Sunday, August 03, 2014

The True Origins of the American Revolution

A few weeks ago, I was one of the headlined speakers at Freedom Fest, the big libertarian convention in Las Vegas. Do I seem an odd choice, given my past thorough and merciless dissections of Ayn Rand?

In fact I’ve done this before, showing up to suggest that a movement claiming to be all about freedom might want to veer away from its recent, mutant obsession — empowering and enabling the kind of owner-oligarchy that oppressed humanity all across the last 6000 years. Instead, I propose going back to a more healthy and well-grounded libertarian rootstock — encouraging the vast creative power of open-flat-fair competition

COMPETITION-1…a word that libertarians scarcely mention, anymore. Because it conflicts fundamentally with their current focus — promoting inherited oligarchy.

With that impudent, contrary attitude, would you believe I had a fine and interesting time? My son and I dined at the VIP table with publishing magnate and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes. Along with humorist P. J. O'Rourke and John Mackey (Whole Foods and an avid SciFi reader.) Also at the table? Grover (I kid you not) Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform and a guiding force beyond the American right’s current-central obsession — that government of/by/for the people must perish from the Earth.

Would you be surprised that I was the most-liberal voice at this gathering? And yes, I managed to poke without being rude. (I've been known to poke in other directions, too!) I even learned a few things. See an addendum, below, offering more about the Freedom Fest event.

Foremost, though, I want to focus on one piece of polemic that Grover Norquist thrust upon us over dinner, concerning the origins of the American Revolution.

== A different American Revolution... or it’s not easy being green ==

TEA-TAXESGrover N. asserted that, in 1770, the British people put up with being taxed above a 20% rate, while folks in the colonies were taxed at roughly 2% of their average income. Yet, those colonists reacted fiercely and rebelled when/because they saw that burden doubled to 4%!

What an interesting assertion. It turns out that the statistics are generally true, that is, when it came to taxes passed by Parliament - though Mr. Norquist leaves out levies enacted separately by colonial legislatures. But my real quibble concerns which word is correct in the preceding paragraph: “when” or “because.”

Norquist says “because.” Implying that American colonists - unique by their irascibly independent nature - were eager to shuck all old loyalties, to risk hanging, to endure devastating war and deprivation, because 4% was beyond all forbearance. And therefore, today’s American populace, enduring many times that rate of taxation must be inferior, devolved creatures, unworthy of such a founding generation.

May I be frank? That assertion is utter, howling malarkey. In fact, the Founder generation in the 1770s was willing to pay many times as much tax, if only they were treated as full citizens, with representation. The Tea and Stamp and other taxes were convenient ignition sparks, But the fuel for a real fire was far more significant.

==  True Grievances Behind the American Revolution ==

The American Revolution serves as a Rorschach test that reflects the obsessions of each succeeding generation. In the 1920s, Marxist notions of class struggle dominated and thus even anti-communist historians viewed the rebellion as a phase shift from monarchal domination to empowerment of the bourgeoisie. In the forties, literalist scholars started instead taking the Founders at their word — that the Revolution was an idealistic exercise in limiting the scope of government.

During the cynical 1960s, fashions changed again, to viewing the rebellion as a manipulative putsch that allowed local gentry — the caste of Washington and Jefferson — to displace others at the top of the heap. A lateral coup, with just enough populism to keep the middle class placid.

Peoples-historyWhat these generations of scholars all seemed to agree upon was that the colonists weren’t rebelling over the raw magnitude of taxes. Indeed, many expressed puzzlement that there were any grievances worth fighting and dying over! Certainly it all seemed rather far-fetched, given how comfortable life had been for most American colonists, especially compared to the mountain of crimes committed against the people of France, by the Bourbon ancien regime.

In fact, despite the hairsplitting obsessions of academic scholars — and the puerile tendency of textbooks and politicians to mention only tea and stamp taxes — it is pretty clear in historical records that the colonists revolted for a host of genuine grievances:

1) Monopolies such as the East India Company had been granted exclusive trading rights, cutting out American merchants,crushing competition, funneling commerce through ports and markets controlled by the top one hundred British families -- the one-percent of one-percent of one-percent. Colonial goods had to be carried in cartel ships and sold through cartel agents. Thus Americans were viewed as cash machines for the Crown and nobles. Those who had the gold made the rules, and those rules ensured they would get more, an ancient and deeply human pattern that Adam Smith denounced with the publication of Wealth of Nations, in 1776.

2) The insanely destructive 1764 Currency Act, which forbade the colonies from issuing paper currency and required use only of coinage released by the cartel, in London. This devastated the velocity of money, making it difficult for colonists to pay their debts and taxes, even if they had plenty of non-liquid wealth, and forcing thousands into bankruptcy. Contemporary accounts tell that until the 1764 law, you could scarcely find a jobless or poor person in British America.  After the colonies were banned from printing money, the economy tanked. Suddenly there were homeless and beggars everywhere.

That’s a helluva lot less abstract than a tax on tea. Alas though, it does not suit today's tea-party narrative. Note also that there has always been an obsession, in society's aristocratic class, with lowering the velocity of money, a policy that always devastates the middle class. We'll get back to that.

3) Almost half of the land in the colonies was owned by absentee lords. The main reason Franklin was sent to London (around 1760) was to attempt persuading the Penn family (also later the Baltimores and other members of the aristocratic cartel) to allow themselves to be taxed, even at very low rates, so that the colonies could function. Their refusal to contribute (based on ancient feudal privilege) was identical to the rigid stance of the aristocratic First Estate in 1789 France. The “legal” basis was exactly the same.

(Note: those French nobles lost their heads because they clutched obstinate, unreasoning greed. In contrast, the Penns/Baltimores and other lordly families with vast American holdings merely lost their lands, which the Founders seized and redistributed, like the "socialists" they were!

(Hence let me put a side wager on the table: care to bet how the Kochs/Murdochs will behave, as they push exactly the same privilege-line to its inevitable conclusion? Never tax the “job creators!” Which of those two outcomes is likely to befall them, when that propaganda line finally loses its distraction effectiveness and America's lower middle class remembers their grandparents' tales of earlier phases of class warfare? Will the final outcome be the bloody French or Russian or Chinese result? Or the moderate-reformist American? Either way, these fellows are nowhere near as smart as they think they are.)

4) Coming in at number four, at last: taxation without representation! Yes, it is the classic. Only let's dive deeper into this one, because true history is nothing like what we’re told by the Norquist/Teaparty narrative.

TAXES-REVOLTThe British Parliament was at that time hugely "gerrymandered,” to apply a modern term. There were many Rotten Burroughs where a lord and a few dozen tenants got to elect their own MP, while the masses in Birmingham and London were steeply under-represented… and Americans had no representation at all. Reforming this mess (it eventually happened) would have prevented the explosion, keeping the colonies loyal. But it would also hurt the short-term self-interest of those lords and MPs. So, the blatantly unjust system was maintained and American grievance ignored.

Did you catch the parallel? Today’s Republican Party relies utterly upon two kinds of gerrymandering. In red state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives, it is the blatant twisting of electoral districts. (Some blue states do it, too, but more of them are abandoning the foul practice; not one red state has.)

In the U.S. Senate, gerrymandered-unfair representation is even more deeply embedded. It derives from the cynical drawing of state boundaries, so that — for example — Dakota Territory was split in two and given four Senators, despite having minuscule population, then and now. That problem is much harder to fix and must await a truly angry era - one that is evidently coming.

unfair-representationAn aside: just to make this perfectly clear — anyone defending this wretched cheat (gerrymandering) is - himself - thus proved to be a cheater and liar and an enemy of the Republic. There is no matter of ambiguity or opinion over that. No rationalization to save you from what you see in the mirror. Reform will happen (as it eventually came to the British Parliament, after the damage was done). Those who delay reform of this dastardly practice are little better than thieves, and stupid ones, blind to how much worse they are only making the inevitable backlash.

The crux: you claim the American people despise their government and taxation? How about letting our elections be fair and proportionately representative, then let the people decide. Because... eventually... they will.

5) British laws against settlement beyond the Appalachians. At surface, this rule was to protect native tribes. Indeed, resentment against this restriction, particularly by Scots-Irish immigrants and transports  arose because they wanted to go over the mountains to grab farmland from peoples already living there. But the Crown and Lords weren't doing this to be nice to the tribes. They had a real problem on their hands.

The frontier provided an easy haven to which tenant farmers, indentured servants and slaves might flee, and/or remake themselves. That escape option - unavailable in old Europe - made it very hard to maintain a bottom-caste peasantry. For all its faults, the frontier forged the deeply libertarian American soul.

