When Stupid Thinking Happens to Smart People

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An age-old question, pondered by those who think weighty thoughts, is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Many books have been written on the subject. It’s one of the first questions kids ask their parents after they’ve stopped wondering why the sky is blue. This libertarian Christian’s answer would be, “Because, unlike government, God doesn’t try to micromanage every aspect of human life.” I’m reasonably satisfied with that explanation, but an altogether different question has perplexed me: why do smart people think stupid things?

Anyone who pays attention to the political scene is bound to observe the prevalence of what those in Twelve-Step recovery call “stinking thinking.” When we hear a particular stupidity once too often, something in us snaps. My own “snap” comes not when a dumb oaf commits this infraction, but when the guilty party is someone whose intelligence I generally respect. It happened again only the other day. Since I enjoy a good outrage as much as anybody, I’m writing about it while my irritation is deliciously fresh.

Those who presume to control the lives of others think themselves smarter and morally superior to the poor dolts over whom they would rule.

In a theology study group, where the president’s name had no conceivable reason to be mentioned, a friend of mine enthusiastically shared what she was reading in her spare time. It was yet another allegedly damning expose of “how the Russians stole the election for Trump.” She told us about this as if it were a conclusion as inescapable as the fact that the sky is blue. Now, I’m no great fan of Donald Trump, didn’t vote for him in 2016, and have no idea whom I’ll vote for (if anyone) in 2020. But perhaps because I thought this particular woman too intelligent to fall for this “Trump-Russia is the New Watergate” malarkey, I’d had all I was willing to take.

As we were obviously no longer discussing theology, I asked her if she had the slightest clue why most of those who voted for Trump cast their ballots as they did. I noted that in the months prior to the election, few people thought him a man of sterling character. That people who voted for Trump weren’t voting for a best friend, or for someone to babysit their dogs, marry their daughters, or stand as godfather for their grandkids. And that nothing the Russians could have said or done would have made Hillary Clinton any less trustworthy, in the judgment of those voters, than she already was.

The conversation was quickly steered back onto the subject at hand, but I believe I made my point. Not that I changed my friend’s mind. She will probably go right on believing that Trump voters are all horrible sexists and racists who want the poor to starve to death and the elderly to get sick and waste away. In the partisan bubble in which she lives, she isn’t permitted to think anything else.

Progressive bubble-dwellers’ nutty notions about Trump’s victory can be traced to one primary cause: their own mountainous vanity. They cannot conceive of how dangerous and destructive millions of Americans believe Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party to be. Only a dastardly conspiracy of Republicans and Russians could keep voters from bowing before the shining wonderfulness of the Dems. Vanity, in general, goes a long way toward explaining why so many stupidities are so readily believed by people who really ought to know better.

We might also recall that vanity was one of Lucifer’s chief sins.

Vanity also explains the prevalence of statist thinking on both Left and Right. Those who presume to control the lives of others think themselves smarter and morally superior to the poor dolts over whom they would rule. In contemporary America, we don’t like to take the blame for anything. Because we’re too smart to ever screw up, every undesirable occurrence simply must be someone else’s fault.

This vanity encourages us to believe that we can run other people’s lives better than they can. We might also recall that vanity was one of Lucifer’s chief sins. He thought he’d make a better god than God.

As this is not a theology discussion group, I know I shouldn’t mention that. But such a lapse can’t possibly be my fault. I blame it totally on my progressive friend.




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If You Can Keep Your Head

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Recently I saw an article with a headline that went more or less like this: “I’m a Conservative: I Care About Character.” The thesis of the piece was: “That’s why I can’t support Trump.”

I didn’t finish the article. I didn’t need to. I felt that I could have written it myself — or a hundred articles like it. Not because I’m a conservative (I’m not) or because I habitually care about politicians’ “character” enough to vote for or against them because of it. I vote for politicians, not for friends; and I almost always vote for the person I consider the lesser of the two evils. But I understand that everyone has some particular issue that he or she cares most about, at least right now; and for the conservative gentleman or lady it’s “character.” Some people care, or think they care, about only one issue, ever. And an article written from that point of view would be simplicity itself.

