard] as modern or advanced.” The “modern and advanced” ideas today are those of the Marxist Progressive Left. Anything else is assumed to be old-fashioned, backwards, and anathema to their version of a free society.**

The pedestal that the press has been sitting on for the past many years is now crumbling, if not being knocked from under them. This, they cannot tolerate.

Our current president does not give a hoot about the political correctness mantra that the press promotes as gospel. That the press does not, or deliberately chooses not to, acknowledge the ideas on which they base their screeds is enough alone to call them biased.

Telling the press that they are biased and that they sometimes fail in their factual inquiries and publish what appears to be fabricated news is, for them, beyond the pale. For them, this is tantamount to threatening censorship and those who criticize them are assumed to be actual or wannabe dictators.

Tweaking another person’s defense value or defense mechanism, such as telling a compulsive talker “you’re a big mouth,” is insulting and is experienced by the talker as a considerable threat—literally to their pseudo-self-esteem, not actually or seriously to their physical well-being.

Tweaking the press’s pretentious defense value that views themselves as guardians of the free society is what is going on now. Literally, they feel a considerable threat—to their pseudo-self-esteem, not actually or seriously to press freedom.

Add to this that it is difficult to take the press’s whines seriously, because literally what they write (the Marxist Progressivism of the Left) promotes destruction of the free society. They certainly are not promoting the genuine protection of individual rights or anything resembling an authentic (classical) liberalism.

For the press to take our current president and the sense of life of his supporters seriously, they would have to reexamine their own unexamined premises. For as badly mixed as are our current president’s ideas and those of his supporters, and despite what either of them might literally say, their sense of life captures the essence of what once did make America great: namely, being left alone, that is, free, to pursue their own values through hard work and achievement, followed by appropriately earned rewards for the effort.

If the press wants to be taken seriously as defenders of the free society, which means they want to convince the public that they know how to present alternative viewpoints, they should take a serious look at the fundamental ideas on which laissez-faire capitalism is based.

Yes, it would be nice to live in a perfect world in which everyone shoots straight and factually. However, we don’t live in such a world and free will and psychology preclude it from ever happening. Therefore, we must learn to cope with the imperfections that confront us.

Distinguishing the serious from the literal would be a good first step. This means looking for what people are really saying, deep down, and what they really mean.

Focusing only on the literal can create fantasy relationships.


* The expression, referring to our current president, goes back at least to this article in The Atlantic.

** Hayek’s argument is summarized here. I say “Marxist Progressive Left” to distinguish this brand of Leftism from the earlier Bismarckian type of the 1890s to about 1930. See Thomas C. Leonard’s extensively documented book on the early Progressives and my comment on the book.


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Condescension, Intelligence Defense Values—and the Deplorables
And Oh Yes. The Putsch Mentality

Okay. Several times I have said, “Politics is a bore” (1, 2, 3), but since November 8, 2016, I have to admit that politics has been anything but that.

My entertainment has come from the calamitous meltdown, panic-stricken hostility, and intellectual bankruptcy of our current president’s opponents, the Marxist Progressive Left. New ideas, they do not have.

Not that our current president has any new or particularly good ideas. He won by tapping into the American sense of life—the one that says, “you can’t push me around, fella” and “my money’s as good as yours!” The deplorables of middle America finally found someone who did not condescend to them. Condescension of the bi-coastal elites, most of whom have never been to, let alone lived in, middle America is what won the election for our current president.

Denigration and ridicule of anyone who lives in or comes from the hinterlands are all too frequent. “Fly-over country” is just the most generic dismissal. As a small-towner from Kansas, I still hear this gem of intellectual inquiry: “Do you know Dorothy?” followed by a belly laugh. My reply that my mother’s name was Dorothy usually produces another belly laugh, albeit this time, though not always, showing a touch of embarrassment for asking a stupid question.

The source of the Left’s condescension is their anti-capitalist theory of human nature and consequent intelligence defense-value.

Government control of person and property—by nationalization and expropriation as the socialist variant and by heavy regulation and some expropriation as the fascist version—assumes the people, in the US’s case, the deplorables, are too weak, stupid, and ignorant to make decisions for themselves. Why else, my wife asked recently, would they insist on government controlled education? And many other things dished out at the point of a gun.*

The deplorables, say these Leftists, must listen to and follow us, the intellectually blessed elites who possess a near-God’s-eye omniscience to regulate and control our country, not to mention the deplorables’ lives. The intelligence defense-value follows from this. In a nutshell it says, “We’re smarter than you, so that gives us the right to tell you what to do. After all, it is for your own good.”

Defense-values (chapters 3 and 10)  are a pseudo-self-esteem that attempts to assuage insecurities. Boasters and compulsive talkers are other examples. Defense-values, however, do not work and they sometimes lead to a conceit—a fatal one, as Hayek put it—to claim that God’s-eye view of the world to control whole societies. Because control and regulation only lead to destruction, we are left with what we have today, a “planned chaos” of rent-seeking, government-by-lobby, and in some cases, collapsing mixed economies.

Marxism, of course, is and has always been the intellectual foundation of anti-capitalist hysteria. The problem for Marxists is that most of the deplorables are the workers of the world who were supposed to throw off their capitalist chains in exchange for the communist paradise. They are, however, doing just fine under capitalism and do not have much use for the Marxist Left.

As a result, the post-modern, anti-modernity Marxists have had to find new oppressed classes to exploit, or rather, to defend. Those “classes” are African Americans, women, and LGBTQ’s, even though a little digging into the past 60 or 70 years will show that all of them, both politically and economically, are better off today under our severely hampered capitalism than they were back then.

The final straw (and last gasp, one can hope) of the Marxist Progressive Left is their attempt to destroy the distinction between speech and action. This is the ultimate consequence of political correctness. Because certain classes, so the argument goes, are more powerful than others, and because speech is “socially constructed”—i.e., not individual and not in our control or even in our awareness—anything coming out of our mouths or from our pens is coercion, meaning coercion of the weaker classes.**

The oppressors are no longer the bourgeoisie, as in the days of Marx and Lenin, but whites, males, and straights. Once speech is interpreted as a weapon, as the post-modern Left interprets it, censorship is justified, and all forms of coercion become justified.

Thus, we had the massive demonstrations last fall that vociferously expressed desires to reject the results of the November election, demonstrations that at another time, perhaps in our future, could, with the presence of a charismatic, fist-pumping orator, turn into a frenzied putsch attempt.***

Violence is already being used to silence speakers (1, 2). It does not matter that most of the demonstrators are “peaceful.” Their leaders are ecstatic when speeches are canceled. Censorship is their goal.