(Again... I am talking about older libertarianism... not the weirdly-mutated thing the movement has become.)

Note that factor #5  came to roost in two of the most important battles of the Revolution, King's Mountain and Cowpens, when those Scots-Irish frontiersmen bloodied Cornwallis and helped take back the South from Charleston tories. (Note to nation. Please, next time, let Charleston secede!)

EGALITARIANISM6) Egalitarianism. Some historians anchor the American Revolution upon a single day, when Ben Franklin was summoned before the King’s Privy Council for a public berating and humiliation… the day that the smartest man in a century was converted from an impudent-but-loyal subject into a dedicated conspirator for independence. The colonies were already home to a new spirit and ethos - part cantankerous, part ebullient and hopeful, and part-scientific, with all those portions combining to demand one core question:

Why should I have to bow down, or be bullied, by another mere human… just because of who his father was?”

The irony is rich. Those today citing the Founders most often are folks who are most vigorously helping propel us back into a world of inherited status, dominated by clans and cartels of aristocratic families. 

(Indeed, this problem -- recreating feudalism -- is the reason why Ayn Rand never once portrays any of her several dozen beloved uber-characters reproducing or raising children. The reader would come to realize that her prescription is, after all, a very old story.)

radical-revolutionWas egalitarianism as strong in reality as it was in the Founders' hifalutin documents? In his book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, historian Gordon Wood emphasizes this aspect, pondering that the new idealism crystallized by Thomas Paine might have built into a breakthrough not seen since Periclean Athens — the invention of the dedicated modern citizen. Wood parses this idealism into many permutations, dissecting variations of republicanism, none of which matter to us here. Suffice it to say that a general quality of fervent belief in a New Man clearly did take hold, taking over from earlier grievances.

61p0XW6DvWLIn Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Princeton professor Danielle Allen ponders every sentence of the seminal American document and sometimes every word, examining five facets that revolve around the notion of political equality, including, as Gordon Wood describes: “the importance of reciprocity or mutual responsiveness to achieving the conditions of freedom.”  In other words, providing the back and forth of accountability that no individual can apply to him or herself.  Our enlightenment "secret sauce": the reciprocal accountability that enables science, democracy and markets to function... and that was strenuously avoided and quashed by every ruling caste, in almost every other society that ever existed, and that is perpetually under attack, in our own.

Make no mistake. The Charleston tories became Confederate plantation lords, who aimed to re-establish inherited-landed-ownership nobility, the classic human pattern that ruined competition and freedom and social mobility in every society other than ours.

And that torch is now carried by hirelings of a new oligarchy, diverting libertarian passion away from flat-open-fair competition over to worship of absolute property rights, no matter how inherited or how much this re-creates the Olde Order that sparked our Revolution.

History rhymes.

== What about hatred of taxation? ==

Were there other reasons for rebellion? Sure. For example, as in all civil wars, many felt their blood boil over local and personal grievances, spurring groups of neighbors to call themselves “tory” or “patriot” while riding forth to settle old scores. But for our purposes here, it suffices to demolish the pat and absurd narrative of today’s right, that the rebellion was all about… or indeed had much of anything to do with… the basic amount of taxation.

Oh, sure, there were earlier versions of Grover Norquist, in those days. But few.

eb0743f468c286572fe8cb3d2b92ae5eFor example, take the Whiskey Rebellionwhich is often cited by radical libertarians as a failed but glorious attempt to finish the revolution.

How inconvenient to point out that the Whiskey Rebellion was not against the Whiskey Tax, per se! Rather it expressed resentment that state authorities refused to let farmers pay the tax... in whiskey! Which was their only cash commodity. They had no silver, but were willing to pay... in 'shine!  (Which was freely traded about as currency, in those days.) Instead, domineering officials demanded coin, and thus bankrupted a number of farmers, driving others into a fury.

(Note the exact parallel with Parliament’s foolish 1764 Currency Act. Indeed, the very same principle was at stake in the much later Free Silver platform of William Jennings Bryan. And it is seen in those who urge us to “return to the gold standard." Indeed, this same effect is manifest in Congress's obstinate refusal to fund desperately needed infrastructure repairs that would have employed 300,000 Americans, saving thousands of bridges and highways while circulating high velocity money... a far better form of economic boost than the Fed's bond buying program, whose inefficient "stimulus" poured half a trillion dollars into low-velocity uses, like inflating asset bubbles.  Again and again, the pattern repeats: aristocrats use their political influence to bring down the velocity of money and to beggar the middle class.  An old battle, indeed.)

And yes, the Whiskey Rebellion was a case where state bureaucrats were genuinely bossy, insensitive, impractical and ruinous of the people they were supposed to serve. I told you, I have a libertarian streak! Government is a perpetual threat to freedom - even if today’s right exaggerates the current danger, a hundred-fold. Sincere civil servants can metastasize into overbearing bureaucrats! It isn’t only oligarchy that threatens us. All accumulations of power must have accountability!

The upshot of the Whiskey Rebellion was that Washington and his troops established the lawful power of the state to tax. But there also ensued hurried changes in law, easing the farmers’ debt crisis, based on a principle we should always remember. That the state’s power should never become destructive of its citizens.

== The Underlying Agenda of the Narrative ==

I will hand it to Grover Norquist. He is honest about his goal, which is to starve government, then strangle it and then bury it. (Did I leave out the step of incineration?) He makes no pretense otherwise. Reiterating: Norquist and his co-religionists precisely want “government of the people, by the people, for the people” to perish from the Earth.

Now, as a science fiction author… and as a child of Adam Smith and George Orwell and Robert Heinlein... I openly avow that overweening and over-reaching government can be one of the Great Failure Modes! We need an active libertarian side of the national and world conversation, focusing skepticism on the potential for bureaucrats and armies and police to betray and oppress the citizens who hire them! Just as we need others to remind us that the greatest enemies of markets and enterprise and freedom — across 6000 years — have far more often been cartels of owner-oligarch-lords.

cheatersCheaters can arise from any direction, aiming to end our Great Experiment and return us to the old pyramid of privilege, and it does not matter much if the masters call themselves “civil servants,” “job-creators,” feudal lords or communist commissars. It is the same cheating impulse. And it may erupt straight out of genetic nature. Unless we constantly resist all would-be lords, whatever direction they come from and whatever rationalizations they offer.

Which is why we need moderate libertarians who will constantly demand proof that any statist “solution” will both solve the problem at-hand and not take us toward Big Brother. Just as we need moderate liberals to remind us that the best capitalism is one that is flat-open-transparent and broken into units that are small enough to fail. A capitalism that benefits (as Hayek preached) from maximizing the number of skilled, eager and ready competitors! And hence, a society in which all children grow up healthy, educated, well-fed, hitting age 25 prepared to… compete! From basically equal starting gates. Not based on who their fathers were.

competition(Competition. There’s that word again. If only it were, once again, a libertarian touch stone.)

A plague on both the simplistic, lord-loving entire-right and a patronizingly-bossy and pushy-PC far-left, both of which despise even the notion of flat-open-fair competition. Indignant dogmas are a plague, crippling our genius at negotiating an agile and sophisticated and wise civilization.

== We have a revolution to uphold… ==

As for Grover and his agenda. Sorry. Adam Smith and the Founders knew what our parents and grandparents in the Greatest Generation knew… that a government that is warily watched can serve us. And it can serve as a counterweight to other, older and just-as-dangerous centers of power. We remain free by siccing elites against each other! And that cannot happen if government completely vanishes. Or is neutered.

A lean and leashed government is the only tool citizens have to counterbalance the inevitable cheating by aristocracy that ruined every other human renaissance. Adam Smith And the Founders knew this. Every generation of Americans rebelled against cheaters... generally through calm reforms, but twice violently... though never falling into the intemperate rage of the Russian, French or Chinese revolutions.

Book-Review-The-Greatest-Generation-by-Tom-BrokawAgain I keep coming back to the 'greatest generation' -- that fought the Great Depression and crushed Hitler and made the flattest but most successful capitalist society… one that got rich so fast that it could then afford to start toppling ancient injustices, like racism, sexism and all that. Do you admire that generation?  Well, that 'greatest generation' revered and adored one man, above all others. He was the same man that the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, the Koch brothers and Fox News all now want us to call Satan Incarnate.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Who spearheaded that generation's great work, saving America as a flat-fair-open market economy, from monsters of both left and right. (As his cousin - Teddy - helped us thwart another, earlier oligarchic putsch.)

And yes, many of FDR’s solutions were not appropriate for our era. I prefer looser approaches, that leverage on the vastly higher levels of education that our tech-savvy populace has achieved — in part because of what the Greatest Generation accomplished.

