BOOK REVIEW: The Black Count by Tom Reiss

This is a fabulous  non-fiction narrative that rivals many of the best novels ever written.  Even the fact that it made the New York Times bestseller list and also won the Pulitzer Prize hardly does it justice.  Tom Reiss obviously spent many months, even years, doing very original research on at least two continents and as many languages.  But let’s begin at the beginning

If you have ever read the novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and you liked it, or like me, loved it, Reiss’ book is a must-read for you.  Dumas also wrote The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, as well as dozens of other fiction and non-fiction books and articles.  The Count of Monte Cristo is a story of revenge; the story of a man imprisoned for life on unknown charges as the result of a conspiracy of three enemies he didn’t know he had.  He is condemned to a medieval prison, whose castle walls are several feet thick.  He makes a daring and miraculous escape aided by another prisoner, an aging abbe, who reveals to him the location of great treasure.  The hero becomes fabulously wealthy and the rest of the book is about how he wreaks revenge on those who had condemned and then forgotten him.  The Hollywood movie version in my opinion ruined the story by changing the ending.

What I didn’t know is that the author of these sagas, Alexandre Dumas, was a mulatto, and his father, Alex Dumas was a very dark black man from the island of Haiti who intermarried with a white French woman.  Through the real story of this man, Reiss takes us on a global panoramic tour of the institution of slavery itself, with many surprises along the way.

Slavery of course, has been around since the beginning of man’s recorded history, and obviously predated that history.  All acquisition of property and power throughout the ages was through conquest, and the victor took all, including the vanquished as slaves.  Slavery was not racially tinged until the 18th century.  Before then, anyone anywhere was at risk of becoming a slave if a predator group won the battle.  For example, when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, he made slaves of the Egyptians, but he also imported lots of white slaves from what are now eastern European nations populated by ethnic Slavs, which is where we got the word slave.  Christians during this time period thought slavery was fine as long as the slaves weren’t other Christians.  So making slaves of non-Christians and especially the Moors, was acceptable.    In time these ethnic Slavs, who became known as Mamelukes,  revolted against their Egyptian masters, and the Egyptians became their slaves–until Napoleon came along and drove off the Mamelukes. Read more..

In the western hemisphere, there were large population centers located among the Mayans, the Aztecs, and the Incas.  One of the Incan cities had a larger population at the time than the European city of Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Each of these south and central American civilizations had slave populations themselves.   When the Spanish conquistadors invaded they absorbed the existing slave populations and also made slaves of the former masters.   Those  who didn’t die of the white man’s diseases were turned into slaves and were sent to die in brutal, murderous silver and gold mines.  None of this was race related.

When other imperial explorers reached the islands of the Caribbean, they didn’t find precious metals as they had hoped, but instead found sugar cane, which they learned how to refine into sugar.  The sugar capital of the world became the island of Haiti, then known as Saint Domingue.  Growing sugar cane was labor intensive, and unlike in central and south America, there were no large concentrations of population that could easily be enslaved.  The African slave trade in the 18th century was largely concentrated around the sugar plantations of Saint Domingue.  There were few African women imported to Saint Domingue, and the men were treated so brutally they died quickly of starvation and beatings.  This rapid turnover further exacerbated the labor shortage, requiring more and more slaves.

Reiss traces how the imperial expansion into the western hemisphere took place concurrent with the philosophical movement of The Enlightenment with its special emphasis on liberty and individual rights.  The French were the first to attempt to come to grips with the contradictions between slavery and liberty.  The French were intrigued by the American experiment and the principles embodied in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and of course our revolution only came to a successful conclusion due to the assistance of the French navy.  As a matter of fact, the French involvement in our revolution drove their nation into bankruptcy, and precipitated food riots and their own Revolution.  The French Revolution championed the rights of man at the same time that it engaged in a Reign of Terror against its own citizens, sending thousands of innocent people to the guillotine.

The French resolved the slavery/liberty debate at first by declaring that any black man who made it to the shores of France proper was a free man, and the French sort of washed their hands, Pontius Pilate-like,  of what happened in the slave-holding colonies such as Saint Domingue.  Activists pressed the issue however, and within a short time freedom was being promised to slaves in the colonial territories, which of course enraged the plantation owners, who withdrew their support from the French Revolution.   This facilitated Napoleon’s rise to power, culminating in his naming himself emperor of France and ending the centuries-old monarchy.

Alex Dumas, the father of Alexandre, came to France as a young man and entered the military, and quickly distinguished himself.  For a while he actually outranked Napoleon, but in time came to report to him.  He was captured in what is today Italy, and spent several short years in a medieval prison, held without charges.  His prison experience broke his spirit and his health.  Napoleon meanwhile, in an effort to placate the very wealthy plantation owners of the French Caribbean colonies, rescinded many of the freedoms that the Revolution had instituted for blacks.

After many years of valiant service to the Revolution in which he devoutly believed, Alex Dumas found himself without a pension, without a home, and with no means of support.    Napoleon, who knew him well and personally, ignored his requests and his lieutenants ignored the requests and pleas of his widow after Alex died, still fairly young and impoverished.

This is broad brushing this delightful narrative, which holds many insights you’re not going to find in a history book.  Reiss approaches his topic without bias or political correctness, and what I came away with was that the lot of the common man of any race, color, or origin from time immemorial has been to serve as the cannon fodder of the ruling class of every nation, and that the golden rule prevailed:  he who had the gold ruled.

Reiss is quick to point out many of history’s ironies:

Napoleon and Alex Dumas fought against the Spanish in southern Italy.  This is the same Spain that was colonizing the central and southern Americas.  And that is how the South American tomato made it’s way to southern Italy, which of course made it famous. or was it the tomato that made Italian cuisine famous?

The French continued to refer to black and mixed race people in France as “Americans”, in America members of its Congress would not permit blacks into their presence except to serve refreshments or sweep up. Says Reiss: “But having enjoyed prestige as “Americans” during the[French] Revolution, black and mixed-race soldiers now found themselves denigrated as “Africans.”

The French helped us achieve the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and were also the first to give blacks freedom, at a time when  General George Washington said he didn’t think Virginians were ready for that step yet.   French  General Lafayette of Yorktown fame had to flee for his  life from his own Revolution.  He was captured by the Prussians and spent the next five years in prison.  His friend George Washington was powerless to help him because Prussia [parts of what is now Germany] and Austria at the time refused to recognize the new United States.

Miscegenation , or racial intermarriage, was common until it too was outlawed.  Haiti, the sugar capital of the world and probably the richest island on the planet, experienced the first successful major slave rebellion. The slaves fought 80,000 of Napoleon’s troops to a standstill; the French left, the plantations closed, and today Haiti is quite possibly the poorest island on the planet.  Today Haiti has experienced something of a brain drain as their best and brightest have abandoned her to seek their fortunes in the United States and elsewhere.