Indeed, a spectacular fire where one of these speeches was canceled evoked an unpleasant image in my mind. I fully expected the blackshirts (1, 2) who caused the damage to throw a few books into the flames. Causing the speech to be cancelled was equivalent.

And actors and other demonstration preachifiers who beat their breasts and screech about “my America,” which means not the America of our current president or of anyone who did not vote for their candidate, are one step away from declaring speech and books they disagree with “un-American.”


The Nazis in 1933 moralized about “my Germany” and burned books that were “un-German.”

Is this where we are headed? I’m counting on the bankrupt Left to continue down its self-dug hole and the American sense of life of initiative and achievement to reject attempts to rescue any part of Marxist Progressivism.

The deplorables are decent people, but their sense of life needs to be articulated and made explicit . . . soon.


* On the left/right political continuum—right being minimal government, left being total government—fascism is on the right side of the left, because it is a form of socialism. After Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941, fascism became a pejorative promoted by the communists who equated capitalism with fascism. Soon after, they began calling anyone they disagreed with a fascist. The Left continues this tradition today. See Mises, Planned Chaos, chapters 6 and 7.

** Whites, we are told, suffer “unconscious racism,” which means we are not even aware of it. We should therefore just shut up and obey the dictates of the caring, humanitarian Left. Our daughter not too long ago was silenced in a discussion because she is white. And participants at academic conferences have been told that scholarly discussion with them was not possible because they belonged to one of the privileged classes! This is polylogism at work.

*** Writing about the New Left “revolutionaries” of the 1960s, many of whom today are the tenured radicals promoting relativism and authoritarianism, Ayn Rand said: “The New Left does not portend a revolution, as its press agents claim, but a Putsch. . . . A Putsch is a minority’s seizure of power. The goal of a revolution is to overthrow tyranny; the goal of a Putsch is to establish it.”


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

On the Alleged Banality of Evil and Heroism

Take your pick of mass murderer. What do we often hear quoted in the press? “He was such a nice boy, a quiet boy who sang in the Church choir. I just don’t understand!”

Or consider the good Samaritan who runs into a burning house to save ten children. The response? “I never would have expected such ‘unselfish’ and courageous behavior from that person.”

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things—whether extraordinary evil or extraordinary heroism—is the conventional understanding of such phrases as the “banality of evil” and “banality of heroism.”

What do the professionals say? “Those people who become perpetrators of evil deeds,” says psychologist Philip Zimbardo. “and those who become perpetrators of heroic deeds are basically alike in being just ordinary, average people.”

It’s all (or largely) situational, which means Zimbardo endorses environmental determinism.*

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1, 2, 3) coined the phrase “banality of evil” to explain the behavior of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann, the so-called desk murderer who orchestrated the deaths of millions of Jews during World War II.

Arendt seems to have claimed—I have not read her—that Eichmann’s “terrifyingly normal” behavior derived from his inborn inability to “think very deeply about what he was doing,” namely to recognize the consequences of his orders or to empathize with his victims.

Eichmann did testify at his trial that he was just another bureaucrat following the rules, taking orders from his superiors. And he supposedly was even a “nice boy” who played the violin as a child!

However, a review of this recent book reveals that Eichmann was neither nice, nor ordinary, nor innocent: “If 10.3 million of these enemies [Jews] had been killed,” said Eichmann, “then we would have fulfilled our duty.”

Arendt was aware of Eichmann’s anti-semitism and that he was not a nice person. She was trying to explain his appearance of ordinariness.

The problem is that genes or environment, with no mention of free will, too often becomes the stock explanation of apparent ordinariness.

Neither the perpetrator of evil deeds nor the doer of heroic acts is unoriginal, obvious, or boring, as dictionaries define the word “banal.”

It is a commonplace, or should be, that we cannot tell what another person is like by looking at his or her photograph. Nor can we discern much by observing someone in a video (as in video dating, for example). At a cocktail party we may approach a guest who looks interesting to talk to only to discover quickly that that is not the case, and, on the flip side of that coin, the uninteresting-looking and supposedly unattractive person may eventually become one’s spouse.

Two “nice, quiet,” and even “banal” persons may look similar and act in a similar manner, but one commits mass murder, the other runs into a burning building.

The difference is in their heads, their psychologies, that is, their accumulated knowledge and experiences, their thoughts, evaluations, emotions, images and imaginings, fantasies, and daydreams—much of which has been programmed to become subconscious habits.

Pre-judging based on superficialities admits a screaming ignorance of psychology. Sixteen hours a day, since at least toddlerhood, our minds take in data from the environment and process it. How we process it determines our character and personality, and it is we who control the processing.

Cognitive regulation—which includes a deliberate programming of the subconscious—is the meaning of free will.

Deliberate thinking errors and willful evasions in the processing of our environment produces criminal personalities, as amply documented in Yochelson and Samenow’s seminal three-volume masterpiece. Thinking accuracy and willful commitment to reason and facts produces heroic personalities.**

Criminals are con artists, who lie as a way of life and enjoy getting away with the forbidden. They are experts at hiding their true personalities, which is why they often seek cover of family, work—and ideology, such as National Socialism or radical Islam. Samenow has written much about the criminal attraction to ideology (1, 2).

Heroic personalities from an early age develop strong personal identities, committed to truth and doing what is right, which means a conviction that “I am worthy of happiness and competent to achieve my values.” This produces self-esteem, integrity, and courage, plus a certain amount of modesty.

Heroes do not brag about their talents or accomplishments, but modesty does not stop them from acting when their values are attacked.

Thus, a quiet, unassuming boy may in no uncertain terms tell a bully to back off when the bully is hitting on his girlfriend—much to the shock of the bully. Or an “unheroic-looking” young woman may run into a burning building to save her children.

Heroes have a subconscious mind that has been programmed from an early age to achieve and protect their values. Think Sully Sullenberger who worked forty-two years preparing himself for the day he had to land a commercial airliner on the Hudson River without a single loss of life.

Unfortunately, criminals also have a subconscious mind that has been programmed from an early age to cheat and harm others.

Appearances do not define criminality or heroism. Or who might be a terrorist.

The whole point of getting to know other people is to find out what is in their heads, to find out who they are and what makes them tick. We do “profile” people we do not know, all the time, which means we judge them based on our own values, hunches, and preferences.

What we cannot and should not do is talk about them based on those judgments and certainly not act until we have more knowledge of who they really are.

This means, news editors, please don’t run any more of those sappy stories about “nice, quiet boys next door who sang in the Church choir.” Try asking your reporters to do a little more homework to uncover and understand the psychology of the person.



* See my comment on Zimbardo’s book about the 1971 Stanford prison experiment that supposedly demonstrated the significance of situational causes of extraordinary behavior by ordinary people.