ReclaimAdamSmithBut I will proudly stand up for the founding father of both liberalism and libertarianism. Adam Smith, author of both Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was almost as smart as Ben Franklin! And both of them proposed that the future will be won by moderate, undogmatic people, who are passionately reasonable! Militantly moderate! Aggressively eager to negotiate. I preach relentlessly for agile, citizen-level power, a burgeoning Age of Amateurs, for Smart Mob ad hoc networks, and for local action.

I will continue preaching to liberals that they should rediscover their Smithian libertarian side.

Meanwhile, though, libertarians, you must stop the ranting and lapel-grabbing dogmas that were spoon-fed to you by "think tanks" operated by a fast-rising caste of oligarchic-feudal cheaters! The great enemy of freedom across 6000 years, returning with a vengeance. Escape your hypnotic, Platonic catechisms and realize… that the true, healthy heart of your movement is far more liberal than you ever realized.

We are still the rebels. So fill a glass and raise it high! Here is to ongoing, militantly-moderate Revolution, forever

=

LIbertarianismSee my collected articles: Libertarianism: Finding a New Path. 

** (NOTES ON THE FESTIVAL: My hosts, Mark and Jo Ann Skousen, were lovely, their Freedom Film Festival was intriguing/challenging, and the evening’s talent show, a libertarian re-telling of Camelot, was a hoot. Oh, and the Janis Joplin impersonator was terrific! Hey, it’s Vegas; you can hire anyone or anything.

(Clearly, the top organizers of FreedomFest wanted to toss a grenade at the Randians and Rothbardians, and I was that grenade, I guess. In fact, I found it all very interesting… and proof that I don’t need a political chiropractor! I can turn my head and look all ways, seeking value, and listening well enough to understand what I refute. (Can you?)

65 comments:

Dennis Jernberg said...

The word going round is "propertarian". These right-wing "libertarians" such as Norquist are not truly libertarians at all, but propertarians, for whom property rights must always trump human rights. The propertarians have managed to gain such a lock on the word "libertarian" that it's lost all meaning.

And of course it's the Tories' latest attempt to reverse the American Revolution. Eternal vigilance...

Anonymous said...

Tl;dr version:
Be very careful to understand your icons, or they will be turned against you ;)

Gary said...

http://www.missedinhistory.com/blog/missed-in-history-13-reasons-for-the-american-revolution/

Covers the same ground with the same conclusions.

Anonymous said...

Many of the founding fathers/colonists hoped the American Revolution would counter British efforts to end slavery so that the tremendous profits generated would continue...
https://redemmas.org/posts/2014-07-gerald-horne-at-red-emma-s

Tony Fisk said...

You clearly weren't lynched, so how was your 'grenade' received?

PaulAndMuttley said...

I consider myself essentially a moderate independent, although I generally align myself with the more reasonable Democrats. Yet in what I consider rational and polite discussions with right-wing people (who may consider themselves libertarians or TEA party or Republicans, I am labeled a rabid "lefty" or "liberal". I am essentially in agreement with all you have written here. I only hope that some of the increasingly polarized "opposition" will recognize the wisdom and truth you so eloquently express, and at least attempt to find common ground before things totally unravel or blow up. Thanks.

Doug S. said...

The Senate does give disproportionate influence to states with smaller populations, but in practice, it's been hard to exploit this for partisan gains because the boundaries are very hard to redraw once they've been established. (As far as I know, changing the borders of an existing state has only been done once, when Maine ceased to be part of Massachusetts.)

Here's a silly idea. The federal courts have declared many state legislative districts unconstitutional on Fourteenth Amendment grounds because they had widely varying populations, and "equal protection" requires that all votes be equally powerful. The procedure for amending the U.S. Constitution has an exception that requires that "no state shall be deprived of its equal representation in the Senate without its consent", which has been taken to mean that changing the allocation of Senators would require 100% of the states to ratify an amendment rather than just 75%. Are there any states that haven't explicitly ratified the Fourteenth Amendment?

Larry C. Lyons said...

Another significant reason not mentioned in your piece was Quebec. After the conquest of Quebec and the passage of the Quebec Act which guaranteed the Quebecois freedom of religion and their way of life, the radical colonists considered this as part of the Intolerable Acts. Aside from the reasons given, another reason was the restriction of american companies and clergy from Quebec - the more fanatical churchmen were not allowed to ban Catholicism, and the companies were not allowed to take over commerce in Quebec.

Anonymous said...

In so much of this you can see that the #1 enemy is crony capitalism. People of every political ideology should unit to fight that problem. Crony capitalism is at the root of ineffective and bloated government, and ineffective and unfair private sector operation.

Robert said...

I've mentioned this before and I'll undoubtedly mention it again. One of the best ways to break the back of gerrymandering and also the hold the current Republican Party has over its voters is to significantly expand the number of Representatives and ensure it is population-based. If we had the smallest-populated state in the Union be the baseline population, with states with over that having additional Representatives (rounding up) (ie, the smallest State's population is X, and States would get 1 Representative for up to X population - every other state would have a minimum of 2 Representatives), then you have just increased the number of Representatives at least threefold.

Yes, I know we can't put them all in one building. But we have access to telecommuting and the like. Have these additional Representatives operate from their home state! It disperses the political population so that no one terrorist act could wipe out most of our government, and makes it harder for lobbyists to turn all of these politicians because they now need to expand to a dozen or more locations!

Gerrymandering becomes a hell of a lot more difficult when you have to divide the population pie into smaller chunks. It also provides people with greater representation. And yes, the system will be manipulated in some areas. But there would be tremendous volatility in the political field.

Best of all, there is a Constitutional mandate in this. The current Representational field was not in accordance to the population requirements in the original Constitution. Thus widening the number of Representatives is not something easily blocked because the people pushing for it can say "you are abandoning your Constitutional principles by trying to block this."

The other thing to do is have Open Primaries like has been done in a couple of States. Everyone is on the first ballot. No matter what party. And then the top two candidates go on to the general election, EVEN IF THEY ARE IN THE SAME PARTY. Provide these two elements and all at once you will see a huge influx of people into politics who are not toeing the line. The smaller population base for each Rep also means it is easier for a Rep to be overturned in the next election should that Rep not do what his or her people want.

Rob H.

Unknown said...

"These right-wing "libertarians" such as Norquist are not truly libertarians at all, but propertarians, for whom property rights must always trump human rights."

"Property rights" are not rights of property, because property cannot have rights. "Property rights" are actually claims by humans to property, which makes them a particular form of human rights. So what people who make the above claim are saying is that human rights should not trump human rights.

Or, more concretely, the disagreement is about which humans may rightfully claim which property. I'd like to know what Brin thinks is the rightful basis for any claim to any property.

Andy said...

I like the geolibertarian view of property rights. Basically it views all natural resources, including land, as the common heritage of all. Property owners must pay the government a land value tax (LVT) in exchange for exclusive access to land, and this tax is distributed to the rest of the community via the government spending it on infrastructure, defense, and other governmental services. Geolibertarianism philosophy meshes perfectly with the idea (that Dr. Brin often mentions) that companies should pay a lot more for access to the EM spectrum.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geolibertarianism

David Brin said...

Unknown asks: "I'd like to know what Brin thinks is the rightful basis for any claim to any property."

I am a son of the Enlightenment Experiment, which is just about the only good and solid and successful thing that human beings have done, since we acquired art and culture and complex technology, 50,000 years ago. One of the first things we have jettisoned (or tried to) has been Plato's notion of pure essences, which manifests more often as religious purity doctrines.

These pure doctrines ALWAYS come up with some central, airy-fairy principle that automatically trumps all argument, evidence or any chance of rebuttal, because it is declared as an axiom. Like "human life begins at conception," "God speaks through the king," or "property rights are the core of all goodness and morality."

I'm a scientist. I look at the cosmos and nature and history. And property rights do not show up as any sort of "natural" phenomenon. They are man-made and vary entirely at the whim of cultures. And they have mostly been used to enforce: " I own all of you who live on my lands and my son will inherit ownership over your kids."

YES property rights are different in the Enlightenment Experiment. They are a necessary part of the engines of that experiment. Markets will fail unless merchants and innovators and entrepreneurs and workers have a strong expectation to benefit from their efforts. Adam Smith laid it all out.

But all good things in the world become toxic, when too heavily concentrated... water, oxygen, food, wealth./ Property gradually transforms from an incentive-fuel for Smithian-productive enterprise capitalism into something fetid and festering, that encourages rent-seeking (look up the phrase!) and market manipulation and cheating...