New post-revolutionary France decided to deflect attention away from their internal problems by invading most of their neighbors, which is how Napoleon and Alex Dumas came to know each other and fight almost literally side by side.  As always, the government attempted to finance their wars with debt, in the form of bonds backed by property–that had been seized from the Church.  These bonds were on pieces of paper called assignats, which were used as money,  and of course they printed more assignats than there was real estate collateral, which resulted in devaluing the assignats and creating massive inflation.  Eventually the floor under the assignats gave out–literally.  At the Paris printing house someone piled up too much of the worthless paper in one place and the floor of the building collapsed under the weight.  Their real-estate secured bonds were worthless.  Nothing familiar here, is there?

Reiss peppers his story with personal vignettes such as this description of one French revolutionary:  “. . . his main character flaw was that of so many French revolutionaries: a zeal for human rights so self-righteous that it translated into intolerance for the actual human beings around him.”  I’ve often thought the same of the purported champions of the war on poverty; their concerns are usually self-serving and they wouldn’t want to get too up close and personal with real poverty.  They preach humanity but don’t like poor people moving into their neighborhood.

Reiss weaves a wonderful and complex tapestry of events that spans the globe and leads to even more questions.  Life is never quite what it appears to be, and the more it seems to change the more it stays the same.  If you have strong opinions about modern race relations in the U.S., read Reiss’ book for a more global perspective.  Without our Constitution and limited government, there is nothing left but the governments guns, the moneyed powers behind the throne, and the ragtag mob.  Without individual freedom that cannot be voted away by any block of voters of any color for any reason, there is no freedom except by permission, and that is not freedom at all.

For author Alexandre Dumas, his novel The Count of Monte Cristo was the fantasy version of his father’s life.  Indeed part of the story begins in an obscure little village in Haiti (Saint Domingue) near the border with the Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo) called Monte Cristo.

Many parts of this biography of Alex Dumas, and his legendary fictional counterpart, the Count of Monte Cristo, read like a Kafkaesque novel.    Until we figure out a way to change human DNA, the possibility of a return to this world should never be dismissed lightly.  Liberty is and always will  be under siege.

10 Rules: How Closed Minds Become Closed Borders

It is my intention to provide my readers with a very valuable and unique service.  I am a voracious reader and it is my special talent to distill complex subjects down to their simplest parts and principles (if indeed such principles exist).  Much of what is written, past and present, is intentionally obfuscated for political purposes or dishonest gain, whether of the material, intellectual, or emotional varieties.  It is designed to misinform or mislead.  Even when the ideas are simply muddle-headed rather than intentionally disingenuous, there is rarely an understanding of where those ideas originated, or historical consequences of their application.   These observations are particularly applicable to political discussions, but are not uncommon in virtually any serious discourse.

I am driven to know what is.  I grew up in an intellectually closed society, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I left that religious organization in mid-life only to find a whole smorgasbord of other closed societies, whether religious, philosophical, political, or social.  There is a vehemence and even fierceness of advocacy that inhibits civil conversation and betrays intolerance of different life experiences and conclusions.  What is most remarkable about all of these is that either side in any of these debates would passionately agree with my observations herewith stated, but only find them applicable to the attitudes and behavior of those with an opposing viewpoint!

As the polemicists outshout each other in the vain belief that raising the volume of their cranky bombast is the key to recruiting you to the cause or the sale, regard for evidence, logic, scientific method, clarity, and other calm pursuits are left behind like abandoned children.   Defense of our own position usually trumps all other considerations without any awareness whatsoever of the road by which we arrived at our convictions.  My most important takeaway from my own life-altering experience  is that I am the bouncer and doorman to my own mind, and I have sole discretion over what is permitted to enter.  I am the final arbiter of what I accept, because I become what I ingest intellectually.   This is a personal responsibility that I cannot delegate to any other person, institution, or authority. In my opinion, every one of my readers shares this same responsibility for themselves, for the same reasons and with the same rewards. Bitterness and anger about years wasted in misguided belief and defiance of reality are efforts to transfer responsibility for our own past choices onto others, but in every case it was we who negligently invited strangers, in the form of ideas, into our mind unidentified and unchallenged.  Even when we absorb faulty premises in our age of innocence, responsibility to identify and correct these later in life cannot be avoided with impunity.

I frequently include book reviews on this blog, on a broad range of subjects.  All of these book reviews are at least somewhat positive in nature, because I do not waste my readers time on books that are in my opinion without at least some important redeeming values.  I am neither Democrat nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative, and these days, once you get past the rhetoric, it can be said their distinctions are often without differences.  I have no ideology except the value of the individual human being. Each of us is a minority of one.  Regardless of the comfort we find in each other, there is no collective brain.  Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” What we think determines what we become.

I want to share some rules of the road from my personal experience.

When I was growing up, my parents taught me to eat everything on my plate at meal times.  It was axiomatic that to waste food was wrong, even though our young minds rarely grasped the contradiction in the fact that we didn’t overload the plate with all that food, the grown-ups did.  How could we possibly know that for the rest of our lives other BIG PEOPLE would be filling up our intellectual plates with the impassioned ideas, ephemeral notions, and absolute certainties they insisted we must ingest because it is “good for us.”  As in childhood, we trust the source, the same one we associated with survival itself.

Rule #1 :   The purpose of all propaganda is to become your “trusted source.” Read more..

Everyone, it seems, has the strongest notions of what is best for us, beginning with our immediate families and extending to all the institutions of our culture.  What is accepted and practiced in one generation may be repudiated by future generations.  The philosophy that someone else knows what is best for us is nothing more than delegating to strangers what gets put on our plate.  It makes no difference whether this authority figure or expert comes in the guise of clergy, government, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, media talking heads or television and movie script writers; all of them provide us with generous helpings of their opinions and rules and they expect us to eat it, even if it gives us heartburn.  They do not like to be ignored, and most of them are happy, if given the opportunity, to harness the coercive power of the state to enforce what they know is, if not for our own good, at least for the good of the greatest number.  After all, Daddy knows best.

Everything is based on core premises, and unfortunately these are usually absorbed unconsciously from the Influential People of our childhood and adolescence, parents, teachers, news media, friends, and church.

Rule #2:  At a tender age we are neither equipped nor qualified to evaluate  conceptual content, and we know little or nothing about possible  alternatives. 