** Innocent mistakes in thinking, lack of knowledge, and unusually harsh environments can lead to psychological problems and inhibitions, such as repression and other defense mechanisms. The result is a less than heroic personality, at least in the areas of our lives in which the inhibitions operate.


Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Reductio of Bureaucracy: Totalitarian Dictatorship

The continued expansion of bureaucratic management leads ultimately to totalitarian dictatorship.

Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, describes this termination point:

The emaciated bodies of the sick were thrown on two-wheeled carts which were drawn by prisoners for many miles, often through snowstorms, to the next camp. If one of the sick men had died before the cart left, he was thrown on anyway—the list had to be correct! The list was the only thing that mattered. A man counted only because he had a prison number. One literally became a number: dead or alive—that was unimportant; the life of a “number” was completely irrelevant.*
In several previous posts I have used the following words to represent the generally acknowledged mindset of a bureaucrat (1, 2): “Rules are rules, fella. I don’t make ‘em. I just enforce ‘em.”

Rules, lists, and paperwork. This is bureaucracy.

As Ludwig von Mises has taught us, bureaucracy is not a large, hierarchically structured organization, whether of big government or big business. It is the government’s method of managing its affairs, which means it is the “peaceful” method of managing coercion. Laws of the land, a budget for each bureau, and regulatory rules dictate to citizens what they can and cannot do. Disobedience brings punishment. The method is top-down; the higher authority must be obeyed.**

Business management is bottom-up, deriving its legitimacy from customer satisfaction, the only means in a free market of earning profits. Policies, not rules, are guidelines informing everyone in the company, from president to stock clerk, how to function in order to achieve optimal customer satisfaction and therefore optimal profits.

If a large, hierarchically structured business today seems bureaucratic, in the sense of being inefficient and insensitive to customers, look for the government’s demands for compliance to laws and rules. Compliance means obedience to a higher power, which consequently deflects attention from customer needs and wants. This is what makes businesses in a mixed economy take on the “rules are rules” mentality.

So why the bureaucratic indifference to people? Paperwork is the only yardstick bureaucracy has to measure its “success.” Laws and rules are commands that compel citizens to obey, and citizens usually do obey to avoid punishment. Paperwork records the compliance—but it must be correct.

The objective yardstick of a business is its bottom line, profits, which means it is successfully meeting its customer’s needs and wants.

A bureaucratic society is a rule-bound society. Freedom and creativity are not valued. (Creativity, after all, means breaking rules.) The more bureaucratic the society, the more rule-bound it will become. The socialist state, therefore, is a society dominated almost entirely by laws and rules. The more laws and rules, the more total the regulation of human affairs, the less value it places on its citizens’ lives.

Total bureaucracy—the totalitarian socialist state—is dictatorship by excessive law. This describes Nazi Germany during World War II, as well as the USSR and many similar regimes in the twentieth century.

The list has to be correct because all paperwork has to be correct. William Shirer made this clear in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, when he described gangs of German secretaries dutifully typing orders to send Jewish people to their deaths.

Even a few members of Kerensky’s provisional Russian government, who were discovered by illiterate Bolshevik revolutionaries during the 1917 October Revolution, were compelled to write their own arrest papers. The paperwork had to be correct!

In a bureaucratic society, thought is neither required nor appreciated, only compliance. Thus, paperwork has to be correct for the lower-ranked official to avoid punishment and for the higher to justify his or her actions, by reference to a law or rule.

Concern for the person behind a bureaucratic number is minimal or non-existent. Just ask students at state-run universities what it is like to be a number on a roster. (And the rosters do have to be correct!)

Message for advocates of a free society? The fewer laws and rules, the better. Indeed, a strong argument has been made that we could easily do without legislature-made, statutory law by replacing it with common law.

Central planning requires centralized law-making, that is, deliberative assemblies (legislatures) and regulatory agencies to write and pass thousands of pages of laws and rules, all of which are subject to ossification, officious manipulation, and arbitrary application. This gives us the nefarious rule by men under a pretext of rule by law.***

Common law is decentralized and requires conceptual thinking by each citizen and judge to resolve specific disputes with reference to principles. Justice evolves and improves on a case by case basis, as wealth and well-being do in the decentralized free market.

Conceptual thinking requires the discovery and understanding of universal principles that can be applied to many concrete instances. Common law, therefore, is general and guided by rights, such as the requirement to prove intent in criminal cases, but it is constrained by precedent and usually confined to specific parties. Change in common law occurs slowly and deliberately.

Legislature-made laws and rules, in contrast, aside from their flagrant violations of individual rights, are at the same time concrete and sweeping, such as a ban on smoking in all public places and within twenty feet of a building. And because legislature-made law is made, not discovered, change occurs quickly and frequently, thus leading to a continual increase of laws and rules—and paperwork.

Thinking in principles and independent judgment are prerequisites for building and sustaining a free society. When our minds are driven to focus on lists and paperwork that must be accurate, conceptual thinking becomes difficult, though not impossible. For many, however, in bureaucratic situations, morality—honesty, integrity, courage, dignity . . . and human decency—go out the window.

The list has to be correct.

For more on the relationship between bureaucracy, socialism, and dictatorship, see Mises’ 1944 book Bureaucracy. Here is his one-paragraph summary and conclusion (p. 125):

The champions of socialism call themselves progressives, but they recommend a system which is characterized by rigid observance of routine and by a resistance to every kind of improvement. They call themselves liberals, but they are intent upon abolishing liberty. They call themselves democrats, but they yearn for dictatorship. They call themselves revolutionaries, but they want to make the government omnipotent. They promise the blessings of the Garden of Eden, but they plan to transform the world into a gigantic post office. Every man but one a subordinate clerk in a bureau, what an alluring utopia! What a noble cause to fight for!
Bureaucracy is not a benign institution.


* Man’s Search for Meaning (pp. 52-53). In this work, Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, describes his experiences in the concentration camps and his struggles to survive.

** “Peaceful” is in scare quotes because any expansion of laws and rules beyond retaliatory force to protect individual rights, through administration of the police, military, and legal system, is a violation of rights and therefore becomes a declaration of war on citizens. The overt use of guns is not usually required in many bureaucratic systems, because of citizen compliance, but the guns nonetheless are there in the background.

*** “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime,” said Stalin’s chief of secret police. See this post where I discuss similarities between criminal and bureaucratic personalities.


Cross posted at the Foundation for Economic Education

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Who Are We Going to Coerce Today?—Also Known As: Politics Is a Bore
2016 Version

In November 2012, I published a paean to our national elections titled “Politics Is a Bore.” Some months afterwards I changed the title to the more apt “Who Are We Going To Coerce Today?,” because coercing innocent people is what contemporary politics is all about.

Below is a lightly edited and updated version of the 2012 tribute.