...exactly the old habits that made feudalism hell for 99% of our ancestors.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I studied history in college, progressive history, and I remember reading a lot about the big debt load that many influential colonists owed to British lendors. Many of the elite's (the Founding Fathers) in America were land rich but cash poor and it was suggested that part of the reason that they got behind the revolution was to get rid of some of those debts. David Brin, do you think this is part of the reason as well?

David Brin said...

Redistribution of wealth from absentee landlords and bankers and lords was certainly part of it. I emphasized the land.

locumranch said...

Another more simplistic explanation for the American Revolution is a 'Youth Rebellion' in which a younger & more vital generation seeks to become full-fledged adults by either fleeing their parents' s home or killing the King to claim his crown.

In this scenario (one as old as time), we see this type of schism every 30 or 40 years or so unless the older parental generation imposes an ever escalating number of forfeits (social, financial & educational prerequisites, etc) on the younger generation in an effort to ensure their continued obedience.

Of course, this approach must end as all things must, and it can end either in a bloody or amicable fashion (with fairly bloodless & amicable examples being the American Revolution & Great Society and bloody & brutal examples being the French Revolution & American Civil War).

For what is Aristocracy, Oligarchy or Expertism? It is PATERNALISM, pure & simple, an attempt by an entrenched Old Guard to consolidate their authority over subsequent generations through the use of forfeits.

But youth will not wait , another schism is already upon us and, even though David fools himself by counting himself among the youth, we (The Baby Boomers) appear to failing this test.


Best

David Brin said...

Locum... being cogent.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

I knew there was a reason I love your books! I'm with you on all of this, as I have made many of the same arguments (and like another of your commentators, experienced being labeled a right-wing nazi by liberals and left-wing commie by conservatives. What worries me, though, is that our current trajectory will become virtually unalterable for structural and infrastructural reasons, regardless of what superstructure we try to fit over it all. I teach high school, and every year the kids come back more dysfunctional from months of video games and social media - in their last critical neural growth stage. We are rapidly approaching a time when huge numbers of people will be barely employable, much less innovators and critical thinkers. Will they be easy meat for our industrial oligarchs, or so much dead weight that no human social system can support them?

Apikoros said...

I would state that the current crop of Libertarianism is one wing of the movement with the other wing being represented by philosophers like Robert Anton Wilson, Mikhail Bakunin and Timothy Leary. Why the "left wing" of the movement has died, I wish I knew. To simplify it, Rand's school is "Everyone for themselves will better for everyone" and the other end is "If we all work together, but maintain our individuality, it will be better for everyone" It also comes down, as Dr. Brin alludes to, our definitions of property and human rights. In an era where things move at such a rapid pace our ability to keep up with what is a right and what is a want have failed to keep up the pace. IMNSHO, once something moves to more than a certain amount of people using it, when it becomes something basic and relatively affordable it becomes a right. An example would be internet access. In 1984, it was a "want". in 2014 it's a "right". Without it, your equality of opportunity drops. Land, WiFi, Water, food, Health Care and many other things are now rights when before they were wants.

He who isn't busy being born is busy dying.

David Brin said...

Both PSB and Aprikos seem good minds, you are welcome here!

Alex Tolley said...

Don't you just hate autocomplete. Rotten Burroughs => Rotten Boroughs .

I doubt that the wealthy of the C18th in any way thought that they would reduce the velocity of money, even if they didn't even know of such a modern economic concept. This was the age of Mercantilism and wealthy rentiers. What they needed was to maintain control of the economy. King's charters to do specific monopoly business, for example. For Piketty's hypothesis to be correct, this would be a requirement in order to maintain high returns compared to economic growth. While money has proved to be a good medium for transactions, when it was limited (or distrusted) wouldn't people turn to barter?

anon said...

Alex is exactly right. Money is a means of control rather than a prerequisite for liberty unless we assume a state of omnipresent slavery with the possibility of manumission.

hypermark said...

There is a related truth that extreme corporatism is part of this trend. The idea that accountability becomes delocalized and disconnected from the individual and the neighbor; the sense that the social contract is forever more at odds with delivering shareholder value.

The notion that too big to fail is too big to jail and too big to care; that corporations can invest unlimited dollars in politicking, that the revolving door between big government, the lobby and big business never stops spinning.

That google is "forced" to surveil and report you by the rule of law...but quizzically is only in that position because they decided to read your email in the first place.

We live in a time of extreme paradoxia, but only seem to be able to speak in terms of false dichotomies.

One wonders what the catalysts will be, and what will be their spark. It's far from obvious.

Neo Tuxedo said...

"Which of those two outcomes is likely to befall them, when that propaganda line finally loses its distraction effectiveness and America's lower middle class remembers their grandparents' tales of earlier phases of class warfare? Will the final outcome be the bloody French or Russian or Chinese result? Or the moderate-reformist American?"

I've been asking myself that for a while now. I think it will depend on how long it takes for all their propaganda lines, not just that one, to pass their sell-by date. Will it take only until 2034 (when it will have been as long since the end of the Cold War as it was from beginning to end)? Will it be when everyone who remembers the Cold War has died off, and the generation that has no memory of the Communist Bloc as a viable threat can act without any residual fear of Reds under the bed? Or will the dead hand of the anti-anti-fascists only loose its grip when nobody living even remembers that there was such a thing as the Cold War?

All I know is, there's a lot of inertia, and I'm not sure how easy or even possible it'll be to turn this thing around in the time left to us.

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles." -- Bob Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

"And the train just won't stop goin', no way to slow down." -- Ian Anderson, "Locomotive Breath"

Robert Green said...

hey david, long time listener first time caller. Great points across the board though i think the issues with libertarianism are far greater (and more pernicious) than you let on. (and the fact that your hosts are unacknoldged in your article for their own legacy--the scions of the deeply racist psychotic cleon skousen should not be ignored)

libertarianism sees things in a peculiarly false area of non-place. as you say above, it pretends to be like math, rather than just another assemblage of human ideas, with all the fallibility therewith. as an example, the endless defense of the (extreme modern interpretation) 2nd amendment on grounds of freedom? as if my freedom is not seriously impinged by someone whom i don't know who has the ability to kill me instantly based on what they have in their hand at a distance? that make me less free, obv. but good look getting that point through the head of a kool aid drinking libertarian.

i am suspicious of any ideology or set of ideas that requires all incoming data to be filtered and shaped to fit pre-conceived notions. period. it's not complicated.

anyway, keep writing awesome sci-fi, keep punching frank miller's sense of history in the mouth, and so on.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dear Dr. Brin,

Thanks for the welcome feeling. I don't have a lot of people at work who I can carry on a thoughtful discussion with. Before becoming a teacher I was an archaeologist, and among people who study deep time it is very clear that civilization is an unstable social adaptation. There is a sense that civilizations inevitably fail, and though many reasons have been examined, probably the most obvious is factional competition (also the title of a good anthology by Elizabeth Brumfiel, if you are looking for more ideas). It is pretty obvious that our bipolar 2 party system represents factions rather than the interests of the nation as a whole. I have long suspected that we would be better off with a multiplicity of parties like most other democracies. While most archaeologists see failure as inevitable, I prefer to see it as one highly likely possibility. Another possibility is that we will somehow pull off a more optimistic, Star Trek kind of future, where science marches on and we make real progress toward solving our problems. That would be nice, but the obstacles we have to overcome to get there are beyond epic. People who pay attention to the facts and are not afraid to jettison ideology when it doesn't match can see the things that need to be done (population restriction being the greatest priority), but most people will sacrifice truth to conform to whatever social group they are a part of. I started requiring my students to research fallacies last year with this in mind. I can only hope that the message will rub off on enough of them to keep the fight up and bring it into places it has never gone before.
In Existence you mentioned Larry Nivens' novel The Mote in God's Eye, which I read when I was in seventh grade. I read a lot of books then, but few have left as lasting an impression on me. It is the highest calling of a writer to inspire people to think and see the world in new ways, which is exactly what Existence does. I would like to hear your thoughts on something, though. I have had this debate with an old friend. Here you are forcefully making your points with an essay, in which you spell things out clearly, but in fiction you make your points with subtlety, letting the narrative more or less make your points, assuming your readers can read between the lines. My friend loves the essay, while I am inclined more toward fiction, but I concede both have their points. One thing I learned from anthropology is that the human mind is a narrative mind - we naturally learn through story (yet this is so rarely used in education). This is part of what makes science so difficult for so many people - it tends to be essays and abstractions that are harder for many people to visualize and grasp the context of or see the implications. What do you think?

