Shutdown Strategery


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Structure vs. Belief


Many libertarians embrace public choice theory as a sophisticated, intellectually rigorous political analysis that is consistent with libertarian ideas. This does not mean that libertarians should accept it uncritically.

Public choice theory looks at politics through a lens that treats politicians as selfish actors striving to maximize their power and self-interest, not as people chiefly motivated by the public good. Public choice theory has identified several structural defects in the American political process that lead politicians to destroy liberty as a byproduct of their self-interest. One such defect is the dispersion of interests problem, the fact that a rent-seeking law imposing taxes to help a special interest group has a highly concentrated interest group to lobby for it, whereas the interest to lobby against it is dispersed over the entirety of the taxpayers. Individual taxpayers aren’t sufficiently aware of the tax to be highly interested in fighting it.

Another defect is the fact that politicians usually get noticed by the media for what they do, and not for what they don’t do, so election campaigns tend to reward politicians for being active, which leads to bigger government. Because of the fame that attaches to moralistic crusades, the structure of democracy also rewards legislatures for passing new criminal laws, which leads to overcriminalization.

It is the beliefs of the people that caused the decline of liberty and the rise of big government in post-New Deal America.

But despite public choice theory’s analytical value and libertarian leanings, I would argue that it is mistaken about the fundamental cause of statist laws. As an alternative to public choice theory I would present the rule of intended consequences: the reason for the existence of any given law in a republican democracy is the voters’ belief that the law is good and performs a just purpose; the unintended consequences of a law are usually not the primary reason for that law’s existence. This rule holds that the best way to get an unjust law repealed is to persuade the voters that the law is unjust, so that voter pressure will lead the politicians to repeal it.

For example, the reason why gambling is illegal is that mainstream American voters have inherited a Puritan conservative Christian morality dating back to the colonial era, and they feel that gambling is evil and should be illegal. The Indian casino owners and the casinos in Las Vegas and the state lotteries all benefit from the anti-gambling laws. And they all have lobbying power. But despite the lobby whose interest is favored by criminalization, the primary reason for the anti-gambling laws is the feelings of the voters, not the lobbying of the special interests who benefit from the law. If the voting public did not believe that gambling should be illegal, then it would be legalized.

I doubt that any amount of lobbying or special interest funding could keep gambling from being legalized if the politicians thought that the voters strongly favored its legalization. Legislators who fought the tide of public opinion would simply be voted out and replaced by legislators who would obey the public will. Gay marriage and Prohibition are two other examples showing that the law tends to change when the beliefs of the voters change. The rise of gay marriage laws and both the start and end of Prohibition illustrate the fact that politicians will adopt policies that were once unpopular if they see that the mainstream beliefs of the public have changed.

I would characterize the debate between public choice theory vs. the intended consequences rule as a quarrel between structure and belief. Public choice theorists think that the structure of a republican democracy disadvantages liberty and favors the growth of government. In contrast, I think it is the beliefs of the people that caused the decline of liberty and the rise of big government in post-New Deal America. The rise of socialist sympathy in the Democratic Party in the 1930s coincided with the seepage of socialist theories from the late 19th century into the consciousness of the American public. The expansion of our government has followed Americans’ abandonment of the libertarianism of the American Revolution and their acceptance of modern liberal dogma.

If I am correct, then the key to restoring liberty is not to alter the institutional structures of the nation. Instead, the key is to persuade the voting public to believe in liberty, to transform the people’s moral sentiments so that they feel that statist laws are unjust. This challenge may seem difficult to meet, but altering beliefs would be easier than the task presented by public choice theory, which would be nothing short of fundamentally altering the structure of American government. Public choice could probably succeed only through a series of libertarian constitutional amendments, which seems unlikely. The war of ideas and persuasion is the right path for libertarians to focus on.

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The Two Americas


I don’t want to poach on Stephen Cox’s territory in his monthly Word Watch column, but I have an observation to make about rhetoric. The observation is this: The function of rhetoric isn’t just to appeal to an audience; it is also to identify an audience. Lately this has been happening a lot, and with instructive results.

Three examples:

1. President Obama’s response to the question about whether he knew about the scandalous behavior of the IRS. He said that he didn’t know about the report on the scandalous behavior. This was a shockingly obvious dodge. It starkly revealed the president’s stupidity. But it was a carefully prepared response. It was a calculated dodge. It was calculated to appeal to partisan insiders, who knew (wink, nod) that the rhetoric was grossly misleading but hoped it would save some part of the president’s bacon. So it identified that audience. And it identified another audience — the general American population, which was expected to receive Obama’s claims with passive credulity, thus proving itself even stupider than the president himself.

2. Hillary Clinton’s screaming fit before a congressional committee, some months ago, about the causes of the Benghazi attack. Arms waving, she shrieked, “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”Never a good actress, Clinton wasn’t up to the role of Lady Macbeth, despite the fact that she is Lady Macbeth, and she had obviously been practicing her outburst. Now, who can take seriously a secretary of state whose head blows off at the suggestion that it might be of some interest to discover why people attacked an American diplomatic outpost and murdered an American ambassador — and on her watch, too? The answer is . . . the mainstream media! They took it seriously. Their commentators almost unanimously lauded her powerful and unanswerable performance. Of course, her act was precisely the opposite of strong and convincing; looking back on it, Washington insiders wince about the expectation that it would delude the rubes. But here are the two audiences that her rhetoric identified — the insiders and the rubes. The rubes, it turns out, were not fooled, but the insiders were.