I vote for politicians, not for friends; and I almost always vote for the person I consider the lesser of the two evils.

But I look at the world in a different way, and I believe that the year of the Trump presidency has taught a lot of other people to see things that way too. Here it is: there are many possible reasons why intelligent people vote or refuse to vote for someone; these reasons are pretty much apples and oranges, with economic concerns being somehow “weighed” against character concerns or constitutional concerns or the horribleness of the opposing candidate; this is an imperfect world, but somehow one makes choices on the basis of those various concerns, because one has to choose (not voting being a choice like any other). All of this seems self-evident, when you think about it, but I believe that many people have become more conscious of it because of the Trump presidency.

If you’re a libertarian, as I am, you may hail or detest Donald Trump because of his positions on taxes or immigration or trade or “infrastructure” or his lack of traditional gravitas . . . You can expand this list pretty far, and it’s unlikely that you will hail or detest him on every available front. But you get to choose which of them are most important, and you get to change your mind later on. You may, for instance, like his financial policies, and if enough of them are implemented, you may not like him so well afterwards. He gave you your way on your most important issue, so fine; but now you’re looking at his other ideas.

This messy way of thinking operates throughout life, not just in politics, although many true and upright people do not realize that it does. Others believe it is a sin to realize that, and to act upon it. These good people may be purists who cannot bring themselves to make any political choices, because all of them seem dirty. Or they may be rationalizers who make a messy decision and then suddenly discover that what they chose was entirely and uniquely moral and necessary, and if you don’t agree with it, you are a deeply flawed human being.

It’s disappointing to discover that so many of our fellow citizens are, in political terms, insane; that they are living in a different world from the one in which life is complicated and choices are various.

To many of these people, however, Trump has provided a memorable lesson. He has presented them with a concrete problem — the assessment of his presidency — that cries out for them to see the complexity of choice. He has given them the chance to practice thinking like, well, good economists. He didn’t intend to do that, but he did.

He also gave them practice in distinguishing sane thinking from insane thinking. When we see someone attributing every wrong characteristic to Donald Trump, ignoring any of his successes and inventing, if necessary, failures, we have identified someone who has not only made a choice of values about the world but is using it to create a world. In what other area of life do people feel impelled to say that a person whom they dislike for one reason is also unlikable for every other reason in the cosmos? The same goes for the zealots who simply cannot get enough of Trump, his tweets and rallies. In what other area of life do people wait in line for hours to hear strings of clichés, most of them meaningless, and cheer them to the rafters, imagining that now they can depart in peace, having seen all the greatness and the glory of this age?

The fact that politics turns some into obsessive bores or slavering zealots doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as easily as they dismiss their political opponents.

I know, it’s disappointing to discover that so many of our fellow citizens are, in political terms, insane; that they are living in a different world from the one in which life is complicated and choices are various and difficult, and that they don’t seem likely to recover. One might imagine that their world, because it’s simpler than the real world, is also easier and therefore better to live in. Actually, the reason it’s simple is that there’s practically nothing in it, and this can be an inconvenience.

Yet these people are, like Trump, good lessons to us all — in two ways.

One is obvious: let’s not be like them. The other is not obvious, but it needs to be learned, so that we don’t end up in the same world with them. It starts with the recognition that outside the political realm, most of these people are eminently sane and well intentioned, and blessed with some practical success in life. When we recognize this, we see how important it is to refuse the temptation to make reductionist judgments on their lives, as they do on the lives of others. The fact that politics turns them into obsessive bores or slavering zealots doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as easily as they dismiss their political opponents. It’s true, we may need to lead the conversation to something outside the realm of American party politics, but even this act may, just possibly, show them that there is a way back to the messy but vital world of actual thought, that we are taking it, and it makes us happy.




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Caracas Dispatches

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Mercedes Flanagan — I’ll call her that — a Venezuelan lawyer, television executive, and jurist, and most important, this author’s first cousin, arrived in Miami on December 15, 2017.