Oh, and Robert Green, "i am suspicious of any ideology or set of ideas that requires all incoming data to be filtered and shaped to fit pre-conceived notions." This is exactly what science is, and why science is so much more useful to the world than ideology. Ideology is for factions, science is for everybody.

anon said...

Freedom implies (self) ownership and ownership implies wealth (and/or monies), meaning that freedoms are monetary, allowing us to trade our freedoms for money (employment), our monies for freedoms (favor) & own or be-owned by others (slavery).

David Brin said...

Neo Tux… I don’t think members of the New Confederacy and Red Culture warriors care much or recall the USSR or Cold War. The history they care about is “the South shall rise again, so save your Dixie Cups.” It’s not about communism. It is about hating big city smartypants types and the end of the white male as absolute lord.

Robert Green our revolution is about not judging folks based on who their parents were, especially if they disown the bad things dad said.

“i am suspicious of any ideology or set of ideas that requires all incoming data to be filtered and shaped to fit pre-conceived notions. period. it's not complicated.”

Yes, but recall the far-left does this just as much as today’s entire-right. The left happens to be correct on some things, but that is not to their fault or credit. Their extreme members are almost as crazy as most rightists and we should remain wary of them.

re: my efforts: thanks! I will keep raising awareness of miller & card and their noxious propaganda..

David Brin said...

anon offered us a wonderful and perfect example of the kind of platonist-purist catechism that has captured our libertarian friends. It even has the rhythms and sentence structure of a religious tract!

I broad, sweeping, absolutist declaration of an axiom... so "fundamental" that it therefore cannot be argued with. How convenient!

Ignore all of biology, cosmology and human history! Declare an axiom! So that all the moderates can be ignored when they say: "Yes, private property is necessary... but all good things become toxic when too concentrated."

Then "property" becomes feudalism and slavery. Opps! There's that inconvenient human history for you!

Alfred Differ said...

Money is a means of control when there is a monopoly issuer. Much like with property rights, it can become toxic when power is too concentrated. Break the national monopoly on issuance of currency and you break that control even if people still tend to trust the national currency.

Alfred Differ said...

I'm a registered Libertarian here in California and I can tell you from experience that the party is a mixture of philosophical positions. The Randians are vocal, but from what I can see they are not in the majority. Most of us in my county (Ventura) are closer to classical liberals and avoid axiomatic statements because we drive people away otherwise. There is no sense in being "Philosophically Pure" if you wind up in a party-of-one. Along that path lies political impotence and cynical madness.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Mr. Differ, I beg to differ (pun intended) on the idea of becoming a party of one. Every one of us is a party of one. No matter how hard we try to conform to some philosophy or ideology, no matter how often we toe the line, however much we bobblehead, we are all, each and every one of us, individuals. No two humans will ever see anything exactly alike, unless we somehow evolve into a telepathic hive-mind of some sort. I once had a conversation with a coworker who loudly proclaimed that she was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, but when she saw I was working on a project related to solar energy she got very interested. I called her on the fact that the Republican Party consistently shoots down solar projects, so her enthusiasm for solar energy was inconsistent with toeing the Republican line. When you talk to people one-on-one, away from social pressures and peer influences, they sometimes become more reasonable and less dogmatic. But with > 7 billion people, the pressure to conform and deny our natural and necessary individuality is stifling. I would rather go through life being honestly, unabashedly me than wear any label like Libertarian.

Brother Nihil said...

"I am a son of the Enlightenment Experiment, which is just about the only good and solid and successful thing that human beings have done, since we acquired art and culture and complex technology, 50,000 years ago."

Surely these are the words of a religious fanatic! So in your worldview, nothing humanity created prior to the Enlightenment – all the religions, arts, architecture, cultures, philosophies, etc. -- was of much value, and it was only a few European philosophers who redeemed humanity with their "Enlightenment" revelations? All those cultures we buried -- upon whose bones we sit comfortably in our American homes -- had nothing to offer your Great Experiment and were rightfully sacrificed in their millions upon the altar the great god Progress.

One is reminded of other religions, where a prophet comes to redeem mankind and reset the calendar, history is rewritten to place the believers in a privileged position, and jihads and crusades are launched to destroy the old religions and convert the benighted heathens to the new faith.

And this is what the Enlightenment cultists have done in effect, though their methods of conquest are sometimes more subtle. What we have is essentially the "House of Enlightenment" and the "House of War", to use an Islamic analogy, and all the lands that haven't yet been conquered are being targeted with hot and cold wars (see the Muslim world, Russia, etc.). Enlightenment ideology, since it can't by its nature tolerate non-Enlightenment systems, necessitates imperialism on a global scale.

This is all well and good and normal, but what really baffles me about the hardcore Enlightenment cultists is that they have somehow concluded, in a universe made of atoms and the void, that their philosophy is worth fighting for. I mean, I can understand it if your God is someone like Yahweh or Allah, but fighting for the passionless gods of science, reason and nihilism, perhaps with an endgame of human obsolescence and replacement by machines? What a monstrous absurdity!

David Brin said...


Following up on my main posting (see below) about the American Revolution, and my assertion that Adam Smith favored the kind of protected property rights that allow freedom and commerce... but that do not turn into the boring old human injustice-pattern of 6000 years -- feudal inheritance of dominant status. I've been getting messages from Rand Rothbard types who defend unlimited propertarianism, because "only if property rights are absolute is freedom and self-ownership absolutely protected."

Hogwash. Like all good things -- water, oxygen, food -- wealth can get too concentrated anfd thus toxic. And I won't argue platonic essence-axioms and catechisms with you! I will point at 99% of human societies, across 6000 years, in which this blatantly and catastrophically happened. (Name the exceptions! "so-called "socialist" societies quickly became pyramids of power by the Marxist priestly caste.)

Regarding property rights... which are essential for freedom and innovation... vs extremist "propertarianism"... I went into detail, earlier at:

http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2005/10/property-rights-vs-propertarianism.html

See how the American Founders evaded the traps... of oligarchy on one hand and violent dogmatic revolution (e.g. French, Russian, Chinese) on the other. It is a revolution that MUST be ongoing! Though most generations have thwarted the human oligarchic tendency while retaining open-fair-flat-competitive markets the right way... through relentless negotiation, rejection of dogmatism (!) and militantly moderate reform.

http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2014/08/the-true-origins-of-american-revolution.html

David Brin said...

Paul Shen-Brown, a believe in competition and reciprocal accountability and mutual criticism. Hence I do not mind opposing "factions." What USED to be the case was that American politicians were only 30% colored by their party platforms and spent the rest of their efforts individually forging negotiated compromises/alliance and mixed solutions, based on evolving facts. This may be our way again, someday.

Right now, one of the factions has gone stark, gibbering insane and we have zero negotiation. No politics at all. We are in the re-ignited American Civil War.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dear Dr. Brin,

I am in agreement about how the factions have changed. President Eisenhower warned about the growing power of the military industrial complex over political leadership when he left office, and I think he hit it on the head. It was the end of WW II when one of our parties started to go over the edge, but until the Reagan era it was more civil, more behind closed doors, and less blatantly lunatic. Our two factions are becoming more extreme (one clearly more than the other). But I remember this very thing coming up in Suetonius, and in other historical contexts of collapsing civilizations. History never exactly repeats itself, but it does have its themes and variations.

America might have hit upon a solution with its Enlightenment-era ideals: a democracy with checks and balances to stave off corruption, an amendable constitution (because times change and however wise people like Franklin and Jefferson were, they could not predict the trajectory of history), guarantees of individual liberties and a separation of church and state. But 200 years is still just a blink compared to 150 K years of human nature, and billions of years sculpting that nature. I hope that my former colleagues are wrong about the inevitability of collapse, but what we have seen in the past few decades looks too much like what happened to many other civilizations that preceded us. What you are doing here (contra Brother Nihil above, whose assumptions are so flawed there is little to discuss with him) is just the kind of thing we need. Our culture values competition, but it also values honesty. Competition can be done honestly, and factions can be a force driving goodness and progress, but on this anniversary of Nixon's impeachment it is hard to ignore the destructive side of factional competition. How do we keep the country from slipping into the kind of drooling gibberish we are seeing, where factions manipulate propaganda so effectively that the voting public become little else but bobbleheads for whichever faction is the strongest in their natal village/ethnicity/socioeconomic caste? I don't want to come across as too pessimistic, but it is looking like the founding fathers have failed to guarantee that the voice of reason will be forever reasonably negotiated by a reasonably rational voting public.

LarryHart said...