3. The IRS folk and their government investigator, testifying before Congress late in May. The investigator seemed stupefied that his nothing-but-the-facts rhetoric didn’t cover all the bases: when asked why his interrogators had included IRS supervisors in their interviews with IRS employees, he was shocked, amazed. He hadn’t expected such a question — coming, as it did, from outside the charmed circle of Washington bureaucrats. The IRS directors were a hundred times worse. Asked the most obvious questions — obvious, that is, to anyone not in that circle — they used the rhetoric of word and gesture to convey the impression that they were the victims of lèse majesté. They didn’t know what happened. They didn’t know whom they had asked about what happened. They didn’t know who, if anyone, was “disciplined” because of what happened. Of one thing they were certain: they shouldn’t have been asked about any of it. To communicate this idea, they sighed; they sneered; they made faces; they made unfunny jokes about Easter egg hunts; they tried every form of rhetoric available to them to communicate the idea that the questions — again, the perfectly obvious questions — were grossly inappropriate and outré. They assumed that the only audience that mattered was people like themselves, people who are entitled to power and justifiably resent all attempts to wrest it from them. The rest of us couldn’t possibly be significant.

Well. What does this mean? It means one of two things:

1. These people are right: There are two Americas, two audiences for American political discourse. One consists of people like themselves — wise leaders and their intelligent, well-educated, politically correct students and disciples, the modern-liberal establishment and power structure. This is the only audience that counts, either culturally or politically. The other America consists of people who, being perpetual fools and dupes, are out of power and always will be.

2. These people are right: There are two Americas, two audiences for American political discourse. One consists of people like themselves — simpletons who are prepared to swallow almost anything, from the idea that prosperity results from giving the government all your money to the idea that Barack Obama is an honest man. The other America consists of people who know better, and are sometimes willing to do something about it.

I think I know which view is right. But I thank Obama, Clinton, and the minions of the IRS for revealing the issues so clearly, though so unconsciously, in their inimitable displays of rhetoric.

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What Did You Know, and Why Didn’t You Know It?


To me, the funniest part of the administration’s current travail is its entrapment between the devil of activism and the deep blue sea of ignorance.

President Obama has pursued an aggressively state-socialist policy. The belief of his church militant is that government knows best about healthcare, that government knows best about the economy, that government knows best about the environment, race relations, the nature of Islam, the legitimate leadership of Libya, the price of microchips in China. Well, a socialist government has to know these matters, because it has to plan and rule everything. But to any evidence of failure, the president’s response is, “I’m completely ignorant.”

The Benghazi affair? None of us was clear on the facts (but we made announcements, anyway). We’ll find out, after the investigation. The IRS’s persecution of Obama’s critics? I just know what I read in the papers; I’ve ordered an investigation. The secret raid on the Associated Press? I just know what I read in the papers; I can’t comment on matters under investigation.

So either the all-knowing leadership doesn’t know enough to conduct even its own political business, or it knows what it’s doing, and it’s lying about it, to preserve its own power. Take your pick. Either way, it doesn’t look good for state socialism.

Told that President McKinley was going to visit his town, Mr. Dooley, the Irish bartender who was given immortal life by Finley Peter Dunne, made this remark: “I may niver see him. I may go to me grave without gettin’ an’ eye on th’ wan man besides mesilf that don’t know what th’ furrin’ policy iv th’ United States is goin’ to be.”

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Opening Gambit


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Flattering Flim-Flammers of Fear


The two most common motivators used in politics are flattery and fear. The behavior of the pundits and pols, in the wake of the 2012 elections, is especially instructive. We are being told, either plainly or by insinuation, that those who voted the way our professional manipulators desired are the good people, the smart and responsible people, the grownups. And that those who didn’t vote their way are parasites out to suck our blood, or just plain nasties who hate us and are bent on our destruction.

If this isn’t true, and it isn’t, what does it tell us about the character of those who promote themselves and their agenda by telling us such things? We keep hearing that character matters. Is that true? If so, are people who use tactics like those the best ones to entrust with power and authority?

The GOP is moving — with lightning speed — toward more accommodating policies toward women, Hispanics, and gays. Am I somewhat cynical about this sudden conversion? Of course I am. But I can’t help being amused by the reaction it’s getting from the Democrats’ paid drones. “Don’t believe your lying ears,” they’re shrieking.

The hysteria with which we’re being warned that Republicans are insincere and opportunistic is actually quite funny. How are the Dems to scare us anymore if the GOP refuses to cooperate by being scary? Don’t the Republicans know how unfair they’re being by changing the rules of the game?

Flattery and fear are the tools of lazy communicators. They are smoke and mirrors, calculated to keep us from thinking deeply about the issues that affect us. Those who use them hope we won’t notice that they really have nothing more to offer us. They think we’re stupid little children, upon whom such dirty tricks may easily be played. But if people fall for those tricks, time after time, where are the alleged communicators to get the idea that it’s wrong to use them?

A friend of mine is very relieved that Mitt Romney lost the presidential election. Now, he assures me, “they” won’t be murdering gays in the streets. But who on earth is telling him such balderdash? I want to know so I can point and laugh — and so I won’t ever make the mistake of voting for such flim-flammers, or of even taking seriously anything they have to say.

This is the same friend who went into meltdown mode the first time he spotted the “Gary Johnson 2012” sticker in my front window. “Oh, my God,” he gasped. “You can’t possibly vote for him!” When I asked why not, he wouldn’t tell me. Though I can be sure he probably heard of the horrors of a Gary Johnson presidency from the same sages who told him that President Romney’s legions would be hunting gays down and clubbing us like baby seals.

What the impressionable masses are hearing is so insane that I’m not sure even they quite believe it. Which is why, when I ask where they’re getting this stuff, they appear to be too embarrassed to tell me. The result of all this flattery and fearmongering is that we are becoming a vain and fearful people. That many Americans can’t even listen to political discourse, anymore, without being unctuously buttered up or frightened out of their wits does not bode well for the survival of our freedoms.