Flanagan. A good Latin American name, like O’Higgins or De Valera.

Mercedes was able to get here after acquiring a six-month US visa (months in the making and a miracle) and flying a convoluted route that included Trinidad and Panama City. Direct flights — or flights of any sort — have become increasingly difficult to book because of Venezuela’s paucity of convertible currency. Five days after her arrival we met at her sister’s house in Boca Raton to celebrate the holidays together. Two of her granddaughters were there, having left Venezuela three months before. They too were seeking political asylum. Mercedes had lost a lot of weight but looked good, a result she attributed to the “Maduro diet,” as Venezuela’s food shortage is nicknamed, after Nicolás Maduro, the current president. She dreads returning.

Please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality.

“Behind the scenes,” she said, “Cubans run everything.” A surprising revelation for what was once one of South America’s richest, most sophisticated, and modern countries — and a dark irony. During the 1960s, Cuban military and guerrilla leaders funded and aided leftist insurgents. Though thoroughly defeated, they’ve made a latter-day comeback.

I asked Mercedes about the state of her finances. She answered that she was still receiving her government pension but that one-third of it had been converted into nonconvertible “economic war bonds,” useless savings certificates.

In 2017, the mismanagement of Venezuela’s socialist economy — please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality (a socialist economy is, by definition, a mismanaged economy; to actually mismanage a socialist economy would be to insert market mechanisms into it) — drove the inflation rate of the Bolivar (Venezuela’s currency) to somewhere above 4,000%. Mercedes reported a black-market exchange rate of 102,000 Bolivares to the dollar, circa December 1. CNN now (mid-January) reports 191,000 Bolivares to the dollar.

In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check.

Let’s take a closer look at this money thing. Each day, Venezuelan banks are given a fixed budget dictating how much cash they’re allowed to disburse to clients. Electronic transactions are allowed, but forget ATMs, they’re all out of cash. Outside the banks, the lines of customers waiting to cash checks in order to acquire cash are already long by opening time — translating to about an hour’s wait. In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check. But here’s the kicker: the daily per client check-cashing allotment set by the government is the equivalent of between 6 and 18 US cents — often not even enough to buy a “tit’s” worth of groceries.

Yes, a “tit” or teta, as it is called, because it resembles a droopy breast. Officially, they are CLAP bags. They hold a month’s worth of groceries and toiletries that cost the equivalent of 18 US cents. The government makes them available to the poorest Venezuelans at heavily subsidized prices. But, as CNN reports, “Recently, CLAP bags have gotten smaller or been delayed as more Venezuelans slip into poverty and as the government runs out of money to import essential goods.” How ironic: a shortage of worthless cash.

Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month, according to Mercedes. One enterprising “Chávista collective” in Caracas representing about 4,000 families has issued its own, parallel currency, the panal, and its own bank, El Banco Panalero, to ease the shortage of cash. The pudgy face of the demagogue former President Hugo Chávez graces one side.

Speaking of iconic faces, renditions of Simón Bolívar’s face have been subtly altered to make him look more creole than European white by pugging his nose and darkening his skin — in other words, to have him resemble Chávez and Maduro.

Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month.

On the plus side, gasoline runs at about 60 cents a gallon — up from 4 cents a gallon not very long ago — a price that has allowed a lucrative smuggling market to thrive at the Colombian border. And Venezuelan day workers — mostly prostitutes — are now allowed into Colombia to earn some real money.

N.B.: Mercedes requested that her true identity not be revealed, writing: “The situation in Venezuela is now much worse with the cold-blooded assassination of the soldier officer for ‘desertion’ for disagreeing with the dictatorship of ‘twenty-first century socialism’ along with three civilians, one of them a pregnant woman . . . and they're not allowing family to see, identify the cadavers, or bury them. We're awaiting Maduro's announcement of the suspension of all civil rights. . . There the raids by armed ‘collectives’ controlled by the government continue with orders to spread panic so that the real, suffering population won't continue to demand their rights to food, medicine, security and free elections."