Robert Green:

as an example, the endless defense of the (extreme modern interpretation) 2nd amendment on grounds of freedom? as if my freedom is not seriously impinged by someone whom i don't know who has the ability to kill me instantly based on what they have in their hand at a distance? that make me less free, obv. but good look getting that point through the head of a kool aid drinking libertarian.


To me, freedom involves not being subject to the will of the powerful. Apparently, to Randian libertarians, freedom means not being subject to the will of government only. If neanderthal bullies are free to attack me, I am not free. If libertarians think that everybody including the bullies can be free at the same time, they are either fooling themselves, or they're shilling for a different agenda.

Dr Brin, I hope my earlier post on this thread just mysteriously vanished on its own, and that I didn't somehow offend you enough to merit erasure.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

anon offered us a wonderful and perfect example of the kind of platonist-purist catechism that has captured our libertarian friends.
...
Then "property" becomes feudalism and slavery. Opps! There's that inconvenient human history for you.


If you read anon's post again, he's not disagreeing with that. The "freedom implies slavery" conclusion is not some inconvenient logic he's arm-waving away--it's his actual point. He's saying that slavery is the natural condition that follows from individuals freely trading between themselves, and is a good thing.

You've called it closer than maybe you imagined with your observation that this is about the South rising again. That particular brand of libertarian seems to take Orwell's "Freedom is Slavery" to heart, and most likely sees the military defeat of Dixie as the root cause of the dystopia depicted in "Atlas Shrugged"--that abolition of slavery made us less free.

LarryHart said...

Brother Nihil:

Surely these are the words of a religious fanatic!


That sentence is true, but not in the way you meant it.

:)

LarryHart said...

Paul Shen-Brown:

When you talk to people one-on-one, away from social pressures and peer influences, they sometimes become more reasonable and less dogmatic.


I think we saw an example of that dynamic during President Obama's election in 2008. During the lead up to the election, it was suggested on tv that the polls would be biased in favor of Obama because people responding to pollsters in public would not want to be seen as racist, so they'd claim they would vote for Obama, but they really wouldn't in the privacy of the booth. I was out on a limb at the time predicting the opposite--that plenty of "Good Ol' Boyz" would claim to be anti-Obama while in public in front of their friends, but actually did vote for him.

The reality of the election totals favors the latter scenario over the former.

LarryHart said...

Brother Nihil:

This is all well and good and normal, but what really baffles me about the hardcore Enlightenment cultists is that they have somehow concluded, in a universe made of atoms and the void, that their philosophy is worth fighting for. I mean, I can understand it if your God is someone like Yahweh or Allah, but fighting for the passionless gods of science, reason and nihilism, perhaps with an endgame of human obsolescence and replacement by machines? What a monstrous absurdity


The absurdity is that you think the Enlightenment side is fighting for "human obsolescence and replacement by machines". That's what the oligarchs are fighting for. The thing worth fighting for is resistance against that very notion.

Also interesting that you list "science, reason, and nihilism" as absurd things that you are arguing against, given your nickname.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

I've been getting messages from Rand Rothbard types who defend unlimited propertarianism, because "only if property rights are absolute is freedom and self-ownership absolutely protected."


The question to return fire with is: "Is self-ownership absolutely protected when government is done away with?"

If the Koch Brothers are free to poison your air and water for profit, are you truly free just because no government is pointing a gun at you and barking orders? Ayn Rand says to examine your premises when reality doesn't conform to expecations, as there are no contradictions. Too bad her followers don't live up to that dictum (not that Rand herself did either).

G Costik said...

The sad thing about the modern libertarian movement is that it has, in essence, been captured by corporate interests. In principle, a pro-liberty, pro-market movement should eschew rent-seeking behavior by powerful companies; in practice, the easiest way to make a living as a libertarian pundit or intellectual is to get companies to fund you, and for you to defend their efforts to use the power of the state to lock out competitors, preserve you own freedom of action against the public interest, and so on. Following the money, libertarianism has largely lost its soul. I tend to view capital gains taxation as the single issue that determines whether someone is an intellectually consistent libertarian or not. Capital gains accrue mainly to those -with capital-, that is to say, the already rich. Capital gains should be taxed at the same rate as any other income; capital should not be prized above labor (or land, the third factor of production). And indeed, taxing it at a lower rate produces all kinds of economic distortions, as people work to transform things that would otherwise by characterized as normal income into capital games income, with accounting trickery that provides no economic value and simply enriches accountants. Yet somehow so many libertarians argue for lower taxes on capital gains... because it "creates wealth?" This is nonsense, but nonsense it is profitable to argue, if your income depends on grants from rich people.

I still consider myself, in some sense, a libertarian, but I am heartily sick of the modern libertarian movement.

Tony Fisk said...

Somewhat off-topic, but relevant to discussion is this article on visualisation of 'filter bubbles' on social media
(specifically how people are forming views and having their views formed on the Gaza situation)

David Brin said...

Paul, look up the notion of stable and metastable equilibrium states. For at least 6000 years, every culture with farms and especially metals fell into the stable condition of feudal lordship. We might, as well…because the top dogs are always tempted to cheat and try to game the system to become lords. We are descended from the harems of guys who managed to do that.

Our enlightenment experiment is NOT stable. Each generation must renew the revolution and in America that includes the Blue parts, who want progress and a better future, informed by both compassion and science, must deal with the bilious rage of a red-gray component that fiercely hates tomorrow. A portion of the national character that is nostalgic, racist, romantic and deep-down devoted to returning us to feudalism, the worship of owner-lords. So far, these recurrences have always been won by the blue/progress-oriented America. Perhaps we will win again…

… but clearly it is not stable. And eventually, we will lose a round. And then Big Brother - armed with super technology for surveillance, lie-detection and thought control - will be upon us. And new Platos will rant that democracy and enlightenment must never be tried again.

But there is an out. Because the Enlightenment has an ace up its sleeve. It is vastly vastly vastly more PRODUCTIVE than all of the feudal societies that ever existed… combined! Though not stable, it is successful at achieving or advancing every sane human desideratum… except harems. (And just wait for holodecks!)

And hence, if we keep it alive, our vastly smarter grandchildren may then find a way to make it somewhat stable.

LarryHart said...

Andy:

I like the geolibertarian view of property rights. Basically it views all natural resources, including land, as the common heritage of all. Property owners must pay the government a land value tax (LVT) in exchange for exclusive access to land, and this tax is distributed to the rest of the community via the government spending it on infrastructure, defense, and other governmental services.


You've hit upon a fundamental difference--perhaps the fundamental difference--between philosophies which makes conversation between the Randist Libertarian/Republican side and my own virtually impossible without taking a lot of effort to realize the premises the other side is starting from.

The argument you present (and I fully agree with) is that humans evolved to sentience in a supportive environment with air, water, food, heat sources--the means of survival--available to us all as the Commons. If an innovator can make improvements upon some of that Commons, that's all well and good, but it's only "his personal property" if he first "buys out" the rest of society by paying for what he removes from the Commons or for the damage done to the Commons in the process (pollution, etc). If in turn, society ends up owing him for the standard of living he raises for us all, that's well and good too, but that's a separate transaction.

The Randists start with the opposite view--that man is born helpless and miserable, and would starve as a baby but for the work of Hank Rearden and John Galt taking the Commons as their private property and improving it to the point where it sustains human life. To me, that makes a good story which might even explain certain things very well, but it is not the absolute objective reality that they tend to treat it as. If 'twere so, one has to wonder how humanity ever survived to the industrial revolution in the first place. And since Rand was a militant atheist, even Creationism doesn't offer an out for that question.

Ron Natalie said...

While Gerrymandering is a term still used today, it's only slightly more modern than the American Revolution. It's origin is the 1812 redistricting by Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. Note that Gerry's name was pronounced with a hard g, unlike the common pronunciation of the word gerrymander.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dear Dr. Brin,
What you are saying here is pretty much my point, except that you say it better and in more detail. It is what I meant by the collapse vs. the Star Trek possibilities for the future. Years of being away from academic pursuits in a job that is less demanding of intellect but all-absorbing of time is atrophying my brain - I can feel my axons demyelinating by the day. But this discussion is stimulating, and I will try to keep up until my vacation is over. Once again, I hope we manage that bright future and not just another reiteration of the rise and fall cycle of human civilization. Past societies operated on supernatural authority, but today we have the benefits of science to find real and lasting solutions. But the old ways linger, ancient memes run deep through all state-level cultures, the same memes that are created by factions and promote self-destructive factionalism. How do we fight that? As an educator, I clearly have a role to play. But your work, reaching out to millions through thoughtful fiction and cogent essays has much greater potential. Still, every day at work I see the new generation, even more ignorant and apathetic than my mostly oblivious generation was, their brains turning to oatmeal with every day they play video games and use social media to engage in pointless gossip and ego inflation. I was deeply influenced by books, but when I look out my classroom door during lunch break I can count the number of children with a book in their hands on the fingers of 1 hand or less. We may just be preaching to an ever-shrinking choir. I am not saying what you are doing is futile. Any soul you reach with light is an improvement, and just making the effort is a true act of democracy.