We’re beginning to believe that our lives must be run by those who tell us we’re perfect, or at least the surviving remnant of human goodness in civilization, and that they — and only they — will protect us from all the evil forces out to end our world. It’s like living in a comic book. Those of us who retain a healthy skepticism about such hoopla must not only think, but encourage others to do the same. Pointing and laughing at the puppeteers is constructive. Pointing and laughing at the misguided souls who dance at the end of their strings is not.

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Killing Them Sophomorically


Killing Them Softly is a film about the ugly underworld of organized crime but tries to be a whole lot more. Set against the 2008 financial meltdown and presidential election, it suggests metaphorically the connection between government and organized crime, implying that the executive branch is an organization that gets rich off the vices of others, controls public opinion by casting blame on someone known to be innocent, and assassinates anyone who gets in its way. The movie suggests that America is nothing but a floating poker game.

In the film, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) — clearly designed to represent Bush — runs a literal floating poker game. He has figured out a way to set up a robbery of the game, pocket the money, and make his cronies — clearly designed to represent corporate America — believe that someone else has stolen the cash. Later he brags about what he did, but since the game is back in play and the money is flowing again, everyone laughs and Trattman gets a bye — this time.

But this isn't an ordinary poker game. Everyone at the table is making money, and it's controlled by bosses who are represented by a button-up businessman (Richard Jenkins) who is so straight that he cringes when someone lights up a cigarette in his car.

A few months later Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), a dry cleaning magnate and low-level criminal, figures that if he sends in some of his own flunkies to steal the cash this time, everyone will assume that Trattman did it again, and Trattman will get the blame. Squirrel knows that Trattman will get killed for it this time, but he figures that's OK because, after all, Trattman did it before; it's just a delayed punishment.

Trattman does indeed get the blame, even though he tries to prevent the robbery. Hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to "interrogate" Trattman, get the names of everyone involved, and eventually dispatch the punishment. It is a graphic, brutal interrogation, and in the end Jackie is convinced that Trattman is innocent this time. But truth isn't important; consumer confidence is. "It doesn't matter whether he did it," the messenger (Richard Jenkins) explains. "He's responsible for it. We need a fall guy for the public angle."

I love to recognize and contemplate metaphors and allusion in film, but this one simply is not worth the effort. It's a sad, ugly movie about sad, ugly people.

President Bush's words echo this criminal's perspective. "America's financial problem is complex," he explains on TV. “Confidence in our financial system is essential." In fact, throughout the film, TVs and radios are strategically placed to play snippets of Bush discussing the financial meltdown of 2008. We hear the voice of a Bush official saying, "This isn't what we want to do, but it's what we must do to restore confidence in the US economy." And lest we fail to realize that Bush is the culprit, references are made to "the rush into Iraq on election eve" and "There must be consequences."

Killing Them Softly tries to be artistically and philosophically important. Ever since the artistically dense Tree of Life was given an Oscar nomination last year, Hollywood filmmakers have felt the mandate to make metaphorically rich films. I love to recognize and contemplate metaphors and allusion in film, but this one simply is not worth the effort. It's a sad, ugly movie about sad, ugly people. And it is getting great reviews. I guess the mainstream critics will praise anything that blames Bush.

The title is an allusion to the Roberta Flack song Killing Them Softly, in which a young girl is moved to tears by the lyrics of a song that seem to tell her own story, just as this movie purports to tell Bush's story. But in the film, the phrase has its own meaning. Jackie tells the messenger, "I like to kill them from a distance. Up close they cry and beg and piss themselves. It gets emotional and messy."

And he's right. The violence in this film is close up and brutal, and the victims do cry and beg. It's ugly. There is nothing soft about the hitman. Moreover, there is nothing redeeming about any of the characters, and there are virtually no women, except for one quick scene with a prostitute. All the characters care about or talk about is getting physical pleasure from drinking, heavy smoking, drugs, and prostitutes.

As much as it tries to be an artsy message movie, Killing Them Softly is little more than a garden-variety hitman movie, long on blood and short on character. Despite its heavy-handed metaphors, arty special effects, jazzy music, and stellar acting, the story is barely interesting and entirely predictable.

It's also overwhelmingly cynical. When Jackie observes Obama's 2008 acceptance speech on one of the ubiquitous television screens, he hears Obama's optimistic "no more red states or blue states but United States" and his reference to "the enduring power of our ideals. " Jackie responds, "In America you're on your own. America isn't a country; it's a business. Now pay me."

That may be true for misfits like those who populate this movie — people who have no genuine friendships or family relationships, who spend time in and out of prison, who live only to get high on drugs or sex, and who interact only with women who are prostitutes. But I'm not willing to buy the idea that America is nothing but a business, or that being a business is a bad thing. This is just a sad, ugly, brutal movie with an idea that doesn't quite work.

Editor's Note: Review of "Killing Them Softly," directed by Andrew Dominik. Weinstein Brothers, 2012, 97 minutes.

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H.L. Mencken, Where Have You Gone?


At least in the most obvious sense, my title poses a dumb question. Where has H.L. Mencken gone? He’s been dead for more than 50 years. But though he’s long gone, and we won’t see his like again, many of those who cherish liberty wish they could call him back. America could use another like him, perhaps now as never before.

My introduction to the Sage of Baltimore came in my sophomore year of high school. Sharon Morrow, a teacher I wish I could personally thank today, extolled his virtues to our journalism class. To us, he was just an old dead guy. If a teacher liked anybody famous, the poor soul was automatically consigned to the purgatory of the uncool. But to suck up, this aspiring journalist read A Mencken Chrestomathy — a huge anthology of his essays and columns. Read it, and wrote a report.

