A burst of energy

Since I decided to leave Harvard, I seem to be overflowing with energy. I’d really forgotten how enthusiastic I could be about projects. At the moment I’m not working so much about immediate sources of income; I’m in good shape financially and Harvard is paying out for a month of accumulated vacation time. What I’m doing is making myself marketable by being visible and developing skills and expertise.

It isn’t a good idea to go into much detail about what was wrong with a job I won’t even be leaving till the end of the month, but it’s reasonable to say that I’m not suited to a position where I’m constantly bounced around from task to task and there’s no opportunity for advancement. It had really sapped my enthusiasm. Another factor is that Harvard is unfriendly to open discussion, discouraging dissent from the progressive party line in many ways. I’d hoped to hang on two more years and get retirement benefits but just reached the point where it wasn’t worth it. Every day I spend at a job I don’t like is a day out of whatever’s left of my life, which I could be spending on things I love. It’s worth a little increased risk to do that.

In the past week I’ve acquired three computers dirt-cheap, installed Linux, Apache web server and Tomcat, and an SSH server on one of them, written some experimental code and floated a query for interest (there hasn’t been any), tried out a Git client, examined and written about the state of file format repositories, brushed up on my file formats, ordered business cards, attended Pi-Con, worked on my German language skills (especially listening), and increased my daily walking in preparation for hikes in the Westerwald. This was while continuing my day job, which consists mostly of documentation and training at this point.

I’ve got a new business site, which is still just one page, and a LinkedIn profile.

If I do what I love and gradually refine my efforts toward what someone will pay for, I can make a living from it. And is there anything better than that?

The scope of irrationality

In a comment on my last post, twwells referred to the “pandemic irrationality” in America. Modern America isn’t really distinctive in that respect, though. In every human culture and time, unreason has been far more common than reason. It’s impressive how far people have gotten in spite of that.

People can be rational about matters in their private lives, where their failure to recognize reality would have quick and disastrous results. There are a lot of exceptions even there, but if people manage to be rational, it starts at home. Where irrationality really runs wild is in follow-the-leader behavior where each person can pretend not to be responsible for the cumulative effects of the group. People like to blend into the group; through most of humanity’s history, there’s been survival value in doing that. They identify with the people who belong to their kind and treat others as enemies.

This isn’t going to change on anything less than an evolutionary scale. At best, we can hope to someday educate people so their tendency to conformity and tribalism takes a less harmful course. It’s easy to understand why the left thinks people should be coerced for their own good, but force is never a way to advance reason. Force degrades both the people exercising it and the people they command.

Maintaining a free society in the long term is still an unsolved problem, and the US now belongs in the category of failed experiments. But the solution can’t rely on mass rationality. At best it can rely on widespread respect for those who do practice rationality. A culture can be conducive or hostile to reason.

Culture trumps institutions

Some libertarians throw all their effort into winning elections. Generally they don’t, except for a few low-level offices. They’re under an illusion which isn’t very libertarian: that the people who hold office affect the course of society. Actually, we have the government which most people want, and if that somehow changed short of a military coup, the majority would find a way to restore the equilibrium. If Ron Paul or Gary Johnson somehow became president and started vetoing spending and budget bills, Congress would find an excuse to impeach them.

The government changes when the culture does. Following September 11, 2001, there was an abrupt change in our culture, as latent fears jumped to the fore and people became more willing than ever to give up essential liberty to purchase the illusion of temporary safety. At first Democrats complained about the violations of due process and new intrusions into our lives, but then Obama was elected and continued pursuing the same course, and most Democrats obediently stopped complaining.

If the 21st century’s authoritarian trend is going to be reversed, it has to be through a change in the culture, not in the politicians. Speakers, writers, philosophers, artists, and anyone else who can exercise influence through ideas can contribute to this. What it will take for them to succeed is hard to say, but if they throw their efforts into election campaigns they’re certainly wasting their efforts.

The deadliest single thing in our culture today is the entitlement mentality. It leads not only to parasitism but to systematic hostility. People want things at other people’s expense, and they’re happy to throw away freedom for freebies. Every handout comes from somebody, and the people who are giving and those being taken from are necessarily opponents. Trade and voluntary help result in good will, but forced transfers make the recipients and the unwilling donors into enemies.

In this milieu, it’s hard to make the case for freedom. By opposing the politics of entitlement, we become part of the recipients’ enemy class. To make things worse, governments play shell games to make people think they’re in the recipient class even when they’re net losers. Everybody clamors to keep the goodies coming, and they’ll all unite in defense of the continued flow out of each other’s pockets. When Biden says that the choice is between Wall Street in shackles and the middle class in shackles, people believe him and there are chains enough for everyone.

