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The “Elio” seemed so promising. Named for Paul Elio, the Dreamer-in-Chief, the three-wheel concept is beguiling; the design, elegant. But the dream may be over.

Elio Motors was funded largely by advance reservations, a risky scheme in itself. And the delivery date for the three-wheeled totally-enclosed “cars” has been postponed several times, ultimate production delivery nowhere in sight.

As of January, the company was over a hundred million in the red, with no firm date for the production units, and nothing but a few test vehicles delivered, according to Jalopnik. Cedric Glover, the mayor of Shreveport, Louisiana, where the factory resides, insists that early consumer-investors are “waiting for nothing”:

If you look at Paul Elio from 2009, certainly by the time you get to 2011 and 2012, it’s clear that what he is in fact is a dreamer and a schemer. It leads one to ask, what was the actual motivation behind committing these facilities, this equipment to Paul Elio and the Elio operation.

Easy to answer: hope. Though I suppose it could have been a scheme, a fraud, from the beginning.

Trouble is, it is the nature of start-ups that the difference, on paper, between a fraud and a hopeful long shot is a mere hair’s width . . . right up until the moment of success — or failure. This is one reason why government regulation of start-ups is such a bad idea. It should be up to entrepreneurs, bankers and investors to provide the desired checks and balances.

But the story has not stood still. Government demands obeisance. According to KSLA News 12, dateline Jefferson Parish, Louisiana’s “Motor Vehicle Commission is accusing Elio Motors of operating as a manufacturer/dealer of recreational products without a license.”

First I heard of a license, and I’ve been following the story for some time. I wonder when Mr. Elio heard about that license.

The panel decided during a hearing Monday in Metairie to fine Elio Motors $545,000 for offering reservations for the future purchase of its 3-wheel vehicles.

The commission also ordered Elio Motors to obtain both licenses to manufacture and deal in Louisiana and to place all refundable Elio Motors reservations into a trust account within 60 days.

This is awfully late in the game to try to secure some exit strategy for investors. Indeed, the whole thing looks more like a simple shake-down, or perhaps a pretense to prosecute for fraud. That is, government-as-usual.

I sniff something more, though: the influence of competitor greed. As the company made in its statement informing of an appeal to the recent ruling, it makes no sense now to grab funds from the production process. It is sure to doom the whole project. Which I would not be shocked to learn is precisely what a lot of other businesses want.

Which would not be unheard of.

This is how it works, folks: licensing and registration is instituted to help current businesses keep out upstarts.

Par for the course for mercantilism, protectionism, progressivism or whatever we call the modern corporate state. The sanctimonious tone to the mayor’s cavils, calling the company founder a “dreamer and a schemer,” is a little hard to take. Where does the mayor think new products come from? Other mayors? They come from dreamers, schemers, wheeler-dealers.

I understand — there was a goofy odor to the whole emprise from the start. Though excited about the concept, I wondered at the initial promised purchase price, less than half of what the in-production Polaris Slingshot (see  below) goes for. Further, funding by consumer investment (pre-order reservation charges) is so . . . “not done” . . . except that it is: GoFundMe and Kickstarter and all those other crowd-funding operations have proven how well this sort of endeavor can go. Perhaps the fact that Elio didn’t use one of those hubs suggests the fatal glitch.

It is worth noting that automobile guru Eric Peters suggested last year another problem besetting the Elio: it is not an “electric car,” so it got very little play in the news. There is indeed a cultural conspiracy (that is, no real conspiracy at all; just groupthink) to snub innovations in internal combustion tech while promoting even goofier (and much-subsidized) “alt-fuel” auto technology.

Had the major media not fixed its collectivist head so firmly up its collective colon, perhaps Paul Elio would not be in his current predicament. And maybe, just maybe, we would be seeing the Elio on the roads by now.

twv

 

Polaris-Slingshot

As I was dissecting the unfortunate intellectual snobbery of a major libertarian economist, a few years ago, the truth dawned upon me. I knew at last the great purpose of the Libertarian Party:

The most important social function that the Libertarian Party has served has been to find a home in the libertarian movement for not very bright people.

The libertarian movement has been heavily intellectual in one dimension or another for a long time. Think tanks, policy houses, ideological societies — the whole gamut — all sport fairly high intellectual pretensions.

But liberty is for everyone, as Murray Rothbard used to say, and that includes people of normal and below-normal intelligence.

The Libertarian Party has provided a nest for a great many very smart people, of course, but it has also made room and accepted as leaders folks who ring the Liberty Bell, but not the right side of the Murray-Herrnstein IQ bell.

When I was young, and active in the party for a brief time, I sometimes met truly dull-witted people there. One man, who used to be a sailor, brought up the same story every time I talked to him. It took me a while to realize that this retiree was literally on the opposite end of the spectrum from me, and that most of his fellow activists rolled their eyes at him. And yet . . . I came to like him. He was loyal, and he remembered people’s personal histories far better than the nerd-brained, MENSA-types that over-stuffed the ranks of the organization.