I expected the project to be a chore, but I’ve seldom enjoyed a book so much before or since. Some of the pieces were dated, lampooning or lambasting people and notions nobody has heard of since the Roaring Twenties. But many could apply as sharply to today’s events as to those of times long past. What wicked and delicious fun Mencken would have had in 2012!

Henry Louis Mencken hated sham. He made mincemeat of hypocrites. He had a curmudgeonly love for this country, and he often spoke harshly to his American audience. But always with a twinkle in his eye. He could bring a reader to vein-popping outrage in one paragraph and pants-wetting laughter in the next.

He was a staunch libertarian before anybody knew what the word meant. “The government I live under has been my enemy all my active life,” he once wrote. “When it has not been engaged in silencing me it has been engaged in robbing me. So far as I can recall I have never had any contact with it that was not an outrage on my dignity and an attack on my security.”

Mencken certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

The young Ayn Rand regarded Mencken as an inspiration, remarking in 1934 that he was “one whom I admire as the greatest representative of a philosophy to which I want to dedicate my whole life.” If anybody ever stood up against Leviathan and refused to blink, it was he. In the feverish days leading up to World War I, he sacrificed his job as a newspaper columnist to denounce President Woodrow Wilson’s manipulation of public opinion in favor of entering the conflict. As Franklin Roosevelt amassed unprecedented power and craftily angled the US into World War II, Mencken earned FDR’s ire by opposing him and, in the process, lost another job.

His bedevilment of Roosevelt started during the Great Depression. “The New Deal began,” he famously observed, “like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flophouses and disturbing the peace.”

What might he have to say about our apparently endless War on Terror? Or — given his merciless mockeries of Prohibition — about our even more interminable War on Drugs?

About the first national crusade for sobriety, he had this to say:

Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.

Mencken was my introduction to libertarian thought. Not only to its thought per se, but to its attitude. I sensed even then, in the Carter years, that if he were to be miraculously resurrected (a notion at which he, a lifelong unbeliever, would cackle), he would give our moribund nation a much-needed kick in the pants. He had no use for whining or victimhood, and the spectacle of a president lamenting our “malaise” would be met with appropriate scorn. He certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

“On some great and glorious day,” predicted the Sage, “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

He knew a coverup when he saw one, and made sure it didn’t stay covered up for long. Campaign seasons were sources of neverending merriment to him. Never a partisan cheerleader, he treated his readership to what he saw as the unvarnished truth about both sides. And when a public servant displayed the integrity to do what was right, against overwhelming opposition, Mencken was likely to be the one voice in the press to point it out. Even though, about ambitious office-seekers in general, he remarked that “a good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”

What we lack today, in the mainstream media, is people who simply observe and comment without owing automatic allegiance to either side. Or observe and report with no preconceived agenda. Fox News, billing itself as “fair and balanced,” may see a different angle from its competitors, but it still sees only one angle. Like the blind men in a well-known Buddhist parable, some think the elephant is all trunk, while others reduce it to its giant posterior.

A people fit to govern itself needs to keep its baloney-detectors in keen working order. The people need to know when they’re being duped. They need to know how to recognize their own best interests. This requires sharp thinking on the important issues of the day. In our own day, journalists with the courage and wit to perform this service are in woefully short supply.

From 1899, as a cub reporter, until 1948, when he was felled by a stroke, Mencken did his utmost to help Americans understand the human drama and recognize the players for what they were. I owe him my rambunctious love for liberty, deep appreciation for the written word, and taste for fine cigars. I can’t personally thank him, any more than I can my high school journalism teacher. This essay will need to suffice.

“In every unbeliever’s heart there is an uneasy feeling that, after all, he may awake after death and find himself immortal.” Mr. Mencken, your great soul is immortal indeed. Too bad it can’t drag itself back here and knock some sense into us.

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The Non-Political Side of Life


At times like this, we all need to be reminded that there is a world outside of politics — a world of wonders that has nothing to do with Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. I was recently reminded of that when I spent a few days on Isle Royale.

If you’re like all of my friends but one, you have never heard of Isle Royale. So think of Lake Superior, the way it looks on the map. It looks like a wolf’s head, pointing west. The eye of the wolf is Isle Royale. It’s 50 miles long and 10 miles wide, and as Grace Lee Nute wrote in her book about the greatest of all lakes, “It is not really an island at all, but a miniature continent, surrounded by its own islands.” Isle Royale is part of Michigan, the land of shibboleths, so its name is naturally pronounced differently from what you would expect. It isn’t “roy-ALL”; it’s “ROY-ull.” (In Michigan, Charlotte is “shar-LOT,” Lake Orion is “Lake OH-ree-on,” Mackinac is “MACK-in-aw,” and Sault Ste. Marie is “the Soo.”)

Nobody lives all year long on Isle Royale; it’s a national park with a lodge and places to camp and a lot of not-very-well-frequented trails into forest, steep, and swamp. There are moose, and I saw their tracks. There are fox, and I saw their spoors. There is a tribe of wolves, and I didn’t see any part of them. The Lake is perfectly clear, and at dawn the planet Venus shines not like a star but like a silver door left open in the sky.

Very little has ever happened on Isle Royale. Starting 5,000 years ago, Indians mined copper there, and it’s a big thrill to see the little pits where they did that. The stuff traded all over North America, and perhaps beyond. But they didn’t live there, either. In the 19th century white people tried large-scale mining, and failed; the ores weren’t good enough. Independent souls established outposts where they fished and sold their catch to ships that called at the island. The biggest excitement was the occasional ship that managed to wreck itself, running into Isle Royale. In the 1930s, do-gooders decided to protect the island from the nondevelopment that was taking place, and the national park was established.