Content becomes indelibly associated with the persons and institutions of authority that deliver it.  Because of this early childhood association between content and source, we begin to develop class distinctions based on these associations.  We are more inclined to trust and believe those who dress like we do, worship as we do, get educated where we do, and who earn their living as we do.  At the most mundane level it is often said that the best place for a young man to pick up a date is at a church wedding, because he benefits by association with the joy of the occasion and the trust placed in that institution by its members. A “no” response in a different context might become a “yes” at the wedding.

Rule #3:  As children, content becomes truth when it is delivered by those on whom we depend to survive.

Once imbibed, these childhood-acquired core premises become unchallengeable, eternal truths, the template against which all new information is evaluated.  We quickly learn to block dissonance, any new information that makes us uncomfortable.  As we build the rest of our lives around these core premises, our emotional investment in them becomes such that a challenge to their veracity becomes a challenge to our identity.  There is a crushing need to shut down, shut out, and utterly annihilate such threats, and this need is all the more powerful and insidious because it is experienced subconsciously, as in dis-ease.  We experience anxiety without knowing the cause. 

When you experience something that disturbs you, it may or may not mean it is bad for you.  A bad taste in your mouth may mean a poison mushroom, or it may only mean conflict with the taste of the previous mouthful, in which case you need to cleanse your palate before proceeding.  A mouthful of lemon juice may cure you of scurvy, but it could be intensely unpleasant right after eating a sweet.  Likewise you may have been led to believe that very wise people are looking out for your welfare, and this goes down pleasantly, like a sugar cookie.  You might have had great faith in the honest intentions and competence of Bernie Madoff in handling your life savings, or you may currently be planning an extended retirement on Social Security and Medicare as they currently exist, and it tastes sweet.

Rule #4:  What feels safe and tastes good may be the prelude to the financial equivalent of a diabetic coma.

In every case, we always trusted the source.  The doorman to our mind was sound asleep.  There were red flags about what we believed, but we chose to ignore them.

That’s why I write about labels.  I sit down to lunch with people of all stripes and within minutes I can hear, and feel, the palpable hatred as my temporary companions launch into diatribes about those who think differently than they do.  The emotional intensity and intransigence derives from the speaker’s sense of certainty.  A mere label such as the name of a political party, or particular belief or non-belief excites the passions and invites the derision of the group at the table.  To belong is to share in the laughter.  The opposite is equally true and commonplace; the willingness to blithely accept nonsense if it comes from a trusted source.  We will defend what we have already emotionally invested in.

Rule #5:  It is possible to have a lifetime investment in something that is indefensible by any rational standard.  

How long have we known, and has our government refused to acknowledge, that our Social Security is history’s largest Ponzi scheme ever?

I used to finish reading any book I had started.  Like cleaning my plate at dinner, I felt compelled to finish what I had started.  I don’t always do this anymore.  Life is too short.  I always seek to identify as quickly as possible  authors’ basic premises, and even if I disagree with them, I may continue reading if only because I enjoy the writing style or because an author occasionally drops in a redeeming original thought or new twist on something.  I no longer waste my time filling my mind with garbage, but there is a balance between that and closing one’s mind.  Periodically I have to remind myself to re-evaluate my own core premises to see if they still withstand close scrutiny.  The final questions are always, Who says so? Why?  Based on what?  I am always on the alert for the hidden agenda, the sugar-coated dodge.

If some distinguished authority figure makes claims that appear improbable and  unsubstantiated by the facts as you know them, assuming they know more than you is one possibility.  Another possibility is that they have reasons to be less than truthful on this occasion.

If their explanations more accurately resemble circumlocutions, going round and round in circles and making no particular sense, you could assume that their explanation is too deep for your comprehension, given their special training, or you could also entertain the possibility that their non-answer is because they really don’t have an answer but won’t admit it publicly.

How do you spot obfuscations, disinformation, and hidden agendas?    For starters, unless you’ve taken a serious course in statistics, distrust all statistics.  Most are not scientifically sound and are intentionally manipulated for uninformed public consumption.  I could say there are a thousand ways to do this, but that would not be a scientifically sound statistic.  So we’ll move on.  In commercial matters, follow the money.  In political and institutional matters, follow the power.  Look past the easy answers.  Look past the obvious beneficiaries of a particular group action.  The secondary beneficiary is always the real beneficiary.  The primary beneficiaries receive very diffused benefits.  They are the poster children of the much ballyhooed political action; the orphans, the poor, the children, the unemployed, the elderly, the American middle class, the racial minorities.   The secondary beneficiary receives very consolidated power;  the power to bestow or withhold.   Daddy isn’t interested in your growing up.  Daddy needs you to need him.  Daddy needs to be in control of permissions, punishments and perks.

Rule #6:  If someone is selling invisible clothes, let them run around naked.  

It is better to be underwhelmed by the titles and decorations and positions of power of the so-called experts.  Who even remembers yesteryear’s Nobel prize winners and Treasury Secretaries or Fed Chairmen?  If anyone makes claims that to your mind seem like the Emperor’s invisible clothes, let them wear them.  Plan your personal life and make your financial choices around your own perceptions, not theirs.  They will usually have agendas you will never know about, and disincentives to provide full disclosure or tell the unvarnished truth.  Do they really know better than you how to direct your life?  Most American households’ finances are looking better than the governments, perhaps for no other reason than we can’t print money like the government  does.  We have been acting to correct our balance sheets, to start saving and stop borrowing.  Does that sound like what they have been doing?  Do they care about you, or are they far more concerned about polishing their credentials to the largest blocks of voters?  This goes for anyone who is offering you advice on any subject.  Would you look to the Dalai Lama for guidance on improving your sex life, knowing he is a celibate monk?

In the end it’s the same.  Money is power.  But government is money plus guns.  By guns I mean the police power of the state.  With guns you can seize other people’s money.  If you get enough people behind you, even in a democracy you can decide whose money you will take, and how much of it.  This is REAL power, and this is why groups will spend a billion dollars to secure a position of power that pays only half a million.  The most expensive seats are reserved for those who hold court, who trade in favors and gifts, and who choose the winners and the losers.  These people are not producers; they are looters who talk as if they understand production.

All ideas have a history, and if you follow the thread of an idea back far enough, there are always surprises.  Every opinion, belief, and conviction—indeed every certainty, was arrived at in a certain historical and social context, and made perfect sense to those persons in their place and time, and was almost invariably the partial result of emotional turmoil in the author’s personal life.  In other words, intellectuals, philosophers, clergymen, or brick layers, we are all made of the same dirt.  Ideas all began with real people and every single one of them had problems, issues, and emotional dilemmas.  Some of them were morons.

Rule #7:  Many of the world’s greatest thinkers would be in therapy today.