Trying to change everyone’s minds is an exercise in futility and frustration. There’s no path to freedom with a high likelihood of success. This doesn’t mean that we should shut up, but it means we often have to be satisfied with getting ideas heard without any success beyond that. The value in doing this is in keeping one’s personal integrity and not giving in to a destructive worldview. Beyond that, it’s important to value whatever small victories are possible and not give up eventual hope for the larger ones.

Ryan and Rand

Just a quick note on Paul Ryan’s views on Ayn Rand. He’s expressed enough admiration for her in the past to get both the Religious Right and the Religious Left mad at him. However, according to National Review Online in April of this year, he’s said of Rand, “I reject her philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy.”

Perhaps he’s had a change of views. Perhaps his earlier interest was exaggerated. Perhaps when Romney first suggested he might be a vice presidential candidate, he had a religious conversion of convenience. I don’t know enough about him to decide, but I hope that people won’t assume the views he expresses in the campaign reflect Objectivist positions.

How (not) to approach philosophy

Followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy have a reputation for being very hostile to anyone who disagrees with them on any philosophical issues. Rand herself showed this hostility on a number of occasions. This would seem to be strange behavior on the part of people who claim to be advocates of reason above all else, but it very often happens.

A question I’ve considered for a long time is whether this is a flaw in the philosophy or simply a personality trait that’s filtered down to her followers. Her personality was certainly a factor, but if that were all there was to it, they should have calmed down over the years. However, the treatment of the Institute for Objectivist Studies (now the Atlas Society) by the Ayn Rand Institute not too many years ago exhibited lots of vitriol, and I haven’t seen any indications of change since then.

I think the key is in the way Rand and many of her followers approach philosophy, rather than its particular content. You might think of this as a matter of meta-philosophical premises. Rand held that her philosophy had to be accepted or rejected as an integrated whole, that rejecting any part of it meant rejecting it as a philosophy. This makes for a very fragile edifice; knock out any part of it and the whole thing collapses. It’s no wonder that people who think that way react to any dispute as a fundamental threat.

A related premise is the persistent attribution of “hidden premises” to opponents. Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged does this repeatedly: “The purpose of your struggle is not to know, not to grasp or name or hear the things I shall now state to your hearing: that yours is the Morality of Death.” “But you know the unadmitted answer, refusing to acknowledge what you see, what hidden premise moves your world.” “There is no honest revolt again reason — and when you accept any part of their creed, your motive is to get away with something your reason would not permit you to attempt.” If opposing views are the product of hidden evil, any consideration you give them could be a sign of corruption on your own part.

There is huge value in Rand’s philosophy, but these problems in the meta-philosophical approach have very often kept it from being taken as seriously as it deserves. There are people who approach it without this baggage, but they suffer the additional burden of being denounced by the orthodox. It looked for a while as if the IOS / Atlas Society would bring about a shift in the public understanding of Objectivism, but it has shifted its focus away from addressing basic philosophical issues to focusing on current issues and popular culture, and so isn’t doing nearly as much as it could. Something more is needed.

The right to be proud

Obama’s You didn’t build that” speech has deservedly stirred up a lot of anger. His suggestion that people don’t deserve credit for their own achievements didn’t go down well, but it’s a restatement of a very old theme. Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

On one level this is saying the obvious. We don’t live on desert islands, and we benefit from each other’s actions. “What makes one step a giant leap is all the steps before.” But the thrust of his remarks is that “you,” the person addressed, don’t deserve the credit. An unnamed “somebody” does. Who deserves credit for the Internet? Not the many brilliant programmers and designers who worked on it, the people who created its many components, or the people whose taxes paid for ARPA, but the government. My writing code, fixing bugs, and dealing with website emergencies is merely “making money off it.” Not engaging in productive effort is the requirement for being given credit.

He cites roads and bridges, which are normally government projects, but not producers of materials, designers, managers, or the many other people who trade productive effort for what others produce. He doesn’t even offer credit to the manual laborers who are so beloved of the left.

People who know that they’ve earned what they have aren’t easy to push around. That’s what Obama doesn’t like. He wants to foster a feeling of dependency, of the idea that you have to “give something back,” as if creators merely take and don’t offer anything of value.

It’s a very old idea, doubtless owing a lot to the fact that so many people through history have gotten rich by force rather than productivity. The term “robber baron” comes from people who committed literal robbery to gain the wealth they thought they were entitled to. Even today there are a lot of people who get money by lobbying for barriers to entry, taking advantage of a broken patent system, bribing politicians for favors, and the like. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the producers from the parasites. But those who succeeded honestly deserve full credit for what they’ve built. The parasites in high office who try to grab the credit deserve none.

Related: “The Bad History Behind ’You Didn’t Build That’” by Virginia Postrel.

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