Nobody I encountered, even the loudmouths in the bar and grill, showed the slightest interest in politics.

Why am I telling you all this? Because there’s no television on the island; there’s no cell phone service; and there’s only one hot spot for the internet — which I saw nobody using except me. I didn’t even know it existed until my last day on the island. And nobody I encountered, even the loudmouths in the bar and grill, showed the slightest interest in politics, or curiosity about what was happening in the desperate electoral war being waged in The Battleground States.

This attitude continued in evidence when I took the boat back to Houghton, Michigan (80 miles away). Nobody there — even, again, the loudmouths, and they’ve got a few of them in Houghton, too — had anything to say about politics. In Houghton’s twin city, Hancock, I saw a huge Ron Paul sign hanging from someone’s porch, but that was it. This indifference to civic virtue didn’t seem to have any harmful effect on people’s moral stature. During the long boat ride, I noticed that everyone, ultimately including me, left all valuable articles — computers, purses, cameras, small but expensive gear — just lying around on the seats: no crime was anticipated. In Hancock, I attended one of the local churches, which like everything else in Upper Michigan is seriously down on its luck but in which the tiny congregation frankly and cheerfully discussed its history, prospects, and current business with the chance visitor from Southern California. After a long conversation over coffee in the basement social hall, the last person left (I had exhausted all the others) asked whether I’d had a chance to study the century-old carvings around the altar, upstairs. “No,” I said. “Do you have a couple of minutes to show me?” “Oh,” she replied, gripping her walker and swiveling herself up from the table, “my ride is here, and I have to go. Just look around, and close the door behind you when you go.” No problem; I probably wouldn’t hurt anything. So for the next two hours I had the opportunity to enjoy some of the most remarkable works of art I’ve ever seen. No advertising words had been used. Nobody talked about “Houghton’s iconic church” or claimed that its décor was “legendary,” “famous,” or (heaven forfend) “infamous.” It was just there, if you wanted to see it. Take a look.

Wonders of the nonpolitical world.

Unfortunately, however, I need to be fair. I am not one of those libertarians who think that all would be well if the state would just wither. The world of nonpolitics has its heavens, but it also has its hells. Liberty’s observant managing editor, Drew Ferguson, located two of them the other day. They are visions from which even Dante Alighieri would turn in horror.

Of course I’m exaggerating, at least about the first one. But it does involve dying. It’s the headline that TV station WBTV (wherever that is) gave to one of its stories: “MAN KILLED TO DEATH.” It’s possible, barely possible, that whoever wrote that headline had in mind the words of the Revelation of St. John the Divine (2:23), in which Jesus says of an ideological enemy, “I will kill her children with death.” But probably not.

Drew’s other find was much worse, and much more elaborate.

Georgia Tech, I am sorry to report, has been going through a spiritual crisis. It has felt the need to “reenergize its look, while staying connected with its past.” It is, therefore, doing what other collective souls in crisis have done. It is “showcasing” new football uniforms.

To me (but what do I know?) these new football suits look exactly like all the others. But the ramblin’ wrecks from Georgia Tech know better. Among the “Jersey Highlights” are the following (and I quote):

• New custom Georgia Tech sublimation pattern on the neck front, sleeves and back insert
• New custom stretch twill numbers that reduce jersey weight and provide a leaner fit as compared to standard fabric numbers
• New custom sublimation number pattern and font featuring "GT navy" honeycomb
• New "GT gold" banded edge offsets sublimation pattern for sharper contrast at stitch borders
• Extreme Compression tight fit fabric minimizes grab capabilities by opponents
• Lower mesh insert on front and back for ultimate breathability

“I’m sold!” was Drew’s remark.

But what, you may ask, is a “sublimation pattern”?

I would remind you that every art has its lingo, and that technical words, which look like nonsense to the uninitiated, must often be used by professionals. “Sublimation pattern” is a perfect example. I haven’t the faintest idea what that could mean. If you know, please contact Liberty. I do know, however, because the manufacturers have divulged this information, that the outfit as a whole “catalyze[s] a spirit of enthusiasm for the season ahead.”

Of course, this stuff is benign, compared to political oratory.

Not quite so benign, but similar in effect to the football-uniform puffery, is the allegedly technical language of social scientists. A grad student at Princeton, who wishes to remain anonymous, obliged this column by reporting the following sample, taken from an academic disquisition of some kind. The mighty problem that engages its author is the old issue of whether people can be attracted to each other, despite their differences. He concludes that they are attracted, until they aren’t. In other words, you may think I’m fun because I’m different, but you’ll tell me to get lost if my difference gets too large. Here’s the great social scientist’s way of putting it:

Consider “Like attracts like” versus “Opposites attract each other.” . . . [I]f attractiveness is an inversely U-shaped function of novelty or similarity, each of the two opposing mechanisms might simply describe different parts of the curve. . . . [U]ltimately, some optimal level is reached, whereafter increases in the independent variable are held to give rise to reductions in liking.


Ya gotta love it.

I’m told that the paper from which this sample is drawn gets handed out frequently in classes at famous colleges like Princeton, and that students think it’s hilariously funny. I hope that’s why the professors hand it out. Where would we be if they actually thought it meant something?

Among the entirely nongovernmental institutions I cherish is the peculiarly American phenomenon of the fortune cookie. (No, they don’t come from China; they are as American as you and I, whoever we are.) But have you noticed that their quality has been declining? This decline is, in fact, disastrous; it represents a total misunderstanding of the genre.