The term “political junkie” is familiar to all of us today, but when I first heard it years ago, used by a news reporter to describe herself, I was puzzled. Why, I thought, would anyone be so obsessed with politics to spend every waking minute following every conceivable tidbit of information coming out of the political arena?

Perhaps the reporter’s interest in politics was strictly professional, to cover what was going on, but I suspect that many in her position, as well others who follow political news closely, admire the entire system and consider it important to support. Many political junkies, I fear, are those who admire the coercive apparatus of the state and relish the thought of being in a position of political power to make political decisions.
   
To me, politics is a bore—precisely because it is all about coercion, the government-initiated type; it’s seldom about reducing government involvement in our lives. And following politics closely, as many do, means their interest really comes down to: who is going to be coerced today? Let’s see who’s going to be told by the anointed authorities what they can and cannot do. Protecting individual rights has long since disappeared from our political landscape such that decisions in today’s government-by-lobby mixed economy invariably constitute violations of innocent victims’ rights for the sake of someone else’s rent-seeking benefit.

Just look at the disgraceful shakedown of Gibson Guitar [in 2011], carried out in the name of the environmental lobby. Flimsily suspected, but never charged, of illegally importing wood from Madagascar and India, the company was twice raided with Gestapo-like tactics by armed, bullet-proof clad SWAT teams. At a 2011 press conference, Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz courageously called the Justice Department on its flagrantly unjust laws and tyrannical procedures. Because of the outcry that followed, the Department compromised by allowing Gibson off the hook with a settlement: $350 thousand in fines and censorship (a gag order) not ever to do again what Juszkiewicz did at his press conference, namely to contradict the alleged facts claimed by the government (1, 2, 3). If this is not coercion in politics—the initiation of the use of physical force against innocent victims—what is?

Now I suppose one could say that some politicians are trying to do good things in Washington and the state capital. And I will grant that maybe one or two may be trying to roll back government intrusions into our bedrooms and board rooms. Ron Paul’s two presidential runs have certainly given a hearing to new ideas and Paul Ryan has put Ayn Rand’s name in the news [in 2012, not 2016!].*

But, seriously, what have Democrats and Republicans done in the last hundred years to increase the protections of individual rights? Democrats make no pretense at rolling back government interventions; they are only too eager to pass more laws increasing the state’s size and power. Republicans, on the other hand, are notorious for paying lip service to the free market and capitalism, but when in office they end up increasing the government’s coercive powers more than the Democrats would have done. Look at the two previous Bush administrations.

“Passing a law” for over a century has almost always meant increasing coercion against an innocent party for the gain of a pressure group. The “squeakiest wheel,” of course, gets the grease in a mixed economy; that’s the fundamental theory of the system because there is no just way to determine who gets the favors, or should I say, rents. But the laws are democratically passed by vote, one might object? Democracy, as the Greeks taught, can be a form of dictatorship and Hong Kong survived quite well for decades under the British common law without general elections.**

That’s not to say that I don’t believe in voting, though not voting is just as valid a participation in the system as pulling a lever. In the current political season, I will vote against the many California tax propositions and probably vote for the lesser of two evils for president. [Not in 2016. I’m voting for Gary Johnson.] I was going to write in Ron Paul’s name, as I did four years ago, but I think a statement does need to be made in this election. I realize that my vote in this very blue state is virtually worthless and, after the election, politics will resume its usual games of playing “who are we going to coerce today”?

Yawn! Wake me up when something really good and important happens.

Altering a bit what I have said before, “I do not expect life to improve much, if at all, in the next four years of the [next] presidential administration. I do not expect the [next] (or [current]) administration to be the indicator of the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.” Life goes on. Cultural and political systems change slowly. Political junkies can continue to obsess over every coercive decision that is made in positions of power. I will read and write about other topics.


*A recent informal search of The NY Times produced these mentions of Ayn Rand’s name: 97 for all of 2011, 10 for the first quarter of 2012, 68 for the second quarter, and 147 for the third. Paul Ryan seems to be doing some good, though most comments about Ayn Rand in the Old Gray Lady remain smarmy, snarky, ignorant, and hostile. Perhaps after I am dead, these Times writers will also be dead and younger ones will take their place, ones who have actually read Rand’s works and are capable of separating her personality and followers from her ideas.

[Update: 38 mentions for all of 2015, 6 for the first quarter of 2016, 8 for the second quarter, and 6 for the third. A few mentions in the past five years have seemed a little more neutral. Most recently, in a book-review-page author interview, mystery writer Otto Penzler said he has “virtually all the books written by Ayn Rand, several read more than once” and his favorite fictional hero is Howard Roark. Are times (or The Times) changing?]

**I’m not convinced that the vote is fundamental to a genuine liberalism. The classical liberals saw it that way, but Hong Kong has shown us that a constitution and legal system that are adhered to do not require voting to keep the system going. When African Americans and women attained the right to vote, that did not guarantee them the protection of other, more important rights to liberty and property. [See section 8, chapter 1, of Ludwig von Mises’ Liberalism. The primary purpose of democracy, he says, is to avoid civil war by ensuring a peaceful transition of leadership.]


Postscript, 2016. It seems I used the phrase “politics bores me” in my September 2008 hymn to our political system. I was talking about the two liberalisms, the left’s version and the Misesian one. In September of this year, Jeffrey Tucker wrote at fee.org urging us all to take back the Misesian word. Why? Because the left is tending not to use liberalism to describe their brand of politics, preferring to call themselves progressives. To those who know what is happening on college campuses, it is obvious why the left is abandoning the word: they no longer pretend to be advocates of freedom. In July I used the f-word (fascist) to describe the early progressives; the shoe seems to fit. And Tucker, in this recent piece, implies that the premise of a total state began with the early progressives.


Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Statistical Projection vs. Scientific Generalization

When my daughter was quite young, before she was able to walk, she saw a ball bounce and  roll. She laughed heartily. I don’t think she needed to observe a sample of five hundred round, spongy things bounce and roll in order to conclude that round, spongy things bounce and roll.

Similarly, neurologist V. S. Ramachandran, proponent of the value of individual cases to science, has remarked (quoted in Doidge, p. 178):

Imagine I were to present a pig to a skeptical scientist, insisting it could speak English, then waved my hand, and the pig spoke English. Would it really make sense for the skeptic to argue, “But that is just one pig, Ramachandran. Show me another, and I might believe you!”
The skeptical scientist, typical of nearly all scientists today, insists that the only way to establish knowledge is to observe five hundred cases, or a thousand, or two thousand. Anything less is an isolated instance, often denigrated as anecdotal evidence. In the absence of a sound theory of universals—because David Hume failed to find a necessary connection between cause and effect, and logical positivism picked up the banner of science, followed by Karl Popper’s notion of falsificationism—statistical “generalization” is said to be the only valid method of science.