Ideological sparks at the intersection of the right time and the right population periodically ignited the imagination of masses.   New truths became eternal truths that have often reversed themselves, sometimes over and over again, everyone so preoccupied with the minutiae of their daily routines they fail to notice the intellectual roundabout on which they have traveled for decades or centuries.    The grand ideas  have all come and gone, or splintered and evolved in almost unrecognizable ways, becoming innumerable dogmas and orthodoxies,  and today they make compelling narrative for the history or philosophy buff.  Those who take the time to look more closely are sobered by the awareness that in every time period of history there were those who were willing and eager to kill or enslave those who disagreed with them.    Our current democratic society provides some cultural and legal protections against this, but a basic meanness still often lurks beneath the surface of many human believers.  I hear it in conversations at lunch.

Rule #8:  There’s a troll under many a believer’s bridge.

When belief devoid of thought is extolled as a virtue, doubt becomes suspect, opposing opinions are demonized, dissenters are criminalized, and definitions of the enemy are crystalized.  Hatred is born and mob action is galvanized.  Ascendant mobs become the state. Other groups see opportunities to advance their respective causes by hitchhiking on the coattails of the rising group, with the idea that they will address their important differences after they achieve a more favorable situation in the power structure.   The state attempts to co-opt and harness culturally powerful forces (the most powerful of which is religion) and then moves to consolidate its power by weakening, neutering,  and eliminating competing groups.  There are no enduring loyalties, just the shifting sands of temporarily overlapping interests.

This is why I champion individual rights in my writing.  The individual is the smallest group in the world.  Protect individual rights and you protect the world.  Democracies are the competition and conflict between groups, but history is replete with the horrors perpetrated by one group (even elected ones) on other groups.  Great evil has been done repeatedly in the name of God or in the name of Society.  Even in a so-called free society there is nothing more fear-inspiring than observing an impassioned closed mind reflected in the eyes of another human being, so certain of his ideas in fact, that he will gladly sacrifice your life to prove it.  On their own, they are dangerous and capable of atrocities; organized into groups with their hands on the levers of power (duly elected or not), no one is safe.  Not even the members of their group.  Every group has its purges.

There IS a problem with championing individual rights.  It puts responsibility on the individual.  There is uncertainty, and results are neither equal nor guaranteed.  What is guaranteed is that no group can by itself or backed by the power of the state, make you do or be what you do not believe in.  And you can’t do that to anyone else either.  Not everyone is comfortable with that.

Individual rights are inalienable, meaning you were born with them and do not acquire them by permission from others–no one and no group can morally take them from you, even when those others are infused with certainty about their better idea.   They may seize your property and take your life by force, but they can never do so morally.  Individual rights mean the right to pursue your own life and happiness as your highest values, and you are free to seek and perform work that sustains those values.  This includes buying and selling from whomever you choose, to your own benefit.  Individual rights means essentially the separation of church and state and the separation of economic activity and state.

Individual rights mean the government is there to protect  individual rights of all, and no one is there to serve the government.  Individual rights in practice, of necessity mean small government because there just isn’t that much the government needs to do.  No modern state, including western democracies, will ever pay more than lip service to government based on the sovereignty of the individual because all governments derive their power from the purse, which includes both confiscatory taxation and gross interference with free trade of its citizens.  The power of government is in granting permissions.  That’s where the money is.

Rule #9:  The government’s favorite childhood game is “Mother, May I?”

You can recognize individual rights in action when your government fears to transgress against its citizens.  

Group rights, on the other hand, are acquired by permission from a majority of others in society, and those permissions can be revoked.  The herd sometimes gives little or no notice of intent to stampede.  The primacy of group rights derives from the belief that your highest value as an individual  is not yourself but your contribution to society as a whole.  Individuals can  expect to be sacrificed to the group when the group calls for it. Every single favor demanded of  government by a group always implies a request for the police power of the state to be used against someone else  who doesn’t want to do the group’s  bidding.  Otherwise, if the group could achieve its ends on a voluntary basis, arrived at through negotiation, documented and signed by the parties, why would they need to involve the state?  Groups only need the state to club minority interests into submission.   I use the word minority here in the very literal sense of anyone who does not have sufficient votes to protect their interests. Group rights are the inevitable political legacy of those obsessed with the certainty of their beliefs, so much so that in their minds the ends justify their means.  Sooner or later the means include the confiscation of human life and property by the state–for the benefit of the greater good, of course.  Group rights degrade into group warfare and lead to an indefinitely expanding state, with eventually the state dwarfing all other groups.

Group rights lead to totalitarianism, which is sanctioned and even welcomed by the public in the name of efficiency.  When the cacophony of bitterly opposed groups gets too rancorous and the machinery of the state grinds down, someone with the necessary stage presence steps forward and suggests temporary consolidation of power to get through the political impasse.  We all know the rest of that story.

You can tell group rights in action when citizens fear their government.

So what is my point?  Am I advocating political activism in favor of limited government and individual rights?  Not really.  You can, of course, if you want to.  All I am encouraging is to become aware of what is happening around you, and to be aware of the ideas behind the events.  Keep your finger on the pulse of the politics in your community, your state, your nation.  Be more careful what you believe in, and scrutinize documentation with a critical eye.  In almost every location it is possible to exercise a great deal of personal freedom as long as you don’t make too much fanfare about it.  Love your life, keep your mind open and your passport current, and

Rule #10:   Know where the border is.

Closed minds eventually become closed borders.

 

Would Everyone Please Stop Shouting?

“To believe is very dull.  To doubt is intensely engrossing.  To be on the alert is to live; to be lulled into security is to die.”

This quote by Oscar Wilde is the purpose of this newsletter:  an honest inquiry into the nature of what is, a rigorous intellectual effort to sift through the barrage of information, disinformation, and misinformation available; to distinguish the credible from the propaganda, the reality from the rant.  Am I the only one who has noticed that anyone with the temerity to ask any question of political, economic, or financial significance in polite society these days risks being immediately overwhelmed with passionate polemics about Read more..

 this ideology or that political dogma?  Names and labels are immediately brought up which were not mentioned in the question, and the entire conversation is promptly hijacked and redirected to the vilification of opposing beliefs, groups, and parties.