A fortune cookie is supposed to give you a fortune. Picture yourself going to a fortuneteller. She (almost all of them are she’s) looks into your hand and says, “I foresee there will be problems in your life from the young ambitious one, and also from the lady with gray eyes.” She blathers on like that for a few minutes, then indicates that this is the point where you’re supposed to leave, or give her another 20 bucks and get your other palm read too. So you give her the other 20, and she starts in about how the man from southern parts will bless you with his business, but there will be much danger from accidents with cars.

No, this isn’t specific enough to ruin your day, but at least you feel that she’s given you some of your money’s worth.

Apparently, however, the fortune cookie people figure that by the time their product arrives at your table, you’ve already eaten the meal and have to pay the check, so why should they bother to come up with a fortune? So they give you something else.

This is what passed for a “fortune” on one of my recent visits to Chinese cuisine:

Your future looks bright.

What? That’s a fortune? No, it’s not.

My friend Mehmet, who was with me on that expedition and therefore had to put up with my rant, made this suggestion: “Maybe it should say, ‘Your October 12 looks bright.’” Well, yes. That would be an improvement.

On another recent occasion, Mehmet and I were both handed that most pathetic of all substitutes for a fortune — good advice.

Let’s think for a moment. Suppose there’s something wrong with you. You keep having these blinding headaches. So you go to a doctor. Or maybe you go to a “spiritual counselor” of some kind. No difference. You want to know what’s going on, and what’slikely to result. In short, you want your fortune told. And suppose the person whom you’re consulting looks you in the eye and says, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

“Huh?” you ask.

“A stitch in time saves nine,” he continues. “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”

You would, I am sure, be tempted to commit assault and battery, not to mention stiffing the jerk when he presented the bill.

So you can imagine my feelings when, on that other recent occasion, I looked at my fortune and saw:

A good beginning is only half done.

What the . . . ? What kind of human being would write crap like that, and put it in an innocent lump of dough?

As I looked at the squirrely little slip of paper, my whole life flashed before my eyes. I vividly remembered the summer when my parents, who were very averse to travel, actually took me on a trip to New York City. In the restaurants along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which were then very nice, and fascinating to little kids from Michigan, there were scales into which you could insert a quarter and receive, along with your weight, a long, narrow, tightly rolled piece of paper that contained your fortune, reckoned according to your astrological sign. The thing was vastly specific; it must have had 2000 words in it, with all sorts of numbers and figures and days of the week and months of the year and forecasts about what would happen to you on every day of the next month. It was wonderful. I cherished it, and hid it in my hands in the back seat of the car, because if my parents saw it they would not only scoff but probably take it away from me, as a warning against superstition. I have no faith in divination whatsoever, but I wish I had that fascinating object now. It was a work of art.

I do know, however, because the manufacturers have divulged this information, that the outfit as a whole “catalyzes a spirit of enthusiasm for the season ahead.”

Soon after that, The Old Farmer’s Almanac swam into my childish field of vision. In those days, it wasn’t a bland modern-liberal throwaway, as it is now. It not only presented wonderful astronomical data, full of weird symbols and funny expressions (“ecliptic,” “the moon rides low”); it had Features that were real Features, by God. My first acquaintance with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner came from its reprinting in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which also ran the Doré illustrations — mysterious, tantalizing, unforgettable. In those times, the OFA still asserted that it had a secret algorithm for predicting the weather, and it gave out its meteorological forecasts in rhymed poetry. Oh my! What a wonderful thing.

But here, sitting on the table, amid the ruins of the cookie I destroyed to free the verbal genie from its bottle, is a “fortune” that says:

A good beginning is only half done.

That doesn’t even make sense. What would it mean to “do” a “beginning”? And how would a beginning be “good” if there was only “half” of it?

As always, Mehmet came out with a cogent comment. “It’s like the Donner Party,” he said. “This isn’t so bad; it’s only begun.” At first, the people in the Donner Party may have thought that a couple more inches of snow wouldn’t really mean very much . . .

Come to think of it, that comment — “it’s like the Donner Party” — is a pretty good summary of political discourse. It tempts me to drift back to what might, with too much generosity, be called the rhetoric of the present campaign. So I’ll quit while I’m ahead — or, in fortune cookie language, leave while my good beginning is still half done.

rsquo;t seem to have any harmful effect on people

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Civil Noncompliance


As a piano technician I come across many unusual requests, but none so bizarre as one I received some time ago from a man whom I’ll call Mr. Green. Could I, he asked, strip the ivory from the keys of a Steinway grand piano?

I was appalled. Applying ivory to piano keys is a fine art. The ivory on each key is two separate pieces that have been color matched, cut, and glued together so carefully that there is no visible seam, then clamped exactly over a special wafer of cloth impregnated with white pigment that gives the translucent ivory a white, lustrous hue. To ask me to undo this fine craftsmanship was preposterous. It would be like asking me to slash the Mona Lisa or blow up Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. I asked Mr. Green why he wanted me to perform this sacrilege.

His answer was the law demanded it. After searching all over North America, Green had found precisely the right piano for his concert pianist wife. It was located in Canada’s province of British Columbia. As he made arrangements to have it shipped to his home in Connecticut, he learned that the piano would not be allowed into the United States because the ivory of its keys is prohibited by a law that bans the importation of ivory. Hence the need to remove the ivory from the keys.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “The piano was made in 1970, twenty years before the ban came into effect. Surely there is an exception for things made before the ban was adopted?”

“I can’t find out about that, it’s really crazy,” he sputtered. “I’ve called and called. I’m going out of my mind, I’m not getting any sleep. It’s a nightmare.”

Unable to get any straight or useful answer from U.S. Customs, he had retained a customs broker, who wasn’t able to find a way around the problem, either. The seller of the piano had, for his part, contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which supposedly administers the ban, and had received only a vague and equivocal response. If there was a way of applying for an exception, it was buried so deep in the bowels of bureaucracy as to be inaccessible to human beings. At his wit’s end, Green decided to have the ivory stripped off the keys, ship the piano to Connecticut, and then have the keys recovered with plastic.