It is this premise that allows modern psychologists to dismiss the entire Freudian psychoanalytic corpus, including the concept of repression, as unscientific, or worse, as pseudoscientific. Why? Because Freud’s evidence is “anecdotal” and the experimental methods of the physical sciences cannot validate his ideas. It is this premise that allows nearly all scientists to dismiss the notions of consciousness, free will, and introspection.

There is, however, a sound theory of universals: Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts, which I have summarized in my two books (In Defense of Advertising, pp. 147-52, and Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, pp. 82-86). Conceptualization is a process of universalization. It is based on Aristotle’s formal cause, which says that an entity’s actions are determined by its identity. Identifying universal relationships between entities and their actions give us principles and laws.
Concepts identify the nature of entities. Their essential distinguishing characteristics are universal. It is not that hard.

Thus, my daughter’s laughter at witnessing the round spongy thing bounce and roll was her conceptualization of that entity, by observing its essential distinguishing characteristic. Of course, she did not have words to describe the process at the time, but her mind, nonetheless, was processing her perception. The same can be said about Ramachandran’s English-speaking pig (assuming no tricks of ventriloquism). One does not need a sample of five hundred English-speaking pigs to conclude that something quite unusual has just happened.

Statistical projection—and the correct word is “projection,” not generalization—has its place in our search for knowledge, but it does not replace scientific (inductive) generalization.

Statistical inference, as it is also correctly called, projects a finding from a sample to a population. Thus, if data in a sample of 500 American men show that two percent have red hair, and the research did not commit any flagrant methodological errors, then a projection (or inference) can be made, within a margin of error, that two percent of men in the entire country have red hair.

A projection moves from some to some—from two  percent of the sample to the same two percent in the population.

A scientific generalization, on the other hand, when, for example, forming a concept of round, spongy things as something that bounces and rolls, or of human beings who possess the capacity to reason, moves from all to all.

All of the balls I have observed bounce and roll; all humans that I have observed possess the capacity to reason. Therefore, all balls, past, present, and future, by their very nature,  bounce and roll. The same conclusion is drawn for all humans.

The place of statistical projection? As I wrote in In Defense of Advertising (p. 157), “Statistics is a branch of mathematics and, as such, is a method of measurement. Statistical inference . . . is used only in contexts in which we do not know—or there do not exist—universal laws that could explain the causal relations of the variables.”

Meteorology represents the former, because of the large number of unknowns and difficult-to- measure variables in constructing weather forecasts (all of which, though given many different names, are forms of statistical projection).

Predictions of people’s behavior, because free will precludes the existence of universal laws governing all of our behavior, represents the latter; we make statistical projections, albeit not based on randomized samples, unless we are professional researchers, of what others will do in the future based on our current and past knowledge of them.

Statistical projection assists scientific research. It is not a substitute for it.

And one does not have to accept everything Freud said to acknowledge his accomplishments, not least of which is his presentation of the first comprehensive theory of psychology.

Freud was looking for universals, and he found a few: repression, defense mechanisms, and the significance of the subconscious to influence our present behavior.

They may not be round, spongy things, but I am laughing heartily—at my discovery of these Freudian universals!


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Is Intelligence Inborn?

My IQ—the so-called intelligence quotient—is probably twelve.

(Psst! And I’m proud of it!)

I say “probably” because I have never known my score. One day in junior high school we were all herded into the auditorium to take a standardized test. After about the first page of questions, I decided, “This is stupid,” and stopped answering. Hence, my presumed score. Teachers never told us what the purpose of the test was.

Intelligence, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is “understanding as a quality admitting of degree; spec. quickness or superiority of understanding, sagacity.”

There are two usages here. One, “the intelligence” or “understanding” is synonym for rational faculty, which is our capacity to reason and think conceptually that distinguishes us from the lower animals. The other usage, as the OED says, “admits of degree.” Thus, there are supposedly brighter, smarter, more intelligent people and there also are the dull and dumb.

Degree of intelligence is not the same as quantity of knowledge or retained subject matter. I have met many uneducated blue collar workers and unskilled laborers who are more intelligent than college professors!

Intelligence is supposed to be an inborn ability, not an issue of how much knowledge one has accumulated and can spew out to impress those supposedly less endowed.

Ayn Rand has variously defined intelligence as “the ability to deal with a broad range of abstractions” and “the ability to grasp the facts of reality and to deal with them long-range (i.e., conceptually).”

I don’t doubt that this is a component of what we think of as smart, but a genius who has a greater degree of intelligence than the rest of us, to put it in the vernacular and to relate it to the OED’s definition, is a “quick wit,” a person who grasps an insight or makes a connection ahead of everyone else.

By analogy, an entrepreneur is someone who sees and seizes profit-making opportunities ahead of others. Some of us may also see the opportunity but we often do not act on it. The entrepreneur does.

Similarly, the highly intelligent person does not just make an unseen-before connection, but acts on it by conducting an experiment and writing a book. Some of us may have daydreamed about a “what-if” fuzzy linking but never get beyond the fuzziness.

The genius and entrepreneur both must hold in mind a great deal of knowledge related to their field, possess the ability to work with a broad range of abstractions, and think long-range (i.e., conceptually), but it is their “quick wit” that puts them out in front of others. (And contrary to what our Marxist-laden intelligentsia may think, entrepreneurs can be highly intelligent and even geniuses.)

The problem I have with the concept of intelligence, like all the other traits I discussed in last month’s post on the genes/environment debate, is that other variables, such as that unmentionable one, free will, but especially interest, can explain what is supposedly inborn.

Interest is a desire that directs intensive and sustained attention to a particular goal or object. It is interest, when put into action as effort, that drives a five-year-old to become a concert pianist as an adult. It is interest that drives entrepreneurs to think day and night about the next profit-making opportunity. And it is interest that drives geniuses to uncover every stone until they have found that next important discovery.

Interest is a potent motivator that can separate the highly accomplished, whom we would also likely call highly intelligent, from the rest of us. Strong interest—which also has to mean here the absence of psychological inhibitions and presence of choice or free will—could well be the key variable to explain the “degree of understanding” that the highly intelligent possess.

Yes, knowledge, or a context of subject matter, is required to make great accomplishments and to make great discoveries possible, but I am convinced that anyone with a normal brain, a good teacher, and patience can learn that context of knowledge, however abstract it may be. Interest and will power, if present, can take such a student to the next level.

So is “quick wit” inborn?