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The Sneaky, Dirty Truth About State and Local Taxes

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New Jersey State Senate President Steve Sweeney complained to Neil Cavuto in a recent interview that “this new [federal] tax bill is going to hurt New Jersey in a big way.” Acknowledging that “one percent of New Jersey residents pay 42% of the taxes,” he warned, “We have to push the pause button on the millionaires tax” to keep millionaire residents from fleeing the state — and taking their wealth with them.

It’s about time they figured this out, because the jig is up.

The sneaky, dirty little truth is about the deductibility of state and local taxes. High-taxing, high-spending states such as New Jersey, Minnesota, Oregon, New York, and California have been fleecing taxpayers in other states for years. How? By taking the federal taxes paid by Nevadans, Texans, Floridians, etc., and using it to refund their own state and local taxes. They could get away with their high tax rates (as high as 13%!) in part because taxes were deductible. In essence, federal taxes have been funneled into the state and local coffers of high-tax states for years.

Taxpayers in low-tax-rate states have been carrying the big spenders in the high-tax states for way too long.

Let’s look at a simplified, hypothetical example. Let’s suppose Floridian John Smith has an income of $2,000,000 and is in the 39% federal tax bracket. (We’re talking about the 1% here, the ones who pay 42% of the taxes, according to Sweeney.) He owes the IRS about $672,000. (Ugh! That’s a huge amount of money!) His cousin, Jane Doe, lives in California and earns exactly the same amount of money. But she pays 13.3% income tax to California, and the real estate taxes on her modest $7 million California home are $25,000 higher than John’s property taxes. Until now, she has been able to deduct those state and local taxes from her net income, reducing her taxable income to $1,709,000. Her bill to the IRS is $615,000, or $57,000 less than John’s. In essence, taxpayers in low-tax-rate states have been carrying the big spenders in the high-tax states for way too long.

For Steve Sweeney, Jerry Brown, and legislators in other high-tax states, the game is over. New Jersey’s newly elected Governor Phil Murphy campaigned heavily to reinstate the “millionaires’ surtax” imposed on the wealthiest citizens that former Governor Chris Christie had lifted. Now Senate President Sweeney is aghast to realize that the Golden Geese can move to friendlier waters if all their eggs are confiscated. “We can’t afford to lose thousands of people who make up a large piece of our tax base,” he admitted to Cavuto. “We have to rethink this millionaire’s tax because they can leave.”

What a novel realization — people have choices! They can move! They can take their money with them! The besmirched 1% are finally being recognized as valuable. They run businesses, hire employees, buy homes, and pay taxes. Lots of taxes. Even Jerry Brown has suggested that California might have to rethink its budget and pull back on spending because of the new tax bill.

What a novel realization — people have choices! They can move!

Most Americans are unhappy about losing the deductibility of state, local, and property taxes. At first glance, I was one of them. Why should we pay income taxes on the money we already paid in taxes? Is it “income” if you never even see it in your paycheck? But legislators of high-tax states have bilked the residents of more budget-conscious states long enough. Their sneaky, dirty little secret is out. Losing the deductibility of state and local taxes is putting pressure on legislators to be more frugal and use tax revenues more effectively. Until we can eliminate income taxes completely, that’s a step in the right direction.




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State of the Moral Union

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On January 6, the state of Hawaii was panicked by a message mistakenly sent to cellphones by an employee of the state’s Emergency Management Agency:

Missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.

As a consequence of this enormous error, the government worker — name concealed, of course, because revealing it would be so wrong and hurtful — has been “temporarily reassigned.” Not fired. Reassigned. To what job, we are not told.

“He feels terrible,” management says.

So would I. But why, after such an event, should I go on being paid by the people whose lives I jeopardized?

We live in a country in which you can make one of the worst errors that a human being can possibly make and still retain your job, your benefits, and the sympathy of a grateful government.

This is not some fine point of morality. It is morality — the morality of a society in which government is the servant, not the master.