The Death of Common Sense

The problem Mr. Green faced is familiar. The accumulated weight of regulation today is so great that we bump into its inane and counterproductive demands all the time. Author Phillip Howard focused on this problem in his 1995 book, The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. “Modern law,” he says, “has not protected us from stupidity and caprice, but has made stupidity and caprice dominant features of our society.” His book surveys the mountain of regulations that “crushes our goals and deadens our spirits.”

To ask me to undo this fine craftsmanship was preposterous, like asking someone to slash the Mona Lisa or blow up Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

Social scientists have also noticed the issue. Their research into the many ways that laws go awry has prompted them to formulate the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” This generalization, first popularized by sociologist Robert Merton in 1936, ranks along with death and taxes as one of the few certainties of social life. It holds that every government effort to improve life has unexpected and harmful side effects. In many cases, these harmful effects are so severe as to defeat the original purpose of the law.

The ban on ivory is a good illustration of this dysfunctional pattern. From a distance, the problem seemed simple. Poachers kill elephants for their tusks, thus reducing the numbers of elephants — and, in certain areas, possibly driving them to extinction. The theory was that a law against the importation of ivory would deprive poachers of their market, and the killing of elephants would stop.

Alas, the world is always more complicated than it seems to those who make laws. Now, poaching and overhunting of elephants still takes place, but thanks to scarcity the practice is more lucrative than ever. Before the ban, ivory was selling for $200 a kilo; now the black market price is over $2,000.

But this is only part of the problem. Some African countries have too many elephants. These beasts overgraze and destroy the habitat in wildlife preserves, threatening plant and animal species with extinction. In these cases, wildlife experts recommend culling elephants to reduce their numbers. In other places where elephant population is too high, these animals destroy crops of poor farmers. This problem is managed by cooperative arrangements that cull some elephants, and reimburse farmers for crop losses with money gained from selling tusks of the culled animals. A ban on ivory undercuts these arrangements and thus encourages farmers to kill them secretly.

Before the ban, ivory was selling for $200 a kilo; now the black market price is over $2,000.

Another point that the ban does not take into account is that ivory has positive, non-substitutable human uses. Piano and organ keys are a case in point. Plastic piano key tops do not give the same feel as ivory. When dry, they are too “sticky,” not allowing the fingertips to slide from note to note. When wet with perspiration, plastic key tops become too slippery. A total ban on ivory, then, means that musical performances at the highest level are compromised.

These are just a few of the complexities that the law against the importation of ivory overlooks. Distant publics and shallow-minded legislators suppose that such a law is like a meat axe, and that one swing will fix, simply and finally, the problem they have in mind. But in its actual operation, it is more like a grenade, doing damage in many different directions that no one could predict when it is first put into effect. That the ivory ban would require the sacrilege of stripping ivory from the keys of a Steinway grand piano illustrates the kind of unanticipated, harmful side effects that come with every law.

Democratic Dead End

How do we fix this problem of laws that make a mockery of common sense? One answer might be to use the democratic process. That’s what the civics books recommend: if you don’t like a law, then you write a letter to the editor, or to your congressman. This advice might have made sense in an age of small government and few laws, but it is painfully unrealistic today. The mass of regulations now in place represents the accumulation of many decades of lobbying, coalition-building, administrative interpretation, and judicial precedent. The idea that an individual could even be noticed in this quagmire, let alone clear it up, is fanciful.

Furthermore, the democratic process gave us these laws. Politicians promised them as the solutions to problems. Sure, they ignored the harmful side effects, but this is the way the system works. The modern politician’s goal is not to make things better. It is to display good intentions, to gather kudos from a shallow media and curry favor with single-minded pressure groups. Politics has become theatre, where the politician-actor struts upon the stage playing the hero, and the audience applauds his performance.

The modern politician’s goal is not to make things better. It is to display good intentions, and to curry favor with single-minded pressure groups.

Thus, within democratic politics, there is no way of stemming the tide of shortsighted laws. If you go to the legislators and point out that a certain law has backfired, they are not going to repeal it. Lawmakers passed the ban on ivory in order to look good. They are hardly going to agree to offend the environmental pressure groups by reversing themselves (Headline: “Senator Endorses Slaying of Elephants”). If the politicians do anything, they will pass additional laws to try to fix the problems they caused with the first law — giving rise, of course, to more unintended consequences.

In the Tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King

Is there nothing that we can do to counteract foolish and destructive laws?

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau elaborated the principle of civil disobedience, the idea that it is right for an individual to disobey an unjust law. Though a familiar concept for abolitionists and others who objected to government power on religious grounds, Thoreau's work proved revolutionary in separating civil disobedience from specific religious traditions, allowing men to appeal not to any higher power, but to the reason of his fellow man. Following in Thoreau’s footsteps, Mohandas Gandhi developed civil disobedience into a method of political reform. With his mass protests in South Africa and India, Gandhi showed the world that law need not be treated as a god. When laws contradict our sense of morality and decency, it is right to disobey them. Later, Martin Luther King, another of Thoreau’s disciples, grounded the American civil rights movement on the same principle.

Civil disobedience points the way to a tactics of reform, but it will not itself address the problem of overregulation. Civil disobedience is a tactic of mass protest. It assumes a single, objectionable law so prominent that large numbers of people can be marshaled to demonstrate in the streets against it.