Those twin studies don’t prove anything. For nearly a hundred years they have attempted to prove that many traits, including intelligence, are inherited. Clinical psychologist Jay Joseph has thoroughly examined the studies of identical and fraternal twins, both reared together and reared apart (1, 2, 3, plus three books, the latest here), and has declared them “one of the great pseudoscientific methods of our time . . . [that] will eventually be added to the list of discarded pseudosciences where we now find alchemy, craniometry, and mesmerism.”

What about IQ tests? Please! Aside from the fact that these tests, along with college entrance examinations, correlate with socioeconomic status and the latter do not predict college success (high school grades are the better predictors), IQ testing is a contrived situation, as is paper and pencil testing of all kinds. Testing seldom corresponds to the reality it is supposed to represent.*

As I wrote in Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism (note 19, p. 158), “Supermarket shoppers in one study performed arithmetic calculations far more accurately in the store than on a formal test. And one boy, considered the dumbest in his class, was discovered by his teacher to be a paid scorekeeper in a bowling alley, simultaneously tracking the progress of two teams of four players each. The teacher promptly created word problems, requiring students to calculate scores for games of bowling. The boy could not do the problems.”

I think I’ll go find that dumb kid and have him teach me how to score games of bowling. I never could figure that out.

No wonder my IQ is only twelve!


*And let us not forget that IQ testing originated in the eugenics era, designed to sort out the “dumb” and “feeble-minded” for isolation and perhaps sterilization. Today, IQ testing and college entrance examinations perform a similar function (sterilization excepted), shunting the “dumb” off to the less prestigious colleges and trade schools (and in many countries to a blue collar life that they cannot overcome). The ones who score a little better than the “really dumb” ones and live in government-created slum areas are given special favors and money to attend the prestigious universities. There, many suffer a mismatch with their classmates—and flunk out. The sorting continues. (See 1, 2, 3.)


Monday, August 15, 2016

Genes vs. Environment: Anyone for Free Will?

Do genes cause behavior? If they do, one would expect to see evidence of criminality, genius, schizophrenia, homosexuality, and evangelical Christianity in infants. All of these behaviors, plus many others, have been said to be inborn.

To expect an infant to exhibit these traits is absurd. To say that an infant has inherited the potential to become a criminal, or evangelical Christian, says nothing. We are all born with that potential, plus countless other potentialities.

Does environment cause behavior? The trouble with this assertion is that there are always exceptions to the good and bad things environment does to children when they are growing up.

Some children reared in crime-ridden, slum neighborhoods become criminals while others do not, even if they are siblings in the same family. The same can be said for children reared in safe, wealthy suburbs. Others raised in religious families follow their parents and become evangelical Christians, while some rebel and become atheists.

The determinism of the genes/environment axis is a self-contradiction—determinists have to acknowledge that they are determined to believe in determinism. Yet they pretend to be making a logical choice to believe in determinism.

Something other than genes or environment must be operating to cause our behavior.

Here’s a novel idea. How about thought, that processor of genetic inheritance and environment that generates our motivation and directs behavior?

Thought, or more broadly, consciousness, makes errors and has to control itself in order not to make mistakes. Free will is cognitive self-regulation, which means we may choose to focus on the facts or evade them, allowing other factors, such as emotions, presuppositions, or political doctrine, to interfere with correct perception.*

Our guide to the correct perception of reality is the 2500-year-old science of thinking called logic. As the discipline and art that regulates internal thought processes, logic is the quintessential introspective science. The genes/environment axis, however, does not want to admit that logic is introspective, because then they would have to admit that consciousness controls behavior and that introspection is a valid method of science.

Psychologically, this means our personalities are self-created. The cause of behavior is the innumerable conclusions we have drawn—the myriad thoughts, logical or not, we have had—about our genetic inheritance and the environment in which we live, from the time we were able to process words right up to the present.

These innumerable conclusions and myriad thoughts accumulate and become the mental habits by which we live. As habits (or psycho-epistemologies), many have become so automated, buried in our subconscious with their origins largely forgotten, that they feel to us as if we were born that way, or that something external is making us act the way we do.

Lack of introspection, or more specifically, introspective skill, to examine our motivating premises—thoughts, evaluations, emotions—makes it hard to appreciate how much control we in fact have over our lives.

Habits can be good or bad, the good ones leading us to live a happy life, the bad ones not so happy. The examined life, to paraphrase Socrates, is worth living; the unexamined one leads to problems in living.

Mental habits are all learned.** We were not born knowing how to drive a car, for example, but in adulthood, adults can safely drive while carrying on a conversation and listening to music on the radio. All of our actions follow this pattern.

Certain habits, generated from core evaluations and other less fundamental but nevertheless significant evaluations, are usually acquired when very young, from toddlerhood on. We retain these early conclusions about ourselves (our sense of personal identity), the world, and other people and hold them as unquestioned absolutes.***

It is in toddlerhood that we begin to speak, which means we are beginning to think in concepts and words.

Young children do not usually form these important conclusions through explicit reasoning, but through a process of emotional generalization. At the risk of oversimplification, an emotion at this stage in life, if it could be put into words, might say something like, “That made me feel good about myself. I’ll do it again.” Or, “I didn’t like that and I’m not going to feel it again.”

Repeated many times over, the former, if based on a correct perception of reality, can lead to the development of self-esteem, the latter, which most likely includes errors, to repression and subsequent psychological problems.

If taught from an early age to look inward to identify our thoughts, evaluations, and emotions, and to correct errors we have made, we would grow up with healthy psychologies. Most of us, however, have not been taught much of anything about psychology, in childhood or adulthood.

Thus, when the genes/environment axis comes along, it makes perfect sense that our behavior is caused by something we have no control over.

The irony is that genes and environment do have an influence on us, in the sense that genes give us gender and skin color and environment can make life easy or difficult, but we are the ones who develop attitudes—conclusions, evaluations—about gender, skin color, and environment.

To help us correctly perceive and evaluate what genetics has given us and what goes on in our environment, teaching is crucial. Parents and the schools need to instruct children in the skill of applying logic to their own psychologies.

The unfortunate consequence of the genes/environment debate is that the axis devalues the environmental influence of an education in sound psychology. For that is what is required to help us use our free will to assess genetic inheritance and environment and thereby make better choices to live a happier life.


* This is Ayn Rand’s theory of free will as volitional consciousness.
** All habits, at root, are mental. I use “mental” here to emphasize their psychological origin.
*** The concept of core evaluations was identified by psychologist Edith Packer and presented in her lecture “Understanding the Subconscious” in 1984. Lectures on Psychology, chapter 2.


Thursday, July 07, 2016

The Fascist Early Progressives

This post title may be a bit extreme, to call progressivism “fascist,” but not by much.

After all, Ludwig von Mises referred to fascism as “socialism of the German pattern” to distinguish it from the Russian version. Instead of expropriation of private property to achieve socialist states, Nazi Germany and Fascist Spain and Italy imposed extensive government regulations to control private life, both business and personal.

