Eagerly Awaiting Creative Destruction

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November 3, 2008

One of the strange things about our world is that people who take positions that are inconsistent and arbitrary are considered normal while people who act according to logical principles are considered extremists. Were it the other way around, there'd be no reason for surprise, no tension. Some people always do and believe weird things. Strangeness in individuals is easily ignored and doesn't cause much trouble. When these odd ticks and delusions are institutionalized in the state, it's a different story.

For those predisposed to thinking carefully, the logic of liberty is inescapable. From the principle of self-ownership springs forth a self-consistent system of ethics, one that most people intuitively understand. In practice, liberty seems to have a short life. Wherever liberty has once flourished, it has evolved into soft totalitarianism. Iceland, England, and America quickly come to mind.

Many libertarians believe the problem is with education. They suppose that if more people learned the logic, a libertarian society would inevitably emerge. I disagree. The conditions that give rise to liberty are simple: begin with a low population density of people who demand to be left alone. No theory required.

America was a one-chance-only experiment in that light. Here, you had self-selected misfits from Europe who didn't trust authority and didn't accept anyone's fooling around in their business. Incidentally, they were mostly dirt farmers who didn't produce enough to support a big government, so they had a small one instead.

It worked for a while, but sure enough, the people had big families, so did their kids, and in a few generations the conditions for liberty were lost. The country didn't have a low population density anymore, nor did it have the same independent go-it-alone streak.

It was bound to happen just as a reversion to the mean. Being a libertarian isn't so much a choice as it is a low-rate inborn personality type. The things that drive independent people'logic, consistency, rationality, and so on'aren't the building blocks to casual friendships. Practically, they are the munitions for carrying out intellectual violence.

When I talk with new acquaintances about liberty, maybe one in 20 sees the light. Unsurprisingly, they tend to be way brighter than average, oftentimes engineers, but they show up in other lines of work, too. They draw their own conclusions. They say what they think, and they don't obsess over other people's feelings. They're exposed to the same mainstream as everyone else, but the ideas don't root.

I've asked like-minded people about this and we see similar things. Maybe one in ten, maybe one in 50, but probably one in 20 gets why liberty works. Whatever the number, it's obvious that we are statistically in the noise.

I muse over this because this government is beyond useless, and with regard to supporting liberty, the supermajority of people living here are too. There's no sign that's going to change. Given the choice of freedom or social safety nets, it's clear what most people want. The people want to feel charitable, so they expect the state to be charitable for them. Of course, a lot of people want to feel like winners without putting forth any effort, so they closely follow 'their' team on Sunday afternoons. There's not much difference between the two, but there are occasionally differences between perception and reality.

Liberty requires mutual respect of a few ideas. It's unusual to hear people support violation of property rights directly, but emotion, feelings, intuition, and often religion create linguistic loopholes that circumvent the inhibitions they may have had, were they thinking clearly. Liberty can't long survive among people who cannot obey a few simple principles that they claim to agree with.

If the libertarian view can be supported only by a few percent of the people among a population, then there isn't reason to expect that society at large will come to its senses. The loss of freedom always begins with someone sticking their nose where it doesn't belong and that gets easier the closer people live together. Unlike those who believe our salvation is in ever-higher technology and unending increases in the division of labor, it's clear that states have been very effective at diverting the technologically-derived stream of wealth and converting it into the means for greater control. I, for one, can easily imagine scenarios where I would accept lower consumption in return for greater liberty.

We are living in interesting economic times, and who knows, perhaps an opportunity to live free will come disguised as a full-blown societal calamity. We can always hope. Capitalizing on a crisis requires preparation. If you are serious about experiencing freedom in your lifetime, now would be a good time to think about your plan for action.

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Will Groves's picture
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Will Groves is an old-school craftsman who knows good work when he sees it.