Paul, look up the notion of stable and metastable equilibrium states. For at least 6000 years, every culture with farms and especially metals fell into the stable condition of feudal lordship. We might, as well…because the top dogs are always tempted to cheat and try to game the system to become lords. We are descended from the harems of guys who managed to do that.

I am quit familiar with this, but there is an issue of scale. What looks like stability over a few thousand years looks highly unstable over millions. But then, who worries about millions of years? Most forward-thinking people are thinking in decades, or perhaps a century or two. 6000 years is a lot in terms of cultural evolution, but our nature contains a whole lot of baggage from eons before, and until we fully crack our genomes, we don't really know what that nature is.

Larry Hart, you bring up a good recent example. I had those same thoughts myself. Most of the pundits come from the same handful of states and don't entirely get the cultural norms of other parts of the country. Where I grew up, a majority of people would consider it uncool to be openly racist, but they still blanche at anyone who dresses or behaves differently than they do, personally. In other words, they are not against other races as long as they act like their own. But there is a large minority of blatantly racist people who make it quite clear in public that they would never vote for anyone different from them. Of course, race itself is a fiction. Last year I made a little powerpoint to show my biology students how fictitious race is. The looks on their faces when I showed them pictures of people whose skin is darker than the President, then showed them that they come from Asia was priceless. I would be glad to email it to anyone who is curious. if I could figure out how to attach it, I would, but I'm not the most computer savvy of people around.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Sorry to jump back into this so quickly, but I have found myself stuck on the computer doing mindless grunt work, so perhaps I have time to comment on something Larry Hart wrote:

The argument you present (and I fully agree with) is that humans evolved to sentience in a supportive environment with air, water, food, heat sources--the means of survival--available to us all as the Commons. If an innovator can make improvements upon some of that Commons, that's all well and good, but it's only "his personal property" if he first "buys out" the rest of society by paying for what he removes from the Commons or for the damage done to the Commons in the process (pollution, etc). If in turn, society ends up owing him for the standard of living he raises for us all, that's well and good too, but that's a separate transaction.
This sounds good on paper, but it suffers from most attempts to use human nature for political/philosophical argument. It makes broad generalizations about human nature based on largely untested assumptions that come from our modern cultural superstructure. It might be easiest to illustrate what I mean by looking at the classic Hobbes vs. Rousseau (vs. Locke). Thomas Hobbes (of Calvin and Hobbes fame) claimed that the "man's state of nature" was selfish, violent and essentially evil. He is the one who famously said that the life of primitive man was "nasty, brutish and short." He believed that God and government were necessary to force people to behave. Jean-Jaques Rousseau had the opposite assumption, that primitive man was a "noble savage" good by nature, but we today are forced to do evil things by our society. John Locke made the counter claim that we are flexible by nature, capable of becoming anything our society consistently teaches us to be.

As I said, these are largely untested assumptions, based on the cultures of their own time and place with little input from observation of "primitive man." All three ideas have some truth to them, but by themselves are inadequate to explain human nature, and therefore human behavior. Modern neuroscience has shown some solid support for Locke, discovering that our brains are dramatically more flexible than we ever imagined (look up neuroplasticity). But we still have instincts that drive human behavior unconsciously, and though we have a lot of assumptions about what those instincts are, genetic science has yet to reveal them in any detail. Old-fashioned ethnography, on the other hand, tells a story of diversity that makes such generalizations seem naïve. Look at the variety of modern hunter/gatherer cultures and you don't see a single pattern of norms for exchange and property rights. Look at the !Kung San (aka Ju hoansi) - their ideas about property turn all our assumptions on their heads! If you explained your philosophy to them, they would scratch their heads and tell you that you have it all wrong. You might enjoy reading Richard Lee's classic essay "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari."

Humans have been evolving (they are still evolving) in a variety of habitats, migrating to virtually every environment this planet has to offer, under a slowly changing climate, which has led to a variety of different cultural adaptations to survive in these differing environments. But culture traps us into thinking that our way of thinking is the only way, or the only correct way, of thinking (what I call memetic entrapment). All of our political philosophies are doomed to failure because they all are based on assumptions about human nature that ignore our natural variation, producing societies that demand stifling conformities against which some segment will always rebel. Always be wary of such generalizations!

David Brin said...

Paul you look to be a welcome addition to the community. Yes, Feudalism is stable over centuries… and unstable and devastating, over millennia. It spreads deserts and ecological degradation because it represses science and dissent. J Diamond documents this in COLLAPSE… then ironically prescribes ruthlessly eco-conservative… feudalism as the only answer! A very bright fool.

David Brin said...

onward!

ENTP said...

I find few blogs that post intelligently about Adam Smith, and this is one of them. The other I have found useful is Adam Smith's Lost Legacy. Gavin Kennedy summed up Wealth of Nations as "Markets where possible, state where necessary." Most of the time Kennedy debunks the myth of the "Invisible hand" and what Smith meant by it as he only used the phrase twice in all of his writing.

Thank you for explaining how libertarians have been co-opted by oligarch cheerleaders and for setting the record straight on the American Revolution.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Ironically, I had wanted to write a book on the same subject, I was going to work on after grad school. But life intervened (as it does with all my efforts), and he beat me to it. I would not have come to any such conclusion. One thing I noticed about Diamond is that he based his assumptions about human nature on native New Guinean peoples he had visited personally, falling for the Availability Heuristic. He might not have made the same recommendations if he had personally observed the Ju hoansi or any of the Pueblan peoples. He fell into a trap scientists are supposed to be trained to avoid. On the other hand, envisioning a truly different form of society takes a lot of imagination. Maybe he should have consulted with a science fiction writer (though I have to say I have seen few science fiction writers who manage to come up with alien societies that are not just proxies for familiar nationalities or philosophies here - but I don't get a lot of time to read anymore, so i may just be missing the good stuff).

David Brin said...

This excerpt shows just how strongly the English aristocracy felt about the "bad" effects of the American frontier: allowing peasants to escape servitude and increasing the value of labor.

"In the first quarter of this century an educated and thoughtful Englishman, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, visited this country. He saw its great resources, and noted the differences between the English-speaking society growing up here and that to which he had been used. Viewing everything from the standpoint of a class accustomed to look on the rest of mankind as created for their benefit, what he deemed the great social and economic disadvantage of the United States was the "scarcity of labor." It was to this he traced the rudeness of even what he styled the upper class, its want of those refinements, enjoyments, and delicacies of life common to the aristocracy of England. How could an English gentleman emigrate to a country where labor was so dear that he might actually have to black his own boots; so dear that even the capitalist might have to work, and no one could count on a constant supply ready to accept as a boon any opportunity to perform the most menial, degrading, and repulsive services? Mr. Wakefield was not a man to note facts without seeking their connection.

"He saw that this "scarcity of labor" came from the cheapness of land where the vast area of the public domain was open for settlement at nominal prices. A man of his class and time, without the slightest question that land was made to be owned by landlords, and laborers were made to furnish a supply of labor for the upper classes, he was yet a man of imagination. He saw the future before the English-speaking race in building up new nations in what were yet the waste spaces of the earth.

"But he wished those new nations to be socially, politically, and economically newer Englands; not to be settled as the United States had been, from the "lower classes" alone, but to contain from the first a proper proportion of the "upper classes" as well. He saw that "scarcity of employment" would in time succeed "scarcity of labor" even in countries like the United States by the growth of speculation in land; but he did not want to wait for that in the newer Britains which his imagination pictured.

"He proposed at once to produce such salutary "scarcity of employment" in new colonies as would give cheap and abundant labor, by a governmental refusal to sell public land, save at a price so high as to prevent the poorer from getting land, thus compelling them to offer their labor for hire."

From: http://savingcommunities.org/docs/george.henry/helpunemployed.html

David Brin said...

This excerpt shows just how strongly the English aristocracy felt about the "bad" effects of the American frontier: allowing peasants to escape servitude and increasing the value of labor.