As usual, the government’s spokesman intoned, “We’re not going to take action till we have all the facts.” And as usual when such statements are made, the facts are already known and obvious to all. This was confirmed by the same government spokesman: “The reality is, he made a fairly simple mistake.”

We live in a country in which you can make one of the worst errors that a human being can possibly make and still retain your job, your benefits, and the sympathy of a grateful government. But if you talk dirty to a coworker, serve booze to someone 20 years and 364 days old, take a toy pistol into a school, lie to the FBI about things that aren’t crimes, spank your child, or name your car the General Lee, you will suffer all the shame and ostracism that can be inflicted by an outraged state and society.

That’s where we are right now.

Years ago, prostitutes in San Francisco founded an organization to protest government persecution. The org was called C.O.Y.O.T.E. — “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics.” Not a bad slogan.




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Government Art

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If you want evidence of the way government corrupts culture, consider the 16-foot fiberglass statue unveiled in mid-December in front of the new ten-acre IKEA store in Burbank, California. You can decide for yourself whether the thing looks like a penis — as most people seem to think — or whether it’s simply a meaningless piece of junk.

In either case, you don’t have to be a philistine to see that it’s crap. Of the many purposes of art — beauty, instruction, charm, mystery, emotional expression, simple decoration — it is wholly innocent. It could serve, at best, as a come-on for a nightclub or a way of luring chance passersby to a used car lot.

The major reason this piece of “public art” was foisted upon the public is that the city of Burbank has a law mandating such things.

So why is it there? One reason is our culture’s oddly traditional respect for the self-advertised avant-garde, which has posed as new and edgy for the past 100 years. The IKEA object was made by what the august Los Angeles Times has called “a renowned artist and art professor” at a state university. How edgy is that, dude!

I love the zeal with which corporate executives embrace the free and provocative spirit that haunts the avant-garde. One of these revolutionaries lauded IKEA’s hunk of junk by noting, in the free-spirited, provocative manner of giant corporations, that

art can challenge our expectations and our imagination in a new way. Our art was inspired by floral motifs resembling a highly abstract giant vase. It appears as a large free-standing figure, playful and open for multiple readings.

In other words, it’s yet another version of the avant-garde theory of the 1920s, coupled with the meaningless abstractionism of the 1950s and the kitsch of the 1840s. Great combination.

It’s not enough for government to run everything else; now it’s got to mandate and approve (or disapprove) artistic taste.

But the major reason this piece of “public art” was foisted upon the public is that the city of Burbank has a law mandating such things. To quote the LA Times, echoing a Burbank city official (who said of the public, “If they like it, that’s fantastic, but if they don’t, that’s OK”):

[Completion of the statue] marked IKEA’s fulfillment of Burbank’s Art in Public Places ordinance, which requires that 1% of the cost for a major project must go toward an art piece at the site or be placed in the city’s Public Art Fund. . . . [T]he Arts in Public Places Committee approved the project this past January and [it] cost IKEA $360,000.

So it’s not enough for government to run everything else; now it’s got to mandate and approve (or disapprove) artistic taste. That the approved taste turns out to be ugly and ridiculous follows naturally.

But there’s an even more natural set of causes and consequences. A well known economic principle states that “bad money drives out good.” That principle applies to what you have to buy as well as the currency with which you have to buy it. When government inflates the price of bad art, it drives good art out of the market. Simple as that. And I’m not being “playful.”




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Head of Brass, Feet of Clay

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A friend and I had a debate about Andrew McCabe, the doofus deputy director of the FBI.

As you recall, McCabe was an important figure in last year’s investigations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, despite the fact that his wife had received more than $700,000 from a close friend of Clinton’s to finance her campaign for the Virginia legislature. What McCabe seems to have done or permitted to be done during the investigations is pretty much what you’d expect from someone compromised in that way. I refer to such things as the FBI’s probable use of the absurd dossier on Trump’s visit to Russia as evidence to convince a secret court to allow surveillance of Trump and associates.