It is the view of this writer that the intense human need for belief, for certainty, and for ultimate truth is probably the original sin, for once armed with such belief, we close the door of our minds to new and possibly contradictory information.  For intellectually honest persons to admit to contradictions would require a re-examination of cherished premises, and an admission that their current perception of reality may be incomplete or (gasp) misguided.  Therefore this newsletter is not an advocate of any group; not the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the Occupy Wall St. party, or any other party.  Nor am I an anarchist, survivalist, or conspiracy theorist.  I have no “position” to defend other than the inviolability of individual human rights.  As stated in the American Declaration of Independence, these rights are inalienable, meaning that they can only be taken from us by force, whether that is at the point of a gun, or voted away by some group with the backing of the State, which enjoys the monopoly on the use of the guns.  The individual is the smallest minority in the world, and rarely does anyone rise up in his/her defense.  It seems the individual is only valued as one member of the herd.  It is the herd, the collective, the group which is championed, and it seems the only rights that matter much anymore are group rights, and civil discourse has deteriorated into group warfare.

We are human animals, and we have survived by herding together into packs either defined by ethnic origin or religious and ideological associations.  As adults we are no different than we were as small children, determined not to commit ourselves to an answer without surveying the level of support we will enjoy if we expose our opinion.  Political correctness is socially enforced conformity.  We see this conformity everywhere, from our college classrooms to our churches to our political parties, and even, or especially, among our media.  The newsroom has ceased to be about news, but only a coveted tool with which to bombard the public with sound bytes of advocacy.  And our politicians have no beliefs until a survey or their financial sponsors tell them what their followers want them to believe.  Actually, what the politicians believe in private isn’t all that relevant, as long as they publicly espouse whatever will gain them access to the levers of power.  Facts and accurate information are rarely sought after in honest inquiry or the pursuit of truth.  These are only the masks we wear to disguise confirmation bias, status and power seeking.

Several years ago I was invited to a friend’s house for a party, and in due course became involved in a conversation with another guest who shared that he was a stockbroker by profession.  Being a financial writer, I welcomed this opportunity to get his learned feedback on some recent financial events.  I asked a question, and for the next ten or fifteen minutes listened to his erudite discourse.  It was only later that I realized that I did not understand one single thing he said.  It dawned on me that this person’s response was not intended to educate, but to impress, motivated by vanity or an ingrained professional habit of selling by intimidation.  (He knows so much more than we do, things that we could not possibly understand, that the best we could do is put our financial future in his competent hands.)  Nothing is more indicative of such motivations than the intentional abuse of statistics and graphs to achieve desired ends.  We are all presumably sophisticated enough by now to approach all such “evidence” with caution.

I became interested in financial literacy when I realized that few were really interested in informing or educating the public, but only leading them to certain conclusions and actions that empowered those controlling the flow of information.  In reading the financial papers and magazines, I realized that society was divided between those few who “know” and the vast majority who will be told “what they need to know” by the talking faces.  I read the Economist for years before I admitted to myself how much of their financial language I still didn’t understand.  When I asked friends and colleagues questions, many of them with advanced degrees, much to my surprise I learned they didn’t know the answers either.  It made me wonder how much of such “communication” is to convey understanding and how much is the use of specialized jargon to impress, confuse, or worse, to obfuscate or conceal real intentions.  Knowledge, after all, is power.  And power is the name of the game.  The world has changed.  Human nature has not.

To my layman’s eye, much of economics has about as much validity as Tarot Card reading.  I went to such a fortune teller once, and I noticed the questions she asked me during our “interview” and how cleverly she fed my own information back to me.  She confirmed my original bias.  I thought she was brilliant.  One of these days I expect the Chairman of the Federal Reserve to show up with a red bandanna around his head, and a gold hoop in one ear.  Is he not doing the same thing, feeding back to us (and his bosses) what we all want to hear, that we can have what we want without the money to pay for it?  We can masturbate our minds as long as we want in this hall of mirrors, but reality still awaits us on the other side of the Exit sign.  It’s not a good sign when our leaders insist on staying inside the Fun House, explaining their actions with impressive circumlocutions.  Which means we haven’t got a clue what they just said.

The desired goal of much communication is not fostering independence of spirit and action, but obedience and conformity.  It is easier to control and move the herd than it is to control independent and well informed minds.  If the explanations given to us by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the bankers and investment counselors seem vague, complicated, dubious, or contradictory, how and when do we know if this is intentional or not?  Since they are the experts, who are we to challenge them?  (It is precisely when we feel this way that we should challenge established wisdom.)

To understand how the world really works requires knowledge of history.  There are two things a person needs to know about history.  1) History is never boring.  There are only boring history teachers.  2) History is written by the victors, because real history is the natural enemy of the State.  The State benefits from the shortage of accurate information, and the State always seeks to control the flow of information.  Much of what children are taught in every nation is heavily influenced by what the State apparatus wants them to learn.  We frequently call this public, or State-sponsored education.  History is where we have been, which means history is how we got to where we are.  History holds many secrets, which is why most interested parties are obsessed with requiring more acceptable versions of it.

The internet of course is changing everything.  Access to information, so far, has been harder to control.  The internet does not have the appointed gatekeepers to information as do the mainstream media outlets.  The internet is changing the face of education, and the sacrosanctness of our universities where we fashion the thinking of our thinkers is being eroded by non-traditional sources of learning. Students have increased exposure not merely to what a tenured faculty member would have them believe, but to more unfiltered global perspectives and experiences.  The income gap in the future is going to be between those few with independent minds and the ability to think critically, and those who choose to follow.  With massive grade inflation in the public school system, a four-year college degree today is often the equivalent of a high school diploma only a few years ago.  In the better schools, very little is being taught to actually help the graduates survive in an economic sense, and perhaps the best assets the students have purchased with their parents’ money are the social connections they develop with their classmates.  Some of those classmates will end up in positions of power, and proximity to power often translates into wealth and privilege.

Government is changing because of the internet.  The bargain between any government and its citizens is changing, as it becomes more difficult or even impossible to identify one’s enemies, or to stop them at the borders.  Economics and world trade are changing, and money circulates the globe at the touch of a button, and corporations become bigger and more powerful than nation states.  Financial instruments of trade are created faster than regulatory environments can identify them, and systemic complications threaten to bring the whole system down.

When the body politic is fragmenting and pulling in different directions, when each group is trying to outshout every other group, when everything is for sale, and the wealth of the nation and the future of its taxpayers are up for sale to the highest bidder, who do you want to believe?  And if you wish to cling to a group for security, which group do you want to trust your financial future with?  What happens to your future when your group is outspent by a better funded one?  Which dogma feels safest to you right now?  What does it tell you when a politician raises almost a billion dollars to buy an office that pays $400,000 per year?

There are those who fail at communication because they have a poorly developed ability to put their thoughts in order, to define what they believe, or enunciate the supporting arguments of what they believe.  These are the folks who have not arrived at their beliefs through rigorous and honest evaluation of facts and evidence, but who most likely absorbed their beliefs from their culture at large, meaning the media, family, church, schooling, college professors, friends, work associates, and other influential people.  Any critical analysis they do is mostly criticism of opposing viewpoints, and their analysis is nothing more than a search for information that confirms their existing prejudices.  In today’s information society, to even have a position is to imply that the end of all progress has been attained.