"In the first quarter of this century an educated and thoughtful Englishman, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, visited this country. He saw its great resources, and noted the differences between the English-speaking society growing up here and that to which he had been used. Viewing everything from the standpoint of a class accustomed to look on the rest of mankind as created for their benefit, what he deemed the great social and economic disadvantage of the United States was the "scarcity of labor." It was to this he traced the rudeness of even what he styled the upper class, its want of those refinements, enjoyments, and delicacies of life common to the aristocracy of England. How could an English gentleman emigrate to a country where labor was so dear that he might actually have to black his own boots; so dear that even the capitalist might have to work, and no one could count on a constant supply ready to accept as a boon any opportunity to perform the most menial, degrading, and repulsive services? Mr. Wakefield was not a man to note facts without seeking their connection.

"He saw that this "scarcity of labor" came from the cheapness of land where the vast area of the public domain was open for settlement at nominal prices. A man of his class and time, without the slightest question that land was made to be owned by landlords, and laborers were made to furnish a supply of labor for the upper classes, he was yet a man of imagination. He saw the future before the English-speaking race in building up new nations in what were yet the waste spaces of the earth.

"But he wished those new nations to be socially, politically, and economically newer Englands; not to be settled as the United States had been, from the "lower classes" alone, but to contain from the first a proper proportion of the "upper classes" as well. He saw that "scarcity of employment" would in time succeed "scarcity of labor" even in countries like the United States by the growth of speculation in land; but he did not want to wait for that in the newer Britains which his imagination pictured.

"He proposed at once to produce such salutary "scarcity of employment" in new colonies as would give cheap and abundant labor, by a governmental refusal to sell public land, save at a price so high as to prevent the poorer from getting land, thus compelling them to offer their labor for hire."

From: http://savingcommunities.org/docs/george.henry/helpunemployed.html

LarryHart said...

Paul Shen-Brown:

The argument you present (and I fully agree with) is that humans evolved to sentience in a supportive environment with air, water, food, heat sources--the means of survival--available to us all as the Commons. If an innovator can make improvements upon some of that Commons, that's all well and good, but it's only "his personal property" if he first "buys out" the rest of society by paying for what he removes from the Commons or for the damage done to the Commons in the process (pollution, etc). If in turn, society ends up owing him for the standard of living he raises for us all, that's well and good too, but that's a separate transaction.
This sounds good on paper, but it suffers from most attempts to use human nature for political/philosophical argument...


I understand I am being simplistic. I don't pretend to have an airtight view of reality, but I do offer a story that resonates a bit more with the world as I actually perceive it, suggests a direction society might head in other than toward inevitible oligarchy, and serves as an antidote to the Rand worldview.

Dr Brin has already moved onto other, less controversial topics, but I hope to "talk" with you more in the future.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Okay Larry, hope to chat with you later! I guess that's what he meant by "onward!" I can be a little thick sometimes. I am a natural-born contrarian. I see the complexity in things that others seem to oversimplify, so sometimes I come across as pedantic.

Anonymous said...

“i am suspicious of any ideology or set of ideas that requires all incoming data to be filtered and shaped to fit pre-conceived notions. period. it's not complicated.”

Yes, but recall the far-left does this just as much as today’s entire-right. The left happens to be correct on some things, but that is not to their fault or credit. Their extreme members are almost as crazy as most rightists and we should remain wary of them.


Yeah, I'm the guy that David is warning you against. I'm a far-left bleeding-heart liberal, and I revel in the thought that I'm considered a leftist whack-a-doodle. I know that many of my ideas are so far out of normal bounds that sometimes I even scare myself when I think of the implications and social problems that could come about if they were implemented. I know that there are both positive and negative things that can happen with many of my views, but for the most part, I truly believe that they will lead to a good outcome.

It seems like every ideology believes that all human beings are good, or at least that everyone adheres to the same base ideology, and that's where they all fail (Yes, even mine). There are humans who are evil. There are also people who will do things contrary to the philosophy around which the leading ideology is made.

Having said that, I know that If my ultra-liberal thoughts were made real, there would be a group to oppose it. The same can be said of the libertarians (whether real or confederate), the conservatives, and even the flat earth society...and maybe we even can think of what the implications for their rule would be.

So yes, I know I'm nutsoid, and you do well to warn people against me. Of course that won't prevent me from existing, so you should always remain just as vigilant against people like me as you should be against people like the Koch Brothers.

Bebe said...

David Brin,

"Robert Green our revolution is about not judging folks based on who their parents were, especially if they disown the bad things dad said."

Would you kindly elucidate?

streamfortyseven said...

I've had my experience with the Libertarian Party, going from 1979 to about 1999 or so. I'm pretty much done with them, in large part because they're financed in the main by people such as the Kochs who made their billions via the predominant and current system of state capitalism, and look to libertarian ideas in order to preserve their ill-gotten gains. Anyone can become a billionaire if they've got the force of government in league with them to extract money from the rest of the population. Actually, if you look back in history, that’s often how the great fortunes were made: http://www.hermes-press.com/completing.htm and http://cyberjournal.org/authors/fresia/ The Libertarians, if they ever got into power, which they won’t, at least those who aren’t already part of the current state capitalist system, would make things much worse for those who aren’t already in possession of large amounts of liquid assets.

Libertarians also have little or no conception of a concept known as the “commons” or the “common good”. If they had their way, they’d privatize roads and bridges, municipal sanitation and water, fire departments, police departments, and public health departments, so that only those who could pay could get access to those things. In short order, there’d be a hell of a mess, you’d have people who couldn’t afford the sewer company building outhouses in their back yards, the same people who couldn’t afford sewers would most probably dig wells. A house fire in a poor neighborhood might end up burning down a couple of blocks worth of houses, if not more, and outhouses and wells in close enough proximity could bring back the joys of cholera and typhoid epidemics. Tack on the lack of public health services, and there’s a real disaster waiting in the wings.

I’m not much for the Constitution, but I’m very much in favor of the preservation of the Bill of Rights, something the Counter-Revolutionaries tacked on to make the bitter pill palatable to the Anti-Federalists. I’ll bet that most people, when they think of the Constitution, really are thinking of the Bill of Rights and not the un-amended document in its own right. As for the Two Party System, which is legally protected by the State and Federal governments via onerous ballot access laws which make third parties well nigh impossible to start or continue in any real sense, I see it as more of a means of manufacturing consent for policies already agreed upon by the Powers That Be, rather than a means by which the general population gets to take a hand in setting those policies in any way - or gets to influence the philosophy of governance. Indeed: 
“The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can ‘throw the rascals out’ at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy.” Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope, 1965, at p1245 et seq.
and we have seen this in the past 50 years or so, where the ideological gulf between the two parties - as reflected in their actions, not their rhetoric - is so broad that you could barely get a razor blade in between them.

At this point in the game, I don’t see any way to save the current system - nor do I see it lasting another 20 years, in the face of essential resource depletion. I think we will end up with a vastly more decentralized scheme of governance, more by default than by choice. Those who choose to create local means of achieving common goods will be better off than those who fail to do so, so I don’t really waste my time or resources on national politics - and that includes the Libertarians.

Bip America said...

. This is really inspiring :) Thanks for being such an inspiration in fueling my passion for Real Estate Trades!

Free listning of Real Estate

Bip America said...

. This is really inspiring :) Thanks for being such an inspiration in fueling my passion for Real Estate Trades!

Free listning of Real Estate

john_m_burt said...

I often (maybe too often) enjoy pointing out in discussion spaces like this that there is seldom anyone in the room who is actually not a Liberal.
Some of us are progressive Liberals like Bernie Sanders. Some of us are conservative Liberals like Olympia Snowe. Some of us are moderate Liberals like President Obama. Some of us call ourselves "classical Liberals" or "Libertarians" or "Democrats" or "Republicans" or "Democratic Socialists", but with very rare exceptions we all agree on the basics of Liberalism, the ones which a famous progressive Liberal once called "self-evident"*: that all men are created equal, that rights are universal and inalienable, that governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed.
What unites us is far more important than the details which divide us, details which genuinely anti-Liberal people use to try to divide us.
There are genuinely anti-Liberal people out there, devoted to destroying the Liberal experiment and restoring the historical status quo. They are our true enemy, not our fellow Liberals.

*Was there ever a more magnificent lie told by any politician than that things which could start a fight in any tavern in the Western world were "self-evident"?

Ben Jamin' said...

Like all conflict, the War of Independence was about land. It was a land grab. End of discussion.

Americans might like to put up arguments about moral principal, but the foundation of their Country was as grubby and violent as any other.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, have you read Philip Acre's essay about conservatism, or The Many Headed Hydra?

http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/conservatism.html

http://www.amazon.com/The-Many-Headed-Hydra-Commoners-Revolutionary/dp/0807033170