The Progressive Era in the United States, from about 1890 to 1930, established the same pattern, but it was based on the leaders’ learning of democratic socialism in Prussian universities.

The early progressives’ specific policies, as comprehensively documented in Thomas C. Leonard’s book Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era, would not be considered politically correct today, but their fundamental principles of using think-tank-guided “experts” and government guns to achieve socialist goals have been internalized by modern liberals and conservatives alike, and vastly extended to control nearly all aspects of private life.

Most of the early progressives were reared in old New England families, which made them evangelical white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, and their program was largely independent of political affiliation: it was strongly supported, for example, by both the Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Here’s a first taste of the progressives’ thinking, as stated in a review of Leonard’s book: “In the early twentieth century, progressives displayed an open contempt for individual rights. In a 1915 unsigned editorial at this magazine [The New Republic], the editors ridiculed the Bill of Rights as a joke.”

The reviewer continues, “If Leonard didn’t have the quotes from prominent progressives to back up his claims, this would read like right-wing paranoia . . . .” And the quotes are numerous.

This book is an important corrective to the history profession’s biased glamorizing of early progressivism.

The liberal individualism of the Scottish Enlightenment was viewed by these early progressives as selfish and therefore un-Christian and immoral. Their evangelical focus shifted from saving souls to saving society, from the individual to the collective. The “public” or “common good” became the standard for policy.

Indeed, one of the motivations for founding the American Economic Association in 1885 was to counter and exclude the ideas of classical liberals Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner.* The promoters of progressivism were mostly economists and sociologists: Richard T. Ely, John R. Commons, Edward A. Ross, and Irving Fisher, plus many more.

Elitism and social engineering, not democracy, were their motivating aspirations.

Their form of elitism sought to exclude certain groups, believed to be inferior, from participating in much of society. For example, they eagerly sought to preserve race purity and maintain a living wage for workers of northern European extraction.

Among the groups targeted for exclusion were African Americans, women, and immigrants—especially the Chinese and those from southern and eastern Europe, which especially meant Jews. The disabled, feeble minded, and insane were also inferiors who were excluded to asylums and special farms away from the cities; in some cases they were sterilized.

The former three groups (the early progressives were not Marxists and did not use the term “classes”) were less skilled than their white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male counterparts, so by their willingness to accept a lower wage, they threatened to reduce earnings of the “more deserving” male workers.

Minimum wage and immigration laws were the progressives’ solution.

Maintaining racial purity was more of a challenge, but the “state-of-the-art science” of eugenics came to the rescue. “Well-born” is the meaning of the term, coined by Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton. The aim of eugenics was hereditary control of the race through compulsory sterilization and euthanasia.

Up to 60,000 sterilizations were performed in the United States, as late as 1972. Justification for the practice was given in a Supreme Court decision in 1927, authored by the progressive justices William Howard Taft, Louis Brandeis, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The legal argument said compulsory sterilization was no different from compulsory vaccination.

Cancelling compulsion in either case was not an option—to those who knew best.

American psychiatrists promoted and supported the Nazi sterilization program that ran from 1934-39. A few supported compulsory euthanasia. The euphemistically labeled “mercy killings” began in Nazi Germany in 1938—in gas chambers disguised as showers.

Eugenics is not much talked about today, or taught in the schools—for the obvious reason that modern progressives do not want to be associated with Nazi Germany. The eugenic connection to progressivism is also seldom mentioned or taught, but it fit the progressives’ program like a glove.

Fascist progressivism? Theodore Roosevelt saw race suicide as the greatest problem of civilization and, according to H. L. Mencken, whom Leonard quotes, “believed simply in government,” not democracy.

The “quality” of the vote, not quantity, was what counted for progressives. Wealth and literacy tests were recommended to determine who should be allowed. Voter turnout in national elections fell thirty percent between 1896 and 1924, even more in the Jim Crow South.

Woodrow Wilson praised those “sturdy stocks . . . [from] the North of Europe” and denigrated immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. He also derided inalienable rights as “nonsense.” The Wilson administration re-segregated the federal government.

Fascist progressivism? Much, much more can be found in Leonard’s book.


* “Social Darwinism,” Leonard points out in a journal article, was a less-than-accurate construct of Richard Hoftstadter in 1944. It then became a favorite pejorative of modern historians, used to disparage the Progressive Era’s capitalism and capitalism’s advocates. The phrase was hardly used during the period, least of all by Spencer or Sumner.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

From the Stick Motivation Department, Part Two: Class Participation

In last month’s post I discussed the coercive parenting technique of assigning chores to children. The alleged lesson of such coercion is to teach children the value of work, though it likely teaches them to hate it.

Coercive teaching contributes a number of techniques to the stick motivation department. Let’s take a look at class participation.

For middle and high schoolers, and even college students, teachers feel obliged—and claim the unquestioned right—to coerce quiet members of the classroom to “come out of their shells” lest they fail to succeed in life or live up to their potential; grades based on class participation, by as much as fifty percent, I have heard, is the brass knuckle approach to teaching this lesson.

Five to ten percent, perhaps as extra credit, may have some instructional value. But fifty percent? These classes of twenty to forty students are not courses in public speaking.

And grades, after all, are the carrots and sticks by which teachers maintain control of their charges. I’m not the first to suggest that grades be dumped from the classroom entirely.

In the old days, the traditional (and coercive) recitation technique of class participation required students to summarize the content of their reading assignment, or, frequently, to recite something from memory. If not accomplished to the liking of the teacher, the kids would have their knuckles rapped with a ruler, or worse. In ancient Rome, they were beaten with a stick.

The modern version is a mixture of old-style recitation and analysis. The former, as the new schoolmarms are wont to say, should be kept to a minimum, because “we have all read the assignment.” Memorization, of course, is scorned as authoritarian and having no place in school. The latter, analysis, can include putting the reading material into different words, evaluation, and, too often, the spewing of undefended opinion.

According to ed school edubabble, such discussions will help teach students how to think. It usually degenerates quickly into BS sessions. And some of the more talkative students have mastered the technique of impressing teachers by their glibness; the quiet ones are then marked down.*

In recent years, some class participation teachers have discovered—and have experienced revelations when discovering—that their heavy-handed approach to getting those pesky and resistant-to-talking quiet kids to speak up in class may not be the best thing for them.

This has come about largely due to Susan Cain’s 2013 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and her subsequently established website Quiet Revolution.  (See my related posts here and here.)