Indeed, when I learned that this man had died, some years ago, I was genuinely saddened in a way I probably would not have been saddened by at least half of the others I knew.

One of the important functions provided by Christian churches has been the bridging of social castes and classes. The Catholic Church is especially good at this. A professor will sit next to a person whose janitorial work provides an intellectual struggle. Dealing with people of different abilities in a social way, with respect, is something not fostered much in our increasingly IQ-sorted society. There is, as Murray and Herrnstein argued, a growing division based on a certain kind of measurable intelligence. And the libertarian movement is filled with institutions that do nothing to dissolve those divisions.

Except for a very, very few, the LP being the most prominent.

What if, contra to an intellectual conceit, we won’t have a free society until the non-intellectuals, even the simpletons, come on board? It is not as if they, too, do not have cause to resent the cognitive elites. Arguably, they have the most cause, for the modern state has been designed to serve those elites the best, throwing crumbs at the rest.

Is the Mises Institute, or Reason, or Cato going to encourage this “rest” of humanity?

Too bad that the Libertarian Party is stuck on political non-starters. For it may be one of the few libertarian groups that actually does something absolutely necessary for the future of freedom.

But it will be the libertarian intellectuals, of course, who see exactly what this means: that the Libertarian Party’s most important role is an unintended consequence of its founders’ and activists’ keenest conscious plans.

Once again, the Invisible Hand strikes back.

twv

a thesis sans argument*:

IMG_3872Amusingly, what makes the infamous and much-castigated “social Darwinists” conceivably Darwinistic is not so much the theory of natural selection, especially construed as a “survival of the fittest” by way of a ruthless weeding out of weak individuals, but, instead, a reliance upon sexual selection as the basis of human breeding. By defending a dispersed responsibility for begetting and rearing children, the individualists** completely relied upon individuals to choose their own mates and determine their own fates, as well as that of following generations.

This quasi-Darwinistic social vision of the individualists was challenged and replaced by a new hard-headed view of society — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — that of the social engineers associated with Fabian Socialism and American Progressivism. Their new vision was not so much “Darwinian” as “Galtonian,” in that it carried social engineering to the extreme of coercive eugenics.

This did not mimic either of Darwin’s great contributions, Natural Selection or Sexual Selection.

The principle to which the new social engineers appealed was quite old-fashioned and understood by folks prior to Darwin: Artificial Selection. They insisted upon direct human control of the process of selecting qualities to breed into future generations. Sure, the selection criteria “were scientific” — just as breeders of cattle and dogs were careful in their arrangements of livestock mating — but in no way dispersed.

Their idea was to concentrate (centralize) choice (or at the very least the “breeding out” criteria and enforcement) into the hands of experts. It was thus sexual selection turned artificial.

An old idea, to some extent (since marriages were historically subject to arrangements by clans and courts, to encourage the inheritance of some traits, usually non-biological traits such as wealth and power), but now more expicitly statist, and in theory defocused from families and focused wider onto society as a whole. To be managed by the State.

Yes, social engineering and eugenics were indeed promoted as “scientific” during the heady, early days of Progressivism, and Darwin’s name was often . . . taken in vain.

Darwin had nothing to do with the outrageous notion of applying Artificial Selection to human populations at the macro-social (societal) level. His theory of sexual selection indicated, instead, a more dispersed process that explained adaptation and speciation.

The eugenicists of Progressivism were engaging, on the other hand, in a scientistic misappropriation of Darwin’s legacy, and it was the earlier individualists, relying instead mostly on invisible hand processes of nature and society, who were closer to the spirit of evolutionary science.

But, in fairness, the eugenics movement had its scientific backers. The term eugenics itself was coined by Sir Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin once removed. And Galton was no slouch, revolutionizing statistics and the research of inheritance.

Tipping the hat to Galton, honesty and precision suggests an alternative to “social Darwinism,” societal Galtonism.***

Resting upon Galton’s obsessions, the statist eugenicists donned the mantle of science. Within a half century of the eugenics heyday, progressive intellectuals, under the guise of “liberalism,” rewrote the history and jiggered with the concepts to obscure the enormity that their parent generation had embraced whole-heartedly. And, twist of the proverbial knife, they castigated the earlier individualists as cruel “social Darwinists” when the real crimes — their tradition’s — were far more directly inhumane and unchristian, and more plausibly a misappropriation of evolutionary theory.

Politics and ideology are full of droll reversals of fortune.

The memes that survive must serve functions, yes, but they are selected, artificially selected by humans with interests. And “social Darwinism” has served progressives for a long time, helping them bury the sorry history of their own movement by deflecting to others the apt charge of scientism.

twv

* This post is admittedly mostly just assertion. But I hope the reader will forgive me for floating the notion before I find time to defend it. Maybe I should do a Kickstarter campaign to fund my elaboration of this and allied ideas!