Now, if report be true, McCabe’s recent performance before a congressional committee showed that he is both a liar and a fool.

[S]ources said that when asked when he learned that the dossier had been funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, McCabe claimed he could not recall — despite the reported existence of documents with McCabe’s own signature on them establishing his knowledge of the dossier’s financing and provenance.

Is there any possibility that this would not be a ridiculous lie? Is there any possibility that a senior official would go before Congress, knowing that he would be asked precisely that question, and neither remember the answer nor look it up?

I mentioned this to my friend, whose assessment agreed with mine. He observed, however, that the rank-and-file of the FBI is equally disappointed with such behavior. That’s when I made objections.

Is there any possibility that this would not be a ridiculous lie?

For one thing, I’m not disappointed. I never expected anything better from the FBI. If I were going to be disappointed, I would be that way with the many leftists, and the many libertarians, who have spent their lives attacking the FBI, the CIA, and the other 15 or 20 surveillance agencies that the government runs, but who are now aghast that anyone should “take Trump’s side” by criticizing them.

That’s not what my friend was doing. He was merely showing the touching faith in which good Americans are reared, the faith that there is one part of the government that is actually too proud to lie, cheat, and steal. This has always seemed to me extremely unlikely.

I do not think the majority of men and women in the FBI and the Department of Justice are any less honorable than normal people, any more than I think that the majority of people who work for any other government agency are fools and liars and crooks and so forth. But my argument is this: in a normal, uncorrupt organization, the bosses are afraid to do certain things because a significant proportion of the rank and file will report them if they do. In an organization in which people are employed to enforce the law and are bound by oath to uphold the Constitution, we would expect someone — lots of people — to come forward and complain if bad things were being done, if the bosses were abusing their powers of investigation, search, and seizure; if the bosses were writing reports acquitting politicians they liked, months before investigations were complete; if the bosses were giving people immunity from prosecution without expecting any confessions in return; if the bosses were leaking information in order to influence the course of political events, while doing everything they could to hide information from people entitled to receive it.

My friend was merely showing the touching faith in which good Americans are reared, the faith that there is one part of the government that is actually too proud to lie, cheat, and steal.

Such things do not, cannot, happen in a vacuum. Hundreds of people have probably witnessed them taking place. And not one employee of the FBI or the Department of Justice has had the moral responsibility to say, “I was there. I saw it happen. It was wrong.”

The Republicans used to respond to any criticism of federal agents by demanding to know “who you think you are to be criticizing these brave men and women who are risking their lives to protect us.” Now the Democrats are doing it. Yet the brave men and women apparently will not fulfill their duty if it involves even a slight risk that they will not get their next promotion. And if they really are part of the Deep State, as Mr. McCabe manifestly is, they go merrily on their way without any sense of risk, assured that whatever they do, no one will produce the evidence that convicts them.

This has always seemed to me extremely unlikely.

This is not a problem that first arose in 2016. During the past 30 years, how many officials have resigned their posts in the federal government, or risked their posts in the federal government, or risked their promotions in the federal government, because they had seen something illegal or immoral going on, and they wanted to say something about it? The answer is: practically none. I don’t think that anyone will regard this freedom from complaint as a sign of the government’s exemplary moral purity.




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Christmas Spirits, Bad and Good

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People have been arguing on television about the Richardson Light Show — a vast, daft display of Christmas kitsch that adorns, and surrounds, and spills out beyond, the home of Carol and Hayden Richardson in Madison, Mississippi. The show has been happening for years and is now gargantuan. The Richardsons’ description speaks for itself:

Our display started approximately 17 years ago as a small residential display. Each year the display has continued to grow as we add new items. As we are currently planning and preparing for the 2017 display, we expect to have over 250 inflatables, over 100,000 LED lights, hundreds of lighted wireframe characters and messages, a 23 foot animated tree, and much more! Our lights are synchronized to music with the help of a computer program called Light-O-Rama and the music is broadcasted by radio on the station 99.9 FM. Live appearances by Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty the Snowman are very common during the show. We look forward to seeing you this Christmas season.