The problem we face with law in the modern state is that there are tens of thousands of silly regulations, and no single one merits a high-profile campaign. To take Mr. Green’s case, imagine the difficulties we would have in trying to attract crowds, and the media, to a “piano-importing protest” at a U.S. customs check point on the Canadian border. To resist and counter the regulatory regime, we need a small-scale, convenient strategy that can be applied in thousands, even millions, of instances. I call it “civil noncompliance.” Its aim is to counter a destructive law by finding a quiet way to evade it. This was what I used to counter the unjust effect of the law on ivory importation affecting Mr. Green.

To resist and counter the regulatory regime, we need a small-scale, convenient strategy that can be applied in thousands, even millions, of instances.

My sister and I drove to Canada for a round of golf. While she played, I visited the home of the seller, took the piano apart, removed the keys and put them in a cardboard box which I put in the back of my station wagon. Then I put the piano back together, ready to be shipped to Mr. Green in the ordinary way, sans ivory. I picked up my sister at the golf course, and drove to the border.

The U.S. customs agent was friendly. What was the purpose of our visit to Canada?

“We played golf.”

“How did you do?”

I said, “Don’t ask!”

He laughed and waved us through. The next day I shipped the keys to Mr. Green, to be put back in the piano when it arrived. Travesty avoided!

The Polite Reform

By calling the tactic “civil” noncompliance, I mean to emphasize the element of social responsibility. I do not advocate disobeying laws just because one can get away with it. One must have a helpful, socially constructive purpose in mind. For example, you shouldn’t run red lights as a general practice. Even if there were no policemen to notice it, that behavior would be both rude and dangerous; that is, uncivil. But if you were driving an injured child to the emergency room late at night when no other cars were about, driving through the red light would be an act of civil noncompliance.

By using the term “noncompliance,” I mean to emphasize that this is a polite disobedience. It is not confrontational, and certainly never violent. Civil noncompliance does not presume a battle with government officials enforcing the law. The idea is to be unnoticed by them, or to receive their tacit support in avoiding a regulation’s requirements. The idea that officials may be willing to “look the other way” is an unusual point, for we are accustomed to portray bureaucrats as rigid, power-mad enforcers who enjoy making life difficult for ordinary people. There are undoubtedly some in this category, but most government employees are ordinary human beings who want to be friendly and helpful.

Government officials often see that regulations are irrational and harmful. Out of sympathy, or embarrassment, they can become allies.

I’m sure readers can cite cases of officials who helped them evade some destructive regulation. My favorite episode took place years ago in Peru when, as a student, I was applying for a residency visa. After filling out the form, I went to the cashier, who said the charge would be $1,800! Of course I couldn’t pay this astronomical fee (which had been set with oil company executives in mind). I was directed to the head of the agency. After hearing my plight, he looked at my form.

“Since you’re not 21 years old, you only have to pay the fee for a minor of age, which is $25.”

“Oh, but I’m afraid I’m over 21,” I replied. “My birthday was—”

“You don’t understand,” he said firmly. “Look here,” he tapped his finger on the form. “See, you’re not 21.”

I finally got it through my thick skull that he was trying to help me. “Oh, yes. I see. Right! Thank you!”

He called over to the cashier and told her, “Es menor de edad.”

She nodded and told me the charge was $25.

Government officials often see that regulations are irrational and harmful. Out of sympathy, or embarrassment, they can become allies in the tactics of civil noncompliance. In fact, sometimes they can be the leaders. Take the case of wolves in Idaho. The state’s environmentalists, hunters, and ranchers had worked out a modus vivendi for dealing with wolves, a system that involved compensation for ranchers who lose stock to wolves, and some hunting to cull the wolf population. This system ran afoul of the federal courts and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which in 2010 banned wolf hunting in Idaho. That decision no doubt made urban treehuggers happy, but it thoroughly disgusted Idahoans. In response, Idaho governor Butch Otter practiced civil non-compliance: he ordered state officials to stop investigating wolf kills.

A Quiet Revolution

Civil noncompliance is more than a strategy for getting by in an age of over-regulation. It affords an avenue for remaking social governance along new lines.

The political approach to addressing problems and managing social life is running out of steam. Generations ago, idealists believed that politics held the key to building a new society. Candidates, parties, and revolutionary movements — from communists to progressives, fascists to democratic socialists — were energized by the conviction that control of government would give them the power to set the country on the path to their dreamed-of Utopia.

No informed person now looks at politics in this way. Government today is more like an ineffectual goo, a spreading blob of noise and hypocrisy that can be neither directed nor reformed. Journalist Jonathan Rauch made this point in his 1994 book Demosclerosis (revised and expanded in1999 as Government’s End; Why Washington Stopped Working): “Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients, but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”

It is also clear that the system cannot be overthrown. At bottom, the public wants big government. Yes, most people are aware that government fails miserably time after time, and they realize that most of the politicians who make the laws are shortsighted and hypocritical (when not downright corrupt). Nevertheless, the public clings to government as an object of worship. Government fills the human longing to believe in a higher power that cares for us, a God-like force that can answer our prayers in troubled times. Government also fills the need for heroes to worship, for famous figures the public can ooh and aah over. Finally, politics provides the excitement of competition for a nation of bored, media-hungry couch potatoes. To get an idea how difficult it would be to do away with big government, imagine trying to abolish God, Santa Claus, and the Super Bowl all at once.

We will have the show of politics, then. We will have candidates promising, lawmakers denouncing, and pressure groups nagging. But as civil noncompliance is increasingly practiced, this posturing will have less effect on the real world. The end point — Utopia, if you will — would be a society where politicians provide entertainment with their posturing, passing laws that promise this and prohibit that. Meanwhile citizens quietly ignore these laws in their daily lives and do what is right and helpful.

Such sensible times may yet be far off. But as I drove away from the customs checkpoint with those ivory piano keys rattling in the back of my car, I thought, I have seen the future, and it works!

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