** I am mostly referring to Herbert Spencer here, though the Americans John Fiske and William Graham Sumner might also fit into this category as relevant.

*** A Google search called up just one comments-section coinage of “social Galtonism,” but “social,” to my ear, more properly applies to micro- and meso-levels of human interaction than the macro level, so the uglier adjective “societal” makes a quantum of sense.

Offensively sexist Wikipedia entry:

Roosters almost always start crowing before four months of age. Although it is possible for a hen to crow as well, crowing (together with hackles development) is one of the clearest signs of being a rooster.

It is only the Cockocracy that keeps hens from crowing.

IMG_3847If it weren’t for cockerel oppression, hens would have an equal station at the roost, protecting the brood, perhaps trading off. In a true chicken coöp coop, the cocks would share in nesting chores, allowing hens to patrol the grounds, too. And besides, keeping other cocks from entering the territory is just cock-of-the-walk privilege. The hens should be able to choose from a variety of cocks, and prevent any one cock from dominating the walk.

In the coopunistic future, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch she wishes, chickendom regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for chickens to do one thing today and another tomorrow — hens would be able to lay eggs and nest in the morning, peck in the afternoon, roost in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming nester, rooster, pecker or critic.

twv

This answer to the title question first appeared on Quora.

Because people are, for the most part, ill-educated and unthoughtful.

Is that aggressive enough? Sorry. Let me be more specific.

The idea that there are not diminishing returns to government, that kludge cannot be a problem for law, that hormesis does not apply — this sort of nincompoopery is actually promoted by politicians, who gain prestige by enacting laws and “standing out” . . . and gain reëlection funds from special interests for feeding into the legislative pile-on. (Big businesses and government employee unions really like kludge.)

Further, journalists and other media personnel play a game of hysteria-mongering and messianic politics, to make themselves feel more powerful, meaningful. So they continually feed the absurdity.

Finally, citizens fall for all this nonsense because they do not have many incentives for rational appraisal, seeing as they cannot directly effect change and thereby learn from mistakes. So they tend to rely upon dogma and virtue-signaling, instead.

Tribalism fuels this too, and everyone plays the fool. This is a bipartisan folly. There are several sectors of American society that are routinely betrayed by the parties to which they are most loyal. I’m thinking especially of African-Americans by the Democrats, and evangelical social conservatives by the Republicans.

These two groups find themselves trapped by partisanship, and thus can stand in for the nation as a whole. They routinely play the role of Chump. They are milked by their leaders, shamelessly.

Maybe we should laugh. Crying, whining, and voting don’t do any good, anyway.

twv

IMG_3684

N.B. John Stuart Mill, in his great and under-consulted Considerations on Representative Government, argued that “Instead of the function of governing, for which it is radically unfit, the proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government; to throw the light of publicity on its acts; to compel a full exposition and justification of all of them which any one considers questionable; to censure them if found condemnable, and, if the men who compose the government abuse their trust, or fulfill it in a manner which conflicts with the deliberate sense of the nation, to expel them from office, and either expressly or virtually appoint their successors.” We might notice, here, that creating new laws is not the body’s most “proper office.” A representative body should never limit itself to creating new laws, and never pride itself chiefly on that task.

These mock slogans from Bill Maher are hilarious, and yet . . . the Democratic Party just barely lost a presidential election and four iffy make-up elections in districts that had previously gone Republican. Not really Earth shattering.

The party is, remember, more unified than the GOP. It stands for a few very clear principles — no one is uncertain on what the party stands for: anti-racism, feminism, defense of almost any conceivable minority group (other than white heterosexual Christian men), and ever-increasing spending and the raising of tax rates.

If the Republicans prove their disunity by botching their stint at “unified government”* — and that is almost certainly what they will do — the Democrats will be back in power very soon.

Politics is such a weird game: reaction following reaction ad infinitum.

The post-election hysteria and/or offputting denial that losing partisans undergo after a loss is astounding in its breathtaking over-reaction.

twv


* Is “united government” under one disunited party truly “united government”?

The debate over whether “capitalism” should be used by libertarians and other supporters of free markets waxes rather than wanes. Last week,* Sheldon Richman published “Is Capitalism Something Good?” on Freeman Online. And I can see why Stephan Kinsella calls this an “extremely frustrating” debate. We never get very far.

My favorite of Richman’s points is lexical:

At the semantic level, capitalism is an unfortunate word when applied to the free market. It suggests a privileged status for capital over other factors of production, which is not the case in a free market. A capitalist is not a believer in capitalism but rather an owner of capital. One can be a socialist capitalist, that is, one who owns capital while favoring a system called socialism.