Take for example, the most amazing bias in favor of government intervention in the economic affairs of consumers.  Usually this is framed in David-and-Goliath terms, i.e. that we as individual (David) consumers are not capable of managing our transactions without the government to protect us from the Goliath of global enterprise.  The bias I refer to here, and take exception to, is the belief that government workers are somehow immune to the same selfish striving, the same or similar ulterior motives as anyone, anywhere else in society.  Somehow, by labeling commerce as profit-motivated (admittedly self-motivated), we are granting government an enormous benefit of the doubt.  For more information on this, go to http://www.financialliteracysource.com/money/why-the-federal-reserve-exists/#more-231.

Now if government is populated by the same Homo sapiens as free markets, how is it that only government workers are sin- and greed- free?  Again, history comes to our rescue.  Throughout the millennia of human existence, it has always been government, with its attendant monopoly on the use of force that has enslaved humanity.  The primary concern of the intellectual founders of this country was to protect the future generations from the grasping, insatiable, and inevitably expanding reach of their own government.  The limitation of powers enshrined in the Constitution was to protect us from voting ourselves into slavery.  Democracy by itself provides no such protection.  Nine foxes and a hen voting on what to have for dinner doesn’t bode well for the hen.

We live in a brand new, technology-driven world, a world the founding fathers could not even conceive.  They lived in an agrarian society, which evolved into an industrial society, and we are now in a post-industrial, information society.  Governments can no longer protect their citizens with any degree of certainty, neither economically or militarily.  The enemy is no longer other nation states, but ideologies that motivate and empower fanatics of every stripe to attain their goals with weapons of mass destruction. MAD, or mutually assured destruction policies have been rendered obsolete.  Likewise, financial and political decisions from Wall St. to Greece to Southeast Asia threaten to derail the financial stability of the rest of the world.  The inability of our existing government structures to provide the basic security that is implicit to the bargain with their citizens can in time undermine their legitimacy, a weakness that will be exploited whenever possible by their enemies, both within and without.

The world has never been a more dangerous place; and our future as a species is by no means assured.  This is not fear-mongering or apocalyptic scare tactics:  I have no doubt the people at the hubs of power who know far more than you or I about what goes on behind the closed doors of government and foreign policy would not disagree.

Now more than ever, Oscar Wilde’s probably offhand remark applies in a very literal sense: “To be on the alert is to live; to be lulled into security is to die.”

I am not pretending to be an expert here.  I am 62 years old at this writing, and I have lived a very varied, but always “examined” life.  I welcome your comments and open debate, and so would my other readers.  This re-launch of this website is intended to be your forum, not my pulpit.  Tell us what you have heard, know, researched, read, or wondered about–in the Comments section below.

To assure you stay in the loop, please subscribe by entering your email address at the top right side of the Home Page.  There is no fee or obligation of any kind.  You can expect to hear from my corner twice a month.  Tell me what you want to know more about.  We’ll find someone with some intelligent, understandable answers.

 

Why We Believe: The Power of Utopia! Part I

About ten years ago I was asked to give a speech about the power of cults, largely because I had been raised almost from infancy as a Jehovah’s Witness, a religious organization often associated in the public’s mind with cultism.  Some of the hallmarks of cultism are a need for certainty, a conviction that you have absolute truth and are the final authority on that truth, and repression of dissent.  Some cults exercise a physical control of their members, but most of them exert a psychological control.  A true believer is someone who no longer needs coercion or physical restraint, but who now acts as if those restraints are still in place.  I can best compare it to training a guard dog; you use a choke collar with such consistency that eventually you remove the choke collar from the neck of the dog and he is so conditioned that he continues to act as if the choke collar is still there.  When, in my thirties I left this organization, I was eager to embrace a society of intellectually free people, and I was excited about the prospect of associating with others with open, inquiring minds.  I was astonished to find so much more of what I had just abandoned, only worse:  People who were born into freedom, and yet who both abused and despised it.  Read more..

Cults are all about utopias.  Everyone on this planet is unhappy about something.  Everyone has a problem that they would like to go away, everyone knows someone else who has what they want, or more of it.  Everyone believes their life could be much better, if only . . . You fill in the blank.  Cults gain adherents by claiming to have found the ultimate truth, the only solution, the compelling argument, The Way.  Sacrifices will have to be made, but that is a small price to pay, isn’t it, if you look at it unselfishly?  Quite usefully, cults  provide a devil, or scapegoat, on which to project blame for whatever our particular grievances are (Management, Jews, Foreigners, The Other Religion, The Rich, The Other Political Party)  We have enshrined in our Declaration of Independence our right to the pursuit of happiness; utopians promise the reality of happiness and fulfillment, not the illusion of its pursuit.  Whatever freedoms you may enjoy at the moment, you can be sure that utopians will require that you sacrifice some of them in exchange for their promise of better tomorrows.  Why do people believe them, often in the face of considerable evidence that their claims are a fraud and have repeatedly failed before?

Charismatic leaders cash in on the conditioning you have already experienced; you have absorbed a basic philosophical premise, from your schools, your church, your family, your books, media, movies, songs, everything that comes at you during all your conscious hours, that the only acceptable, moral purpose of your life is–others.  Not you, but others.  Your ultimate value in life is not your life, but everyone’s life except yours.  This is the moral ideal of most cultures on this planet.  The appropriate expression of this ideal is submissionEvery other life form on this planet seeks, by instinct, its own survival.  But our culture teaches us that, as humans,  our moral ideal is to promote the survival of others over our own.  Since this is an unnatural standard, and one that runs counter to our own nature as man, it becomes a standard we cannot live up to, and therefore a standard that induces guilt.  Whoever controls and manipulates our guilt load controls us.  They can now remove the choke collar from our neck, and we will faithfully follow them as surely as if there is a gun at our back.  We will go even further; we will give them what Ayn Rand called ‘the sanction of the victim.’  We have anointed our new Masters.    Once they have obtained our tacit acceptance of the premise that our life is not our highest value, and that our highest purpose is to serve others, it only remains for someone else to decide what the exact form our sacrifice, or service, should take.  When our sacrifice is in the name of God, our payoff is in the Hereafter; when our sacrifice is to Society, our payoff will be just around the next corner, after we have eliminated poverty, restored the ozone layer, reversed global warming, stabilized international trade, protected jobs, revived failed businesses, won the war on drugs, and soaked the rich.  But there is one thing about all sacrifice–it is always later.  So the first prerequisite for a succesful cult mentality is a pervasive culture of self-sacrifice.  This sets the stage for the first charismatic politician, dictator, ayatollah, or  power luster that fortune favors.