As you would expect, neighbors have been complaining (but when don’t they?) about the crowds that the thing attracts; cops have been concerned (but when aren’t they?) about traffic problems; and spokespersons for religious liberty have been arguing (but when wouldn’t they?) that Christmas is under attack. People of common sense are urging the Richardsons and their neighbors to just get along, which they have had plenty of chances to do, yet have notably failed to do.

The Richardsons have a pretty large property, but with the aid of Google Maps I calculate that the three houses nearest to the display are only 150, 150, and 250 feet away.

It’s morally irrelevant, though amusing, to note that the Richardsons regard their annual event as a witness to Christ, despite the fact that the vast majority of decorations appear to be pop-culture crap having nothing to do with religion; and that neighbors claim the Richardsons are actually trying to profit from their display.

People of common sense are urging the Richardsons and their neighbors to just get along, which they have had plenty of chances to do, yet have notably failed to do.

But now the city council has gotten involved, and has sided with the Richardsons. I don’t know whether that’s because they value the show as a tourist attraction for their little town (population 25,000) or because most of the people who live there are Christians.

I don’t know, and I don’t care. I like Christmas; I like Christianity; I like profits; I don’t especially like cops; and I positively dislike “neighbors” and city councils. I do endorse the libertarian idea that if you aren’t trying to get your way through force or fraud, nobody should interfere with you. In other words, live and let live.

Nevertheless. . . I don’t think the nonaggression principle — a good idea — will solve all problems of property relations, any more than I think the idea that lying is wrong will solve all problems of communication. If a friend asks for my assessment of her children — “Aren’t they CUTE?! Don’t you think they’re CUTE?!” — I will dutifully and cheerfully lie to her.

I wonder if there’s a strictly libertarian way to keep your neighbors from blinding you with their Christmas lights and deafening you with the crowds they invite to see them.

So I’m in a quandary. I don’t know how to figure this — maybe some of Liberty’s readers can tell me how — but I wonder if there’s a strictly libertarian way to keep your neighbors from blinding you with their Christmas lights and deafening you with the crowds they invite to see them. I mean, after you’ve tried to be nice to them, and it didn’t work.

To this question, anarchists need not reply. I know their answer: in an anarchist society you wouldn’t buy into a community until you fully understood and agreed to the contract that specified your rights, and that would take care of everything. If your neighbor puts up an enormous, obnoxious Christmas display, just click on your contract and scroll down to Item 379, the one covering all issues that may conceivably arise from holiday entertainments and decorations. That will settle the issue. Fine. Next time I want to buy property in an anarchist society, I’ll make sure to read the fine print, and I’m sure that others will do so too, and abide by it.

Besides anarchists, people who need not reply include all men and women who kindly suggest, like the pro-Christmas Show people on Fox News, “Let’s just get along and negotiate this stuff.” The problem is what you do when people who aren’t so kind refuse to negotiate. That happens, you know.

This leaves readers who are neither kind nor anarchistic, and I will be happy to entertain their suggestions. But until I hear some plausibly high-principled way out of this difficulty, I’m going to act on instinct. If something like the Richardson Light Show starts manifesting itself next door to me, I’m calling the cops and demanding that they get rid of the public nuisance.




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You Won’t Like This Video

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On December 9, National Review ran a story, written by David French, about the police killing of a man in a hallway of the La Quinta Inn at Mesa, Arizona. The story begins in this way:

If you have the stomach for it, I want you to watch one of the most outrageous and infuriating videos I’ve ever seen.

The article includes the video.

I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to think of another way to put it — to say something wiser or cleverer or more analytical than the sentence I just quoted. I can’t think how to do that. Maybe this is because I can’t get over the emotional effects of what I saw when I watched the video. But if you have the stomach for it, I want you to watch it too.




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A Christmas Truce?

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Every year, the story recirculates. Many of us hear, again, about the famous Christmas truce during World War I. How on Christmas Eve, 1914, along the Western Front, British and German soldiers sang carols to one another from opposing trenches and, the next morning, ventured out into no man’s land to exchange holiday wishes and small gifts. A few even played an impromptu game of soccer. They took time to remove the bodies of their dead that had been rotting in the field, and the following day the fighting began anew.

The soldiers called this the “Live and Let Live” system. A few small ceasefires were attempted from time to time thereafter. Their commanding officers were outraged by these horrible breaches of military conduct and — remembering that humiliating Christmas when their men refused to act like enemies — promptly put a stop to further breakouts of peace. Always and everywhere, the war must go on.

They took time to remove the bodies of their dead that had been rotting in the field, and the following day the fighting began anew.

A young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment was especially indignant. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime.” He demanded of his comrades at arms, “Have you no German sense of honor?” His name was Adolf Hitler, and he later made certain that German honor was defended, cost be damned.

But some of those soldiers never forgot the peace that might have been. In 1930, a British veteran of the Great War said, “I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”

The good thing about Christmas truces is that, indeed, they don’t need to happen only at Christmas. As sappy as it sounds when people say this, some ember of the season’s spirit really can be rekindled, if not all year long, at least from time to time.

Of late, I’ve found myself wishing for a truce of some sort. Or at any rate, a temporary ceasefire. In the political realm, Americans are definitely embroiled in a civil war. It’s more of a cold war than a hot one — thank the Lord. But it can be brutal, and it is hardly without casualties.

Those casualties are usually lost friendships and distance between family members. They may include failed romances or even divorce. Perhaps more frequently, we suffer shattered relations with people in our lives we consider less important to us. Our alienation from them nonetheless leaves us with the sense that the world is a lonely and hostile place.

In the political realm, Americans are definitely embroiled in a civil war. It can be brutal, and it is hardly without casualties.

Little ceasefires, here and there, may help us to recognize the dynamics behind our conflicts. Not only may we come to see how good it is to be at peace, but we might start questioning why those conflicts happen. What is driving them? Who is really goading us to fight? And are those fights absolutely necessary?

Not only do those determined to rule over us keep us fighting one another, but the problems they cause are the reasons we fight in the first place. If they would just go away and leave us alone, most of the issues that divide us would become manageable without hostility. Most conflicts happen because one collection of people aggresses against another. Usually they aggress, not because they need to, but because they are told to.

What if we just said no? What if we exchanged gifts, sang songs, played ball, and buried our dead instead? Suppose — as the old slogan goes — they gave a war and nobody came?

Christmas is the season when we think about such things. When we sing about “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” These days, the powers-that-be even set us to squabbling about that. They tell us that it should be “goodwill toward gender-neutral human persons.” And that we shouldn’t be singing about Christmas at all.

We might start questioning why these conflicts happen. Who is really goading us to fight? And are those fights absolutely necessary?

What if we said “Bah, humbug” to the humbugs? Real people — minding their own business and living their own lives — don’t worry about the things they’re told should bother us. If we were left to ourselves, how many shots would we fire?

A good rule of thumb, in dealing with politically contentious relatives this holiday season, might be to ask ourselves (as we take a deep breath and count to ten), “Is this something we need to fight over, or merely something we’re told that we must?” I know that actually, a lot of people do this. What if we did it all year round? Anything not worth fighting about with relatives at Christmas is probably no more worth fighting about with neighbors, coworkers, or friends in the middle of July.

Little truces can stretch into bigger ones, if we have the will to stick with them. We may, in time, decide that those who tell us we must fight with one another are just as wrong about a lot of the other things they tell us. And that those who use their authority to sow unnecessary discord should have no authority at all. What if they tried to rule over us and we refused to let them?

A Christmas truce might lead to the understanding that when we pursue truth, and really become acquainted with it, we need not resort to force because we can trust in peaceful persuasion. Force only needs to be used by those who don’t trust that what they believe in is true. The truth, in any matter over which human beings might fight, will never lead us into warfare — either foreign or domestic. This holiday is based upon the promise — age-old but ever new — that when we know the truth, it will set us free.




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