In my younger days of argumentation, people would sometimes accuse me of being a capitalist. Well, in those younger days I was broke. I had no savings. I had nothing to invest, and invested in nothing but my own mind. So I would correct them: “Hey, I’m near the poverty line. No enjoy-capitalismcapitalists down here! Besides, I support laissez-faire because it regulates businesses: It enforces a rule of law that disallows businesses from demanding I pay for their goods if I don’t want their goods, or pay more than I would under competition, which laissez faire also enforces. I am not a capitalist, because I insist that we keep capitalists in their place.”

This is the basic truth about the word: A “capitalist” was first known not as a defender of any system, but as one who had money to invest, or investments that returned money. It is logically odd, then, to use the word “capitalism” to identify a system whose supporters  could very well be not capitalists!

I’m not quite in the same place as I was in those days, and don’t take that rhetorical tack as often. I have a long history of being leery of the word. I cannot remember Herbert Spencer, whose general approach I admire, making a pitch for “capitalism” as a system. (His witty acquaintance Henry Makepeace Thackeray first used that term in this fashion. He was no anti-capitalist, but he was an ironist, and I won’t wager on what the precise meaning of his intent.) But Ayn Rand, notoriously, did. She published a book under her name entitled Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. When Spencer and Rand appear at odds, I long ago learned to side with Spencer.

But there are some things to be said in favor of “capitalism.” For one, it is known. It is less cumbersome than, say, “free enterprise,” a phrase that traditionalists conservatives have abused for years, as a synonym for the Main Street variety of crony capitalism.

I recently argued** for an open, inclusive use of the term capitalism. Capitalism describes any system with private means of production and a labor market. Existing forms of capitalism are, in most every case, dirigistic — that is, subject to multiple and dominating government controls. But the less government direct, micromanaging control you have, and the more the whole system rests upon a rule of law, the more it exhibits the libertarian ideal of laissez faire. Yes, another French term . . . but it’s a lot better known than dirigisme.

The sad truth of the situation is that dirigisme is the letter and spirit of modern law far more than laissez faire is.

So we can continue to use the term “capitalism” as long as we are clear about its modifier, dirigistic or laissez-faire.

However, let’s be frank: All terms have been contested and are therefore contestable. Every term has its problems of connotation as well denotation. “Laissez Faire” suffered under Herbert Spencer’s able attack as “That Miserable Laissez Faire.” We all know what’s happened to “liberalism.” And “Libertarianism” has been caught in a tug-of-war between, uh, pro-capitalists and anti-capitalists for a long time.

Such it is in ideological debate — and yes, every one of us who espouses some policy or some regime or another is an ideologue. None of us are above that (despite Marx’s attempt to squelch the term low in the echelon of epistemics).

For the same reason, we must use the words in circulation, no matter how tainted they may be. We have only a limited ability to influence their meaning. The meanings are “out there,” in the realm of intersubjectivity, if not objectivity, where truth is said to reside.

So, the term “capitalism” is not one that I’d fight much over. “Liberal,” on the other hand, is a great term to defend. I like to call modern so-called liberals by a much more apt term: Prodigal.

But most people don’t know what that means, either. And that’s mainly because most people are sloppy users of language who can write whole sermons on a contested word without once looking it up.

A prodigal is someone who spends too much, too extravagantly. Prodigality is the excess of which “liberality” is the virtue. Which fits an observation of Leonard Read’s from about the time I was born: A liberal, today, is liberal only in the sense that he’s liberal in spending other people’s money. Similarly, a progressive, today, notoriously believes in no form of progress other than the growth of the state.

It’s the prodigal advocates of dirigisme that we must oppose, today. I’m not sure giving them the word capitalism is the way to wrest victory from their rapacious desire to take, take, take from the liberalism of yore.

In fact, there’s not much I’d give them. Not even their pretense to good intentions.

But, if we do end up defending the word “capitalism” now and then, let’s not univocally ever defend capitalists, as such. Not any more than we defend wage laborers or entrepreneurs or professionals. Any person from any group, no matter how good, can stray to the point of demanding special favors from governments, bailouts and subsidies and the like. Besides, I’ve known a number of asshole capitalists, not a few who did not bother placing themselves above the practice of petty fraud as modus operandi. Shun them, even if (insofar as they cannot be caught in their frauds) one grants them their rights to trade and, in general, live their asshole lives.

Now that I think of it, one could generally hate capitalists, but love the system.*** Laissez faire is a form of regulation, a check upon business power. The rule of law, in which rights to liberty receive general protection, is an amazing defense against rapaciousness. Indeed, that’s probably the reason why most people oppose it. They want to act rapaciously while pretending to act nobly.

Ah, anti-capitalist capitalism! Not, I gather, a great motive force for progress or political reform or revolution. But there’s a t-shirt slogan in there somewhere.

twv

* This article first appeared on The Libertarian Standard on April 20, 2010. A very few words have been changed or elided in this reprint, and one new link placed.