The second pre-requisite for loss of freedom to a cult is a CRISIS of sufficient magnitude to scare us out of our wits, and that wrongly leads us to believe restoring stability would be worth a “temporary” loss of some freedoms. Once these freedoms are gone, it is almost impossible to get them all back.  Why is this?  When it comes to freedom, history is not on our side.  As a matter of fact, freedom as an individual right is a very recent development.

During all of the ages of man, there have been two classes of people:  the producers and the expropriators.  Whether the producers were serfs tilling the soil, or forgers of iron or bronze, or men toiling on the pyramids, they were slaves who worked to eke out an existence, to survive, and for the benefit of their Masters, who controlled them with the sword, torture, and death.  Sometimes it was a hostile relationship, and sometimes a symbiotic relationship.  Empires rose and fell by the use of force, and the major difference between the rulers of men was the degree of autonomy they permitted their subjects.  Some of the vanquished were slaughtered, others were placed in chains, some became vassals and achieved a state of semi-freedom in exchange for paying tribute, or a tax on their “freedom”.  Man’s natural state was that of a slave, and only might made right.  Some form of slavery was characteristic of almost all civilizations throughout history.  Until, that is, the philosophical period that came to be known as The Enlightenment. 

For the first time a case was made that the natural state of a man was that of freedom, and that this freedom was his by right, not by permission.  Yes, he could still be enslaved by force, but his jailers were violating his moral rights in doing so.  Man’s highest value was his life, and it was proper and moral for him to seek his survival and his happiness.  The lower animals survived by instinct, but man survived by the use of his mind, and the use of that mind came to be his work and his means of survival.  Therefore, to rob a man of his product, to rob him of the fruits of his use of his mind, was in fact to rob him of his right to life.  Therefore, property, obtained as the product of his mind, was also his right, as a corollary to his right to life itself.  Thus, the right to independent thought (intellectual freedom) and property rights (economic freedom) came to be associated together for the first time in history.  How interesting that these two freedoms tend to disappear together as well when people are enslaved.  Since man survives by the use of his rational mind, it is not possible to separate the two freedoms; it is not possible to have one without the other.  There is no freedom without economic freedom. 

So when Thomas Jefferson wrote that man had the ‘inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, he was not writing the obvious; he was making a radical departure from the orthodoxy of all of human political history.  He was stating that man did not obtain life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by permission, but by inalienable right!  This was not a group right, because a group right would have implied that his life or freedom could have been denied him by the group; no, an inalienable right was an individual right.  In this way Jefferson was championing the rights of the smallest minority in the world–and the most maligned–the individual human being.  No other person, clique, group, political party, thug, ruffian, dictator, junta, or voting bloc, could morally deprive him of his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Jefferson and the other founding fathers had another daunting task on their hands:  If wealth is to be created by innovation, invention, and production, and the values so produced freely traded, and not expropriated by military conquest, then what is the proper moral role of government in the lives of men?  Since property  derives from the application of our minds to natural resources, the only other way to acquire property is to plunder it from those who produced it.  If plunder is easier than work, men will resort to plunder, according to Frederic Bastiat, the author of the delightful treatise La Loi.  To prevent them from doing this, we give government a monopoly on the use of force.  Government is there to protect our property from plunder by foreigners and also from plunder by domestic thieves and ruffians.  But who is to protect us from our own government, if they get it into their head to plunder us? Our only protection could be Rule by Law, so that even our enemies have to abide by this law. 

Our Constitution was specifically designed to protect us from our own government, because from time immemorial the law itself has been used as the tool with which to plunder, or expropriate property from the masses.  When the law is politicized, bent to the will of the group in power, and when that group is replaced by another group, the new group simply uses the power of legislation to turn the tables on their former tormentors.  Under a rule of law, it should make no difference what the political opinions are of a potential jurist; he would have no means to bend or change the law to his ideals.  When the rule of law deteriorates into the rule by people, a civilization has attained the first step on the road to tyranny.  There is nothing to stop anyone who wants what you have.  It is theirs for the taking, because they use the law to seize it!  This degradation of the rule of law is well advanced in our society.  As we gradually migrate from a rule by law to a rule by people,  a higher premium is placed on the political opinions of candidate jurists, because the limitations and restraints placed on legislators by the Constitution are under attack by judicial activists, who believe that any small loss of freedom is more than compensated for by the compelling social benefits of their proposed new legislation.   What happens when the seemingly good intentions of the legislators turns out to be not quite so well-intentioned after all?  Even granting these lawmakers the benefit of a benevolent doubt, do they understand that in weakening the Constitution, they have weakened the Rule of Law and moved an entire nation closer to Rule by People, where any and all of us are sitting ducks for the first gang with the opportunity to capitalize on it?  The problem with all utopians is that in their vision of the world, they themselves will be pulling the levers of power.  It never occurs to them that someone else might be the beneficiary of the damage they did to our system, and that they might end up being among the victims.

We have experienced a prolonged erosion of respect for the rule of law, and a concomitant politicization of the legal process in America.  Add to that a culture that incessantly promotes the spirit of altruism, i.e. that only a life lived in the service of others is moral and worth living.  We are in the middle of the greatest global financial meltdown in history.  We have created a culture of entitlement, which means the right to confiscate and enjoy the product of other men’s labor, without compensation.  A government produces nothing; it can only seize and redistribute.  When it provides anything, any service, for nothing, it has made a slave of someone else.  That someone else is the producer.  When politicians extol the benefits they are giving us in exchange for keeping them in power, they are trading in stolen goods.  For anyone else, that is a felony.  For government it is a privilege.  If the victims of this expropriation have the temerity to complain, they are selfish and anti-social.  This is the corrupted morality of our mixed economy, and it is this anti-life morality that has rendered conservatism helpless.  Unable or unwilling to defend capitalism on moral grounds; which is nothing more than economic freedom, freedom to produce, trade, and keep the product of your trade; the conservatives hope to compete with the neo-socialists by trying to out-do them in the expropriation department by advocating “compassionate capitalism”.  What does that mean, that we’ll say “Thank you” when we expropriate the product of your mind and work??  By what definition is it compassion to expropriate, by force, the product of one man’s effort in order to distribute it to another?  And what makes government a better judge of the worthiness of the recipient’s need than the producer of the values being expropriated?  The implied answer:  The government will be “unselfish” distributing the producers goods, whereas the producer will likely be more “selfish” and may want to keep his earnings.  By what morality does a man need to feel guilty about wanting to keep what he has earned? Is this the thought pattern of a free society, or the thought pattern inherited from the endless ages of the producer as the slave so that the privileged classes can seize the product of his labor?  And yet this is what a philosophy of altruism has produced:  submission, bowed heads, and mindless obedience.  We are just as conditioned as the dog after the choke collar has been removed.  We know our place, we go along in order to get along.  Once we have experienced the power of a choke collar, we don’t actually have to be threatened with it anymore to secure our compliance.