Jessica Lahey is one such reformed class-participation tyrant. Writing in The Atlantic, she firmly defended her conviction that quiet kids must be forced to speak up. When she received an “avalanche of angry comments,” many of which, to put it mildly, declared her “uninformed,” she wrote a softened article on Cain’s website. Lahey acknowledges that she was influenced to alter her teaching by Cain’s book and other articles on the topic (See especially Schultz and Cain for examples of teaching quiet kids without putting them on the spot.)

The upshot of “class participation reform” is that introversion and shyness are not the same and that any behavior can be motivated by multiple causes, not just what the extroverted teacher assumes is operating in the quiet kid.

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating” (Cain, p. 12). A room filled with twenty to forty classmates can produce considerable overstimulation for an introvert. Extroverts prefer the stimulation.

And most extroverted teachers assume shyness and introversion are identical. They also do not recognize that quiet kids may be actively listening to the other talkers, waiting for the moment to speak up when they have formulated what they would like to say. They also might be taking notes, say, for a subsequently required paper. Or, something extroverted teachers usually do not want to hear or acknowledge, the student may not like the teacher or the class, or both.** Certainly, there are other motivations.

But just as not voting in an election is participation in the political process, so also is not speaking up in class a form of participation. Teachers need to respond to, and find techniques of, reaching all personality types sitting in their desks.

A “one size fits all” approach to teaching, such as the assumption that speaking up in class is good for everyone, invariably brings out the specter of stick motivation.



* I must point out one more time that John Dewey, the alleged father of progressive education—“alleged” because he gave the epithet to Francis W. Parker—lectured when he taught, expected excellent memorization from his students, and wrote a book in 1938 to repudiate many progressive techniques used in his name, such as the necessity of class discussion to teach students how to think. For Dewey, subject matter was fundamental, because it is the “working capital” of thought.

The premise of many teachers today, as one colleague said to me years ago, is that “we teachers talk too much as it is. We have to get the kids talking.” I took that to mean less work for the teacher, something that was explicitly stated by my grad school classmates as justification for group projects: one paper to grade instead of four or five.

** Yes, I know there are teachers who brag about how they don’t care whether or not students like them or their courses. But they should.


Wednesday, May 04, 2016

From the Stick Motivation Department: Chores

There are many ways in which adults lord their size and power over children.

It usually begins with spankings of a disobedient toddler by, say, a towering six-foot-plus dad who leers, yells, then hits the helpless tot. (See related posts 1, 2, 3.)

Why? Aside from the excuse that “that’s the way my parents treated me and their parents treated them,” etc., ad infinitum, the most common rationalization is that children have to learn to mind, lest they run out into the street and get killed, or turn into juvenile delinquents, or become criminals.

“Didn’t hurt me none” is the less than introspective response of some adults when asked why they did not question their parents’ stick-motivation techniques.*
 

The assignment of chores to kids so they allegedly will learn how to work hard and become responsible citizens of society is another form of stick motivation.

Webster’s Unabridged and the Oxford English Dictionary both define “chore” as a tedious task that must be performed regularly, such as washing the dishes or hoeing long rows. The OED also says the word is a colloquial Americanism.

What astounded me when examining these two reference works was the absence of any mention that chores are not optional. Yes, adults sometimes do refer to their own monotonous tasks, such as brushing their teeth twice a day, as chores, but the origin of the term in American culture surely is coercion of the young.

Chores for children are almost never voluntary. Just ask a child what happened the last time he or she refused to do one!

Fortunately, novelist Jane Smiley, writing in Harper’s Magazine (paywalled here, available here), has put the kibosh on the supposed benefits of this favorite of coercive parenting.

Smiley was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, so she never had to clean her room or wash the dishes. She did have a horse and, as she puts it, through her love of and interest in the animal learned to work hard to groom and feed it and clean its stall, which meant removing the poop.

Smiley’s husband, on the other hand, grew up in Iowa, less than wealthy, and was forced to do chores—mixing concrete with a stick at age five and, later, pushing wet, heavy wheelbarrow loads of it across the yard.

Guess which one, Smiley or her husband, enjoys life more today?

Smiley’s husband feels guilty playing golf when there is always more work—chores—to be done at home; when doing the chores, his motivation is to get them over with as quickly as possible.** He was taught well. Chores are tedious drudgery, which means work is drudgery.

And that’s because parents give kids the dirty work as chores. Says Smiley, “Mom cooks and Sis does the dishes; the parents plan and plant the garden, the kids weed it.”

In addition to teaching the “value” of work, Smiley points out that another apparent purpose of chores is to make sure the children contribute to maintaining the family, by sharing the work that needs to be done. Smiley comments:

According to this rationale, the child comes to understand what it takes to have a family, and to feel that he or she is an important, even indispensable member of it. But come on. Would you really want to feel loved primarily because you’re the one who gets the floors mopped? Wouldn't you rather feel that your family's love simply exists all around you, no matter what your contribution? And don't the parents love their children anyway, whether the children vacuum or not? Why lie about it just to get the housework done?
Why lie indeed? It is really a threat to withdraw love if the child is not obedient, similar to the withdrawals of love for disobedience that result in time outs and being sent to one’s room.

Smiley concludes: “It's good for a teenager to suddenly decide that the bathtub is so disgusting she'd better clean it herself. I admit that for the parent, this can involve years of waiting. But if she [mom] doesn't want to wait, she can always spend her time dusting.”

Parenting, after all, is a twenty-plus year contract chosen and signed by the parents. Children are not their slaves.

Presumably, the American concept of chores originated on self-subsistent farms, where there certainly was a lot of heavy, tedious work to be done to maintain the homestead.

The “justification” of requiring pre-school children to lug heavy pales of milk and to pluck chickens, however,  is not the assumed necessity of a division of labor in the family. It is the value system of nearly all American farmers, absorbed by their citified descendants, of Puritanism. American culture still today is highly Puritanical.

And what might that value system be? The duty ethics of Christianity reinforced by philosopher Immanuel Kant. As one middle American farm-raised father said not too long ago: “You do your job because it is your duty, not because you enjoy it.”

As Kant said, never act from inclination, but always in accordance with duty. Fun and pleasure are out. Chores are in.

In contrast, visit a Montessori school to see how children are taught without coercion to love work, to associate pleasure with it, and to learn the skill of intense concentration.


*Corporal punishment in all settings, which includes spanking by hand in the home, is now banned in forty-nine countries of the world. The United States is not one of them. Sweden was the first, in 1979, and surprise, surprise, those children who were not smacked or beaten did not turn into juvenile delinquents or criminals!

The website corpun.com archives a large number of video clips from around the world of both adult and child corporal punishment. I could only stomach watching one: a Sri Lankan military trainer hitting female recruits with a long stick.

**Stemming from the same value system, this is the motivation for children who eat their peas first to get the disgusting stuff out of the way so they can enjoy the good-tasting meat and gravy last!