** This “recent” argument was reprinted yesterday at this location.

*** The sheer number of possibile takes on “capitalism” is the result of a general confusion over the meaning of the word, Daniel Kian Mc Kiernan explained a year after I wrote the above. I will have to address his points in a future essay. One of the reasons to unearth and repost these blog entries is to provide an excuse to consider Mc Kiernan’s perspective.

A number of writers from across the political spectrum have been writing about the word “capitalism” recently.* What does it mean? Do we have what it signifies? Does talking about such a seemingly vague thing increase our understanding?

enjoy-capitalismJohn Stossel argues that we don’t live under capitalism, unless you modify the word to mean “crony capitalism.” His essay “Let’s Take the ‘Crony’ Out of ‘Crony Capitalism’” makes a very familiar case:

The word “capitalism” is used in two contradictory ways. Sometimes it’s used to mean the free market, or laissez faire. Other times it’s used to mean today’s government-guided economy. Logically, “capitalism” can’t be both things. Either markets are free or government controls them. We can’t have it both ways.

The truth is that we don’t have a free market — government regulation and management are pervasive — so it’s misleading to say that “capitalism” caused today’s problems. The free market is innocent.

But it’s fair to say that crony capitalism created the economic mess.

This is all very well and good. Accurate in its own way. But I am not sure we should give in to either libertarians who want to defend free markets or statists who want to bury them in red tape. “Capitalism” isn’t a word that means just one thing, just as “democracy” isn’t a word that means just one thing. One usage isn’t obviously better than another. Thackeray’s coinage serves more than one master.

I support laissez-faire. It’s a great and noble — and ultra-civilized — policy. But laissez-faire isn’t the only form of capitalism. Indeed, the dominant form has always been some form of dirigisme, or piecemeal state control of market activity.

So, I suggest letting everybody use the word “capitalism” in a broad sense, as an economic system featuring a large degree of private property both at the consumer and producer levels, wide market interaction in both consumer and producer goods, and fully developed labor markets.

It nevertheless remains the case that laissez-faire is more capitalistic than dirigisme. For, the more state control of markets, the more limitations on private property — particularly with command-and-control regulation, rather than rule-of-law oversight — capitalism morphs into socialism. The more government you have, the less the capitalist element dominates.

To put this more straightforwardly, capitalism is defined by the features that laissez-faire unreservedly supports: private property, freedom of contract, markets in capital goods, and contract labor. So, though dirisgistic capitalism is indeed capitalism, laissez-faire capitalism is “more capitalistic,” by the standards of its very definition.

There is one sense that this understanding, however, is not true. That’s the sense in which dirigistic capitalism serves capitalists, that is, people with money. It is a truism of government that it rarely serves all, equally. And it is also a truism that money talks in politics. So, dirigistic capitalism amounts to little more than plutocracy.

This sad truth comes as a shock to those who hail from the left. Those leftists who propose to make capitalism more dirigistic often merely serve as useful idiots for the very rich. Businesses have a long history supporting mercantalist policies, policies that so-called “progressives” thought “regulated business.” Instead, regulations most often help business cartelize, even monopolize, their positions. Getting the upper hand is something many businessmen attempt, and attempt through government.

Such operations have taken many forms, from anti-trust (which actually makes businesses less competitive) through micromanaging regulation to outright subsidy.

It can be quite amusing to watch a standard-brand leftist make all the arguments necessary for businesses to trump their market competition. The trump being, of course, government.

This was most entertainingly seen in the recent bailouts, where it was a whole class of bankers and intermediaries who were aided, not the general run of market participants. Indeed, bankers’ jobs and intermediaries’ jobs were made secure, and their fortunes restored, while the economy lurched out of control and into double-digit unemployment. Such is the logic of dirigisme: Not very logical.

Very political, though.

The great rule of capitalism is that everybody’s worth differs in differing contexts. Laissez-faire is a form of regulating capitalism by the rule of law, trying to set a political limit on the value of human beings. In laissez-faire, the political value of people are equalized by their equal rights to liberty and free contract. But under dirigistic capitalism, the fluctuating value of human beings is re-introduced into the political system because rights no longer regulate human interaction, micromanaging policy-makers do. So everything goes up for grabs.

Under dirigisme you get the general exploitation of the politically weak by the politically powerful — two classes that continually shift, according to the deals and machinations of politicians. You get what Anthony de Jasay calls “the churning state.”

I have no special love for the term “capitalism,” and see no great and overriding reason to shore it up. I just want people to be able to talk to each other about the realities of the current (and past) social world. Capitalism obviously exists in some form today. But it is obviously not laissez-faire capitalism. What we are blessed with and suffer under is dirigistic capitalism.

Two French terms. Why not?

It should be remembered, though, that dirigisme is the ancient, traditional state practice. It flows naturally out of the limited-access society’s basic deal: Tough guys provide order, and in “exchange” we — each of us — gets a fairly stable, quasi-guaranteed place in that state, however lowly.

The idea of laissez-faire, though perennial, is much newer, and quite revolutionary. It is deeply associated with the idea of a rule of law, and its main feature, on the personal level, is personal freedom, the ability to choose what you do in life.

It is always amusing to me how advocates of dirigistic capitalism so readily devolve into advocates of ancient political notions of status. Both centrist Republicans and Democrats tend to move in that direction, and leftists, in particular, keep reviving ancient notions of class and “my station and its duties.”

The great thing about laissez-faire is that it allows us that opportunity to throw off the shackles of time and chance and programming, it conjures up the ability to remake oneself, correct course. This allows for a great amount of progress and flexibility. But stability? Nothing can be guaranteed.

Those who want guarantees of place and position, they tend to hate the freedom in laissez-faire. They don’t want government to “let others act” within the confines of a rule of law, they want more regulation.

Ah, regulation!

The lifeblood of dirigisme. The command structure of socialism. The inheritance of the conquerors who established the first states. At one with military orders, the darling of bureaucracies, the goal of most politicians. It is coercion instantiated in its most paradigmatic act.

The paradigmatic acts of laissez-faire, on the other hand? First, the trade; and, second, being held responsible for one’s own actions.

But I’m more than willing to admit that “capitalism” fits a broader history than the ideal of laissez-faire. So the word must be modified. “Dirisgistic” will do. I offer it to those reasonable people — see, for instance, Stephan Kinsella in his recent essay “Capitalism, Socialism, and Libertarianism” — who wish to keep their terms straight and move beyond semantic disagreement to substantive argument.

And perhaps more French words could be found for the varying degrees of control that have characterized American market life.

twv

* This essay was originally posted April 16, 2010, on The Lesson Applied, by Wirkman Virkkala. A very few changes have been made to the original text.

Americans are over-schooled and under-educated.*

Extensive research is not required to demonstrate this . . . though, happily, that extensive research has been done. (See the recent work of Charles Murray, for starters.) All one really needs is a few minutes spent with a modal student, whether it be high-schooler, collegian, or even college grad. Such folk usually disappoint. Only rarely do they impress.

I noticed this when I was in high school. I wondered, first, whether the prime reason for such limited educational success was not far from view. Much of school life is spent spinning gears, wasting time on superfluous activities just to keep the inmates from revolting and the parents from having to pay for babysitters.

What I figured next, and came to realize with increasing clarity as time went on, is that the only education worth the title is mastery. If you haven’t mastered something, you haven’t learned it.

Now, it is true that there is “education for exposure.” Everyone should be exposed to grammar, rhetoric, great art, history, athletics, mathematics, science, the world’s religions, metaphysical speculation, engineering, map-making, and how to use a computer. To name just a few. Realistically, only a few of us will master more than a handful of these. Nevertheless, we should expect each person above the level of a mental defective to master basic arithmetic, reading and writing in at least one language, and the use of some basic tools, like the automobile and the computer.

Recognizing the limits of possible mastery, we should nevertheless promote the achievements of our civilization in such a way that everyone with aptitude can go on to master at least one domain of the culture, such as music or science.

But at no point should our promotion of exposure to the best preclude students from achieving the best. Nor should we trick them into thinking that extended exposure amounts to mastery. It does not. Mastery in any domain takes practice, persistence, and sometimes a little pain. (Occasionally a great deal of pain. It depends on the discipline, and upon the student.)

It’s easy to look at the last few generations of schooling and see where teachers and administrators went wrong. But it’s quite another thing to change it. Why? Because the errors of the age are closely tied to the means of production and distribution of the goods in question, how they are bundled in supply and in demand.

In a word, the errors of education are largely related to the fact that it is government that is in control. Indeed, if present levels of education were supplied on the market, and not by government, no one to the left of Arlen Specter would tolerate the institutions; the widespread cry would be revolution, now!

But, as it is, schooling in America and around the world is largely a government emprise, and the radical critiques of current education are not primarily from the left — though the left does have its august radical critics, such as Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich, to name the most interesting and the most over-respected, respectively.

The trouble with most critiques, however, is their narrowness. And the unifying feature of current educational failures coalesces, it seems to me, around one idea: the problem of supplying an allegedly uniform good to a vast diversity of learners.

The whole culture of learning and teachings needs to grow up. It needs to hit the market. It needs to spread out, diversify.