Our free system has been weakened by the relentless assault of bad philosophy.  Freedom is lost when public attitudes change, when people cry Foul when someone picks their pocket, but think nothing of picking the next man’s.  The stage is set.  Now enter any gang of politicians with initiatives,  the worth of which they are absolutely convinced (remember–cults are identified by a need for certainty with the cult leader as the final authority), and their attempted expropriations are framed in the context of service to humanity, but which regrettably involves the confiscation of property.  Their presentations are  couched in terms of the highest moral ideals, so much so that any opponents should feel compelled to apologize for their lack of compassion and crass selfishness, and be shamed into silence!  “Big government is here to help!” It is in this incremental manner that liberty is lost.  As philosopher David Hume once said:  “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.”  When the public arbiters of what private property we are allowed to keep are done with their economic coercion, the loss of intellectual liberty is not far behind.  In no time at all our attitudes, opinions, and values are monitored, and a system of rewards and punishments tells us what is acceptable and what isn’t.  This process is also at an advanced stage in this country, but that is the subject of another article.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America comments on ‘the new servitude’:  ” . . . It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd.  The will of man is not shattered but softened, bent and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting.  Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrial animals, of which government is the shepherd.”

There are soft cults, such as the situation described by de Tocqueville above, and there are hard cults, such as Stalin’s attempt at utopia, or Hitler’s brand of national socialism.  The difference between soft and hard cults is often one of incrementalism, of time and opportunity; there is always someone whose view of the world is so compelling, so incisive, and well, so right, to them at least, that it justifies the use of force against others, until of course, those others come to their senses.  And if they don’t? . . . . well, sacrifices have to be made.  Nine foxes and one chicken just voted on what to have for dinner.  The chicken lost.  It lacked vision. The funny thing is, when the foxes came for it, the chicken didn’t run, it didn’t resist.  It knew its glory was in serving the needs of the others.

Thanks for listening.  Leave a comment.  John Bechtel, Greenville, SC

Did Capitalism Fail?

The global economic crisis now in play is being universally touted as the failure and collapse of capitalism.  The cover of the February 16, 2009 edition of Newsweek ecstatically proclaimed “WE ARE ALL SOCIALISTS NOW”.  The documented collapse of Wall St. institutions and international banking is being gleefully interpreted as the failure of capitalism itself.  In the furious debate that has ensued, the arguments for and against capitalism have focused entirely on the causes of various recent economic phenomena, such as Wall St. greed, the failure of regulators, the incompetence of one or another administration, and the complexity of derivatives that were both unheard of and technically impossible only twenty years ago.  All of them have totally missed the point.  Capitalism has not failed, because capitalism was not practiced to begin with.  Pure capitalism has never been practiced because it is philosophically unacceptable in our culture.  What is called capitalism today is a hybrid political philosophy so filled with contradictions, it is unable to defend itself.  To answer the question in the title of this article, we have to begin at the beginning. Read more..

Capitalism is a form of political philosophy.   The philosophy taught and accepted as orthodoxy in our Humanities departments of our universities was largely imported from Europe during the nineteenth century.  Europe’s ancient economic model and paradigm was that of feudalism, a system where the act of production was performed by serfs.  In the minds of medieval Europeans, manual labor was split from intellectual life and All property belonged to their kings(the head of their tribe) and this property was bestowed by the King’s permission to noblemen, usually as a reward for military service to the King.  Property could, and often was, reclaimed by the King at his whim.  This system lasted well into the nineteenth century, when it was replaced by what came to be called capitalism.  What really happened during this century is that ownership of property and production changed from the head of the tribe (the King) to the people of the tribe (the State).  The tribal attitude remained unchanged.  This is very important.  The concept of individual rights of a sovereign man was virtually unknown in Europe. considered inferior to it.  The role of nobility was to own and control such production.  Any act of material production was considered lowly and demeaning, and certainly not an appropriate pursuit of the upper classes.  Europe was (and is) very tribal, and everyone’s role was to serve the tribe.   About this same time the science of political economy came into being, but was again based on the tribe as the smallest unit, not the individual.  Political economy was the study of the most efficient utilization of economic resources, but those resources belonged to the community, and the individual was the smallest cell of that community.  A serf was still a serf, and the only known paradigm was ruling the producers of material goods with physical force, and this use of coercion was the privilege of the noble classes of society.  The American concept of individual rights of man was drastically and radically new.  In feudal Europe, there was no dignity or value to the creation of wealth, the honor and glory  was in the confiscation of it.  The American system was based on the principle that wealth was to be owned by its creators.  We became a great nation and economic powerhouse because people here could become wealthy beginning with nothing, because they were entitled, by law, not permission, to keep what they earned.  We understood early on that without economic rights, without the right to private property, there were no rights, for property rights are nothing more than the right to keep the results of our effort.

European political economy however clung to the preeminence of the tribe rather than the individual, and the products of ones efforts belonged to the community, and any profit or surplus was to be disposed of by the ruling class for the benefit of the tribe.  In America we saw a human being as an end in himself; in Europe they saw man as a member of the tribe.  Europeans were collectivist in their mindset; we were individualist here in America.  This has a lot to do with the fact that we have been a wellspring of innovation and entrepreneurial activity that has been the envy of the world.  Anywhere in the world, a young person with get-up-and-go wanted to go to America.  Europeans tended to be more rule -bound and clung to corporate models that emphasized security over risk taking; more safety and less reward.  Their society provided extensive social safety nets for the less productive and more regulatory restraints on the more productive.  In Europe individual rights were largely subordinated to group rights.  In the event of a conflict between the two, the greater good of the greater number prevailed.  That of course begs the question, The greater good as determined by whom?  The answer of course is by whomever is in power at the moment.

The American experiment was enshrined in our Constitution and in our Declaration of Independence, two remarkable documents designed to separate us from any other democracy; these statements of intent declared that even in a democracy there were some things that could NOT be voted on, and that would NOT be subjected to the will of the majority:  anything that was a violation of individual rights could not be voted away by some majority in power.  These documents were to protect us from our own government; that the goals, visions, and wishes of  any groups or gangs that might get voted into office were limited by the sanctity of individual rights.  Those rights began with the right to hold property by law and not by permission.  In America our problems began with a philosophical conflict between capitