Free Markets, Free People


And the optimism continues

Yesterday, I kind of became a drag about the tough spot our financial system is in, and how close it is to collapse. We could fix it, of course…but we probably wont.

The thing is, I’m increasingly getting the feeling that it’s not just our economy that’s teetering, it’s our very civilization. I’m reminded of this by today’s events in Egypt, where an Islamist mob stormed the US Embassy in Cairo, tore down the American flag, and raised an al-Qaida-associated flag, while yelling, "We are all Osama." Apparently, there’s a film of sort—that I’ve never heard of—being produced by some Coptic Christians here in the US that’s insufficiently servile in its treatment of Mohammed. The Egyptian Islamists who attacked the embassy today were upset about it.

The response of the the US Embassy in Cairo was to go on Twitter to assure everyone that they condemned those who "abuse the universal human right of free speech", presumably a reference to the filmmakers—if they actually exist outside the fevered minds of the Islamists who apparently have a better inside scoop on the American film industry than I do. Thus began as embarrassing a failure of public diplomacy as I’ve every seen in my lifetime. (Some background here and here.)

The response of the US Embassy to this assault was to condemn the "abuse" of free speech. Just think about that for a minute.

Civilization is a lot like the skin of an apple. It can be brilliantly colored, flawlessly smooth, and brightly polished. But it’s very, very thin. It’s fragile. So, it has to be protected.

Barbarism, on the other hand hand, is tough. It doesn’t have to be nurtured. It is, in fact, the natural state of man. It grows spontaneously, and so, like weeds in a beautiful lawn, it must be ruthlessly stamped out. And the only thing that’s ever been effective in stamping it out is a robust and vigilant civilization; one that is not afraid to do the dirty work of crushing the barbarians mercilessly.

When the British Empire decided to end the African slave trade, they did not bring the issue up at a transnational diplomatic council, and request a commission of enquiry and hope that a Security Council resolution would support them—and not run into a Russian or Chinese veto. No, they simply sent the Royal navy to patrol the coast of West Africa, boarded and searched slave vessels, and hung their crews. I’m also reminded of General Sir Charles Napier in India, who, when told by the Indians that the custom of suttee, where the surviving wife was burned with her dead husband, had to be honored replied,

Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

When it comes to barbarians, we’re not big on gibbets these days. No, our Embassy condemns an exercise of freedom that upsets the poor dears.

Since the 1960s, we in the West have more or less had a hands-off attitude towards the world’s barbarians. Huge swathes of Africa have descended into nightmare lands of atrocity at the hands of child soldiers. The entire Middle East has devolved from colonialism, to secular socialist and military dictatorship, and now into 12th-century Islamism.

A full 1/3 of the world have become modern day Goths. And not the good kind, with extravagant vampire makeup, listening to sad Cure songs on their iPods, but the bad kind with the light of fanaticism in their eyes, and knives always keen for a beheading of their enemies.

We think it’s because we haven’t tried hard enough to understand their unique cultural point of view. And woe to any president who tries to do otherwise, because he’s in for a constant parade of criticism and demonstrations against "blood for oil" or some other nonsense.

And, of course, even then, such a president feels obligated to follow the "you broke it, you bought it rule" and embark on a decade-long project to rebuild the enemy’s country and create a stable, functioning democracy in Kaplokistan.

Because a simple punitive expedition would just be…wrong.

Our civilization, by which I mean modern, technological civilization, is more fragile than we can even understand. Our entire way of life is predicated on the constant, uninterrupted flow of electricity, and the sophisticated electronic devices that store our records, run our stoplights, enable us to communicate, and even fix our cars.

There is an entire substrate of technology beneath the surface of what we see, but it is no less important for being almost completely hidden. But think about just two things: You bring up Amazon in your web browser right now, find an item you like, buy it with a simple button click, and a nice man will deliver to your door tomorrow. You can go to a supermarket in January and buy fresh strawberries from Chile.

Imagine the technological complexity that has to exist for either of those two things to happen. We are truly living in a Golden Age.

And yet, we are, at all times, less than 20 years from its complete collapse. Why?

Because each generation of children is a vertical invasion of barbarians. They will only know about our civilization, how to run it, and how to defend it, if we invest 12 or 16 years in training them to do so. Indoctrinating them in the benefits of civilization.

And have no doubt that it is a necessary indoctrination, because for young men especially, it will always be more fun to run around in the hills with rifles and shoot people you don’t like than it will to get up every morning at 6am, and fight traffic to get get to a relatively boring job that you really don’t want to do.

But, in my lifetime, we’ve done a progressively worse job at conducting that indoctrination.

From the beginning of public education until sometime in the late 1970s, the mission of the public schools was to raise children who were properly educated and civilized, especially children whose culture at home was sub-standard. Somehow, in the last 40 years, that has completely reversed itself. Now the education establishment says that a poor culture at home makes the schools powerless to teach. So, increasingly, they don’t.

Schools used to have as one of their primary missions the assimilation and Americanization of immigrant children. Now, of course, no culture is superior to any other, and as far as assimilation goes…well, it’s just easier to teach the immigrant kids in, say, Spanish, rather than force them into English immersion. And why should we teach the culture bequeathed to us from a bunch of dead slave-owners anyway? They were just hypocrites whose high-sounding phrases about freedom and equality just glossed over a squalid reality of racism and sexism.

So, about half of high school graduates now can’t even read at an adult level. Fully a quarter are functionally illiterate.

But, somehow, 20 years from now, when they’re running things, they’ll still be able to get a new thumb drive to your door within 24 hours after you click "Buy Now With 1-Click" button on Amazon.

Right. Good luck with that.

We seem to have forgotten that, just because we’re the richest country on earth, that is not an ordained end. It won’t remain so unless we continue to do the things that made us such a wealthy civilization in the first place. There’s no magical goose that lays golden eggs. It’s the result of hard work, saving, investment, innovation, and a culture that celebrates individual liberty and rewards individual success.

But we’re turning—if we haven’t already—into a culture that thinks wealth is the by-product of some sort of chance or luck, and that the reward of success should be to share it with everyone else. Nearly half of the country hears about those who "profited unfairly in the 80s" as Bill Clinton once put it, and thinks, "they need to share the wealth." A significant number of people in this country today hear "You didn’t build that", and thinks, "Yes. That’s right. You owe society for giving you the means to be successful."

We’ve lost the meaning of what free markets mean. We’ve replaced it by a cronyism so deep that, no matter if the Republicans or Democrats win the presidency, there’ll be representatives of Goldman-Sachs running the Treasury Department. We’ve imposed so many layers of regulation that small business is constantly squeezed, while large corporations can cover the costs. We’re creating a corporatist, cronyist economic system that’s increasingly impoverishing the middle class bit by bit.

As a libertarian, I distrust all groupings of power, whether the group is the government, or large corporations, yet I’ve watched as both Democratic and Republican administrations have made both government and corporations—and unions—more powerful, and individuals less so. And, as far as I can tell, half the population is perfectly happy with that—as long as their party is in charge of the cronyism, of course.

In 1972, the mildly Leftist George McGovern was beaten like an egg-sucking dog by Dick Nixon, but today, the much more leftist Barack Obama may actually be re-elected. Which, I suppose, would really worry me about the future, if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re due for the Mayan Apocalypse on December 21st, anyway.

So, I guess it doesn’t matter.

If you were a betting man, what odds would you give for the future of a civilization that won’t kill the barbarians in the hinterlands, or civilize the barbarians they breed internally? What odds would you give for a civilization that doesn’t even seem to know—or want to know—that it’s teetering on the abyss of an existential crisis?

Tom Kratman, in his book H-Hour: Countdown, wrote, “’Should’ and ‘ought’ are mere meaningless fantasies. ‘Is’ and ‘real’ and ‘works’ are what matter." Sadly, we’ve increasingly become a society of "should" and "ought". A robust civilization would call that "decadence".

The barbarians call it "an opportunity".

Decadent civilizations don’t collapse overnight, usually. It took more than a century for Rome to fall. But it was an increasingly hard century, and when Rome fell, after the Vandals danced through the streets of the sacked city, it was followed by hundreds of years of barbarism. Much of the technical and engineering knowledge that Rome brought to the world disappeared, and had to be relearned over a millennium.

But Rome didn’t face the utter collapse of their monetary and financial system overnight. I fear that the fall of our civilization could be much faster, and, therefore, much more traumatic. Happily, I don’t expect the following centuries of barbarism to be more brutal than that which followed the fall of Rome.

But, of course, that’s only because it really couldn’t be.

~
Dale Franks
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42 Responses to And the optimism continues

  • I miss Reagan & Alexander Haig…serious men for serious times doing a serious job. Now all we have are amateurs and clowns…incompetent, spineless and duplicitous. It’s damn depressing.

    • Our ambassador gets killed and we apologize, but call some rent-seeking activist a slut or have the CEO of a chicken sandwich shop support traditional marriage and it’s time for national rending of garments. The public is no better.

      • Yes, there are so many things that play into this theme. For example, I’m already sick of hearing conservative commentators tell us how clever Romney’s campaign strategy is. They say he has to talk about how Obama is a nice guy and all. Only then can he oh-so-gently suggest to those mushy moderate fools who voted for him in 2008 that possibly, maybe, perhaps Obama’s just a teensy bit over his head.

        But it’s quite out of the question to go anywhere near pointing out that he’s been an epic disaster and is governing from somewhere left of Barney Frank. And it’s absolutely forbidden to assert the obvious: that he was a con man from the beginning, propped up by a compliant, sycophantic media. No, no, no, that hurt the wittle feewings of those people who got conned and send them right back into the Obama camp to prop up their own fragile egos.

        When not hurting anyone’s feelings becomes our main guiding principle, the natural feedback mechanisms that keep civilization on track are completely broken.

        • They say he has to talk about how Obama is a nice guy and all. Only then can he oh-so-gently suggest to those mushy moderate fools who voted for him in 2008 that possibly, maybe, perhaps Obama’s just a teensy bit over his head.
          In fairness, that’s the “Brutus is an honorable man” route.  It worked for Marc Antony :)
          Seriously, it would be very easy to avoid personal attacks on Obama and focus on attacking his policies or actions.  You can say, in effect, “Obama means well, but he’s done a horrendously bad job.”

  • Some shouted, “We are all Osama,” referring to al-Qaida leader bin Laden.
    Let’s see Obama spike that football again

  •  “Happily, I don’t expect the following centuries of barbarism to be more brutal than that which followed the fall of Rome”>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>and no Hari Seldon plan to back us up either :(     We see so much coming up like it’s slow motion: Our fall off the fiscal cliff, Iran getting nukes, the spread of Islamic barbarianism, the fecklessness of our own self-hating culture that’s ending us.  And yet no national will to tackle any of them. It’s depressing and infuriating.

  • Better hope it doesn’t fall too far kids, We’ve stripped all the easily reachable resources from the surface and the next tech level down infrastructure we need to rebuild up from.

    Now I know we can recycle and all, but, for example, building a blast furnace to melt the steel we’ve already turned into cars is going to be a trick innit?  Heh, I’d like to see us haul the scrap cars to the furnace…let alone melt em.    Nor do we have the raft of draft animals we’d need to replace the cartage vehicles.  Or, for that matter, the carts to hitch them to.

    “Pharaoh of Debuque!  I bring you many fine slaves to haul your stone, uh, your scrap cars!!”

    The problem with technology is after a while you junk the technology you needed to get to the technology you have because it’s ‘junk’ and you don’t need it any more.  You have to build the tools to build your tools to build your tools.   Yeah, better hope it doesn’t go that way, or it’ll be, to phrase from the curse “interesting”.

    • Funny.  I’ve often wondered what the process was for making the first woodworking planes when every book i’ve found on the subject requires a woodworking plane to make a woodworking plane.  How exactly did they flatten the soles of those first planes with out a flat soled plane to do the flattening.

      • Old planes I’ve seen look a lot like a 2×4 with a jacked up rig holding a blade in place and the blade fit in from the side of the plane.  All the ones I’ve seen have been about triple the size of a standard hand plane of the sort I used when I was a kid (before I discovered the power of powered tools!)

        My question would be milling timber down to useable lumber.  Again, something there’s not a whole lot of unless you have a saw mill, and power.
        I can only recall roughly the designs for pit saws, and then the mechanisms for using a wheel to drive the armatures, but I can easily remember thinking how I’d hate to have been the ‘pit man’ on an old long blade saw used for cutting timbers without machinery.

         

        • On the plus side, we would have full employment.

          • and all that human labor would drive the cost of building materials sky high.  Instant recovery for the housing market.
            Maybe obummer believes he has to destroy the country to save the country.

          • This is true!   And probably people like John Smith – “you don’t eat if you don’t work”.

            Try to imagine all the hurt feelings and the number of people who will be offended!

  • By the fall of civilization I suppose you mean America?  The America that furthered the killing fields of the Native American Indian?  I’ve been hearing about the comparison of the US and the fall of the Roman Empire all my life.  Maybe that wouldn’t have happened if Rome had not chosen expansionism and colonialism of much of the known world.

    It might interest you to learn that there is some scientific opinion that primitive societies were actually based of cooperation—instead of the conservative Hobbsian notion of brutes and barbarians, where civilization brought order to the chaos (whereas civililization actually introduced chaos and barbarism through wars directed by politicians and money-grabbers who instigated and directed the plunder).

    • Yes, if you consider the famous ancient civilizations, they are those that left huge monuments, which requires a centralized government working hard to extract “surplus” from its population. A decentralized society might have been just as rich, culturally and otherwise, but no one thought erecting huge pyramids to bury dead leaders made any sense.
      Some think the Mayans didn’t “disappear” they just stopped erecting temple complexes or whatever.
      There was a great Econtalk podcast on the Ancient Greek economy that I would recommend and they touch on this issue.

      The Greeks left behind some temples, but obviously their greatest monuments are living institutions of democracy and freedom.
      The podcast also has a great story about Croesus meeting Solon and asking who the happiest man alive was.

       

    •  The America that furthered the killing fields of the Native American Indian? 

      Your understanding of the issue is probably at the level of Daces with Wolves stupid.

      You might want to note that the early English setlers bought land from the natives and attempted peaceful coexistance. The first major war with the indians was when the indians attempted genocide against the settlers in Virginia in 1622.

      The simple fact is that coexistance with the indians was not possible due to their violent culture. The normal mode of indian warfare was to attack setttlers by surprise, murdering the smaller children, sometimes adopting the older children, and killing and enslaving the adults. Torture, rape, and mutilation were norms of indian behaviour. They were exceptionally violent socities rooted in constant warfare.

      It might interest you to learn that there is some scientific opinion that primitive societies were actually based of cooperation

      Even the supposed nice primitives, like Eskimos, the Bushmen of south Africa, and the Aussie natives have exceptionally high rates of violence by modern standards. They are all in virtually constant warefare over hundign grounds and women. Cooperation? Of course, warfare IS cooperation.

      • I’ll add this note: tadcf shows why the left won’t defend civilization. Yet their brand of stupid requires civilization to exist.

        • In spades, and because on a practical level, almost every thing around them is PFM.  To many of them essentially think the IPODs grow in the magic IPOD fields, that the power to get them to their 20th floor apartment will never turn off, the humus at the corner bodega never runs out and only the ignorant peons in the red states will be effected by any collapse.

          In fact, their luxury flat will turn in to a dark, unheated, uncooled, unventilated, death trap 20 stories above the street where a new form of hell will appear about 4 days after the food and water start running short.   They think New Orleans was an aberration.   New Orleans during Katrina was a wet version of what the world looks like during collapse, without the assorted bodies, and no one comes to save their stupid asses in the collapse version and it doesn’t get any better for a long long time.

    • Yes yes, the peaceful Algonquin Confederation never fought with the Iroquois League before the arrival of the white murderers.   Nor did the Aztecs dominate their neighbors, or the Inca or Mayans build empires BEFORE white-man come in mighty canoes from far away land across the big water where the sun rises.

      And, yes, primitive societies built Teotihuacan and developed astronomy that easily rivaled the greeks and led to the creation of a calendar that predicted the ‘end of cycle’ coming in 2012 that idiots are all exercised about.  Primitive, hut dwellers all.   The pastoral savage in his native home and condition.   You arrogant, ignorant twit.

      • I think I forgot to say “ugg”.  Toss that in somewhere.

      • Heh … the fact that the Spaniards were able to conquer the Aztecs had a lot to do with the ability to readily pick up allies from the natives the Aztecs had so brutally conquered.

        • Pizzaro and his men (168 total) faced the Inca and his army which had just returned from war (IIRC, against the Inca’s brother).

          The Spaniards ended up facing some 3,000 – 6,000 men armed with flowers in a large courtyard, while an army of 30,000 stood by and watched. The Spanish won due to bold decisions, and poor decisions on the part of the indians.

          The Inca flet the Spanish had no options, and had his men armed with flowers in contempt. The Inca also put himself in reach of the Spanish. The general in charge of the 30k on the hill lacked the authority or decision making to join the fight. The Spanish won because they owned the OODA loop, although they didn’t have a modern understanding of the concept. The Incas were a top down authortarian socialist society which could not compete with the Spanish in combat decision making under the fog of war.

          • Should be “Inca felt the Spanish had no options”.

          • Smallpox sweeping the America’s probably helped too.
            I recommend 1491 as a fascinating book on the entire subject area. It also doesn’t just present one theory, so its nice.

    • Thanks, Tad. Thanks for serving as the perfect illustration to the post.

    • This is all the consideration your arguments deserve. “Hey dickhead, shut the fuck up”.

    • “It might interest you to learn that there is some scientific opinion that primitive societies were actually based of cooperation”

      Well that is certainly a great comfort. And so relevant. It might also interest you to know that there is some scientific opinion that …<insert latest doctoral dissertation idea>.

  • Some cause for optimism:
    “because for young men especially, it will always be more fun to run around in the hills with rifles and shoot people you don’t like than it will to get up every morning at 6am, and fight traffic to get get to a relatively boring job that you really don’t want to do.”
    I am not sure this holds when video games exist. I have heard Afghan vets say that if every kid in these villages had an XBox the Taliban couldn’t recruit nearly the number of bored teens they do now.

    • Thant’s an interesting point. I’ve heard of studies showing the xbox generation is less violent. Col. Grossman hardest hit.

  • Dale, you are being far too negative. Maybe this will cheer you up.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somalia#Economy
    I found it while looking into the usual “move to Somalia” jibes made to libertarians.
    Even after a brutal civil war and Islamists creating another, markets flourish.
    Its just that Amazon.com will deliver that thumb drive in an armored car.

  • Since the 1960s, we in the West have more or less had a hands-off attitude towards the world’s barbarians.

    Dale, that was also our approach in the early 1800s during the Barbary Pirate Wars, events that are not much different then those of today. At the time, we were divided on resolving things in the easiest fashion vs a more principled, hard line approach. A great treatment of this is in the book Six Frigates, and there are several excellent books specifically on the Barbary Wars themselves.

  • DALE, I do not think it is the end of our civilization. I think that from time to time all civilizations must face challenges and must renew themselves. I suspect we will manage to muddle through. Although I do fear that life might not be as easy as it has been.

  • Dale the embassy attacks had somewhere between virtually nothing and absolutely nothing to do with some you tube video.  This was a planned Al Qaeda operation in celebration of 9-11, likely with the tactical goal of consolidating radical power in Egypt and moving toward turning Libya into a client state of a radicalized Egypt. 

    When the most populous Arab country is both radicalized and fueled with (libyan) oil wealth, they will have their spring board for their new caliphate.  The house of Saud will fall, and the Arabian peninsula be consolidated.  Note something in the middle that will have to be eradicated as part of that consolidation. 

  • What follows our fall
    Will be much, much more brutal
    Than what followed Rome.

    The Vandals of old
    Did have nuclear bombs.
    But our Vandals will…

  • As a libertarian, I distrust all groupings of power, whether the group is the government, or large corporations,

    Political power is not even remotely the same thing as economic power. That political power can be bought is a different issue, and remember that much power resides in the “charitiable” sector (i.e., enviros, ACORN, etc).

    There is an entire substrate of technology beneath the surface of what we see, but it is no less important for being almost completely hidden. But think about just two things: You bring up Amazon in your web browser right now, find an item you like, buy it with a simple button click, and a nice man will deliver to your door tomorrow. You can go to a supermarket in January and buy fresh strawberries from Chile.
    Imagine the technological complexity that has to exist for either of those two things to happen. We are truly living in a Golden Age.

    A bit of a spin on looking at a catalog and calling in an order, like people did with Sears and LL Bean not too long ago.
    I find it amusing when people talk about our “tech savvy” yutes. Most of them know what buttons to push, but are totally clueless of how the internals work or how the networks operate. Ask them how a SatCom system works and they don’t even know what a satellite is.

    From the beginning of public education until sometime in the late 1970s, the mission of the public schools was to raise children who were properly educated and civilized, especially children whose culture at home was sub-standard.

    Not even close. From Thomas Mann in the 1840′s, public schools “purpose” was to create compliant citizens. From Dewey in the 1920′s, it became de rigeur for the entire schools systems. Primarily, the ability to think abstractly (can only be done by an individual) was vilified.

    A significant number of people in this country today hear “You didn’t build that”, and thinks, “Yes. That’s right. You owe society for giving you the means to be successful.”

    Ironic that people that do business have to “give back to society” as if they TOOK something, but perennial leeches are never given the same edict; quite the contrary they are told they should demand ever more freebies.

    We’re creating a corporatist, cronyist economic system that’s increasingly impoverishing the middle class bit by bit.

    Cronyism has been around since the dawn of civilization (and before, during tribal times). And in so many ways the middle class has shot themselves in the foot with their own demands and encouragement for the welfare state (to “feel good” that they’re “doing something”.

    In 1972, the mildly Leftist George McGovern was beaten like an egg-sucking dog by Dick Nixon,

    Mildly? You’re not serious!

    Tom Kratman, in his book H-Hour: Countdown, wrote, “’Should’ and ‘ought’ are mere meaningless fantasies. ‘Is’ and ‘real’ and ‘works’ are what matter.” Sadly, we’ve increasingly become a society of “should” and “ought”. A robust civilization would call that “decadence”.

    I’d call it “Pragmatism” and it’s just some of what FDR and Mussolini had in common.
     

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