There are many types of learners, and many types of teachers. One cannot — and, therefore, should not — pretend that one simple educational change will change everything for the better. Only by recognizing the diversity of students will education substantially improve, and by “recognition” I don’t mean “establishing a general consensus in the teachers’ colleges.” (The teachers colleges are probably one of the main institutional impediments to the advancement of learning in general, anyway.) By recognition I mean “seeing opportunities and filling them,” in the entrepreneurial sense. Only when teachers become part entrepreneur, and aim to fill in the gaps themselves, in a distributed, vibrant culture of learning, will this happen.

And this will almost certainly not happen until the public schools become as the dinosaurs: Defunct.

This scares natural conservatives. I know. There is always a presumptive case for the status quo. But remember: Public schools are as close to socialistic institutions as we can get in America, and it should surprise no conservative (natural or otherwise) that socialism doesn’t work well. Socialism, which has been tied since its early years to a sort of moralistic militarism, only works if those who participate in it give up their individual courses and march, march, march to the uniform beat of a designated drummer. Ludwig von Mises showed long ago why socialism cannot provide a wide dispersal of goods, matching actual, individual human needs. So why should we expect our public schools to produce excellence in education to the diversity of its students? Instead, we get a few groups (the studious, usually, and the willing-to-go-along-to-get-along crowd) advance while vast hordes of students stagnate.

Many people I’ve talked with balk at my negative assessment. They point to rising test scores in some institutions, high marks for “their school,” and the like. Teachers, often, become especially incensed — except for a perceptive few, the ones who remember what high standards are.

Perhaps not coincidentally, high standards themselves have been the chief casualty of the past 50 years of American schooling. The saddest truth of the age is that what was once the goal for every elementary school graduate is now the challenge to provide a mere majority of high school grads: Basic proficiency in English and math. Colleges and universities have had to add on remedial course after course, just to make up for the painful-to-witness failures of public schools around the country.

Most Americans are utterly ignorant of high standards, though. They have been educated in the system that has abused them. They only remember a small portion of what they have been exposed to, and do not know, for example, that in writing the art of rhetoric was elaborated thousands of years ago, and that the tools discovered by ancient masters can be learned, today, by most seventh graders — with pleasure, even, if guided by an enthusiastic teacher who is also not a dullard. But most of us only learned a half dozen of the major figures of speech (hyperbole, simile, metaphor . . . that’s about all I was taught), a small percentage of the very helpful ancient list. Par for the shoddy course.

Since World War II, much of the attention of education promoters has been waylaid. Noting that college schooling greatly affects wage earning potential, promoters have pushed college schooling. As such. Instead of insisting on instruction in the skills and knowledge that potential workers might need, they have promoted “college schooling” in and of itself, as the major means to achieve that magic ability to earn extra dollars in the marketplace (which, alas, also includes growing ranks of the functionary class in government). This promotion has not been a matter of boosterism only. It’s not been confined to public pronouncements of encouragement, all to send kids to college. No. The promotion has been a major intervention into the higher education market, such as financial assistance in a wide variety of forms, including outright subsidies to both students and institutions.

In a manner similar to the recent boom and bust in the mortgage market, this massive government intervention has resulted in an artificial boom in higher education. Far more students than necessary have gone to college. And far too much respect has been paid to the sheepskin itself. It’s bad enough that UPS and the U.S. Postal Service is filled with doctorates in philosophy and liberal arts — it might be worse that our businesses are filling up with MBAs and our news outlets with journalist majors.

Worse, you ask? How can education be worse? Well, by being miseducation. The lowering of standards and the pushing of junk science and fake mastery into areas like business and administration has had wide effects in the real world. Indeed, for my money, no fact seems more pregnant with meaning than the fact that George W. Bush was our first president to graduate from college with an MBA.

Brummagem learning characterizes whole domains of today’s educated classes. Women’s studies and English departments have been corrupted by idiotic yammerings of neo-Marxist theorists and what Richard Kostelanetz calls (perhaps with a ribbit ready, under in his cheek) frogspeak (the “critical theory” of postmodernists, heirs especially to the French Academy, but also to Germany’s Frankfurt School). Economics, particularly the pseudo-sciences of macro-economics — has been over-mathemetized (or mis-mathemetized) to glass-bead game proportions, so that the best students have “learned” reality-warping nonsense about risk — to the chagrin of nearly everyone, today.

How does one unlearn folly?

Well, that’s not a widely studied subject.

Which, in itself, might tell you something about any number of academic disciplines, from philosophy to psychology to political science.

One of the great errors of public goods theory is to suppose that, if everyone needs a set of goods A, then these goods must all be supplied from one source. That’s the theory of public schooling, at its erroneous core. But we all need to eat food. Food comes to us in wide variety, and yet there is no advantage in massive government intervention to assure that everyone eat to a certain level.

If there were such a program, that level would — I hazard — fall over time, till massive starvation were the norm. And the great, illustrious professors of feeding and agriculture and allied sciences would fret over how to raise standards so that children, at the very least, all got a minimum quality of food.

The alternative method of improving the level of consumption of food would be to get government out of the setting of standards, raising of funds, and organization of production of foodstuffs altogether. And, over time, the standards of consumption would rise, just as, over these last 30 years, the standards for computing have risen. (I use the example of computing and allied technical instruments for the simple reason that this has been the most astoundingly progressive markets while, at the same time, the least regulated and subsidized of markets, too.)

So, there’s no reason to argue, now, over the identification of the very highest — or next achievable higher — standard. The relevant standards will emerge in a free marketplace.

Still, those of us who know something about a particular domain of learning, we have much to contribute to the teaching of that domain. And, were the market opened up, we could contribute.

The future of education will likely look almost nothing like what we have now; the institutional make-up will almost certainly be radically different.

Even if, right now, free-marketers argue back and forth about the relative merits and demerits of institutions like public schools, private schools, home-schooling, and charter schools, and various instruments of reform like vouchers and tax credits and the like, what people in markets will eventually supply to meet the extremely varied demand that will necessarily exist for educational services will be mostly unpredictable. We do not know which solutions will prove most successful on the market. I would guess that virtual schooling and private tutoring will be the most effective wedge to improve education, and that large schools may (if we’re lucky) soon prove themselves dinosaurs. But I could be wrong. Maybe private schools will prove successful. Maybe co-operatives will dominate the landscape.

But, no matter what the mix — and no matter what vast, broad networks of educators and students evolve — if actual supplies meet with actual, negotiated demands, then we can expect a return to learning in our culture.

In my final year of socialized schooling, the principal of the high school stopped by the Current World Problems class to give a little speech. He said that the job of the school we had wiled away the bulk of our waking lives, up to that point, was not to teach us, but to help us “learn how to learn.”

My immediate reaction was: “Boy, does this man live in an illusion.” Few of my classmates had mastered anything like that skill. Had the brighter ones done so, they might have been tempted to learn outside of the college system (which most of them did attend). And had the less academically inclined learned such a skill, they might have shown, in their later lives, a glint of excellence hinted at in the current academic cliche: “helping students become ‘life-long learners.’”

Life-long learning is, indeed, a desirable capacity. That it has become a cliché of modern education mavens may be the only salvable element of their theory. But, like earlier goals like “socialization” and “citizenship” and what-have-you, it rarely flourishes in its fullest and most admirable sense. Down-to-business concerns somehow usurp attention.

Indeed, modern schooling has fostered the illusion that exposure counts for mastery. And this, in turn, has led thousands of barely-trained college grads to think that they can enter a government bureau or join a social cause and, from their limited experience but seemingly impressive curriculum vitae, can easily fix the messes others have caused . . . and merely by writing a new law or enacting a new program.

It turns out that mastery requires the acquisition of many skills that cannot be articulated into simple textbook formulae. There is a difference between “knowing how” and “knowing that,” and the modern academy has encouraged many a lettered dilettante into thinking that, because he has studied something, he is now fit to rule that something.

The modern state and modern schools have grown together, in tandem, the one driving the other. Now that I think of it, I’m not sure which has driven the other. Call it a dialectical process, and then wonder: How can the one be fixed without the other, also, similarly and simultaneously, be subjected to such transformation?

twv

* Retrieved from my notebooks; dated September 12, 2010. A little over a week later I wrote on a related theme for The Libertarian Standard, with the first sentence of the above repeated exactly in the new piece, though not given priority.

President Donald Trump defended Western civilization while in Poland, mentioning “symphonies” as exemplary achievements.

“We write symphonies, we pursue innovation,” he said.

Now, taking glory from others’ achievements ain’t my bag, but defending Western civilization against its detractors and enemies is surely worthwhile. A great tradition of liberty did not pop out elsewhere, even if many good people and great things and ideas did. Many of us here in the West are still caught between Hebraism and Hellenism, and live in an ongoing dialogue between Jerusalem and Athens. And we have no reason to be ashamed of this.

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And we have no reason to take shame in symphonies — which not coincidentally remain my favorite form of art, bar none.

But . . . I just heard an African-American man on CNN admitting to being “triggered” by this mention of the symphonic tradition in particular, thought it was evidence of “white nationalism.”

This is just so stupid. I commend to the attention of the under-educated ideologues at CNN the symphonies by American composer William Grant Still (pictured in caricature) — especially his Fourth, “Autochthonous,” and Fifth, “Western Hemisphere.” The symphonies are very good, if not great; they consciously build upon a long civilized tradition of fine art music; they reference in their titles the very idea of growing new out of the old; and the composer was the first African-American to have a symphony performed in America.

Blacks are not defined by jazz, or soul, or rap/hip-hop. Maybe it is time to give up your low-brow, anti-white fixations. You do not make anyone look (or sound) good.

Thankfully, you do not speak for anyone but yourselves, and perhaps the pathetic racists you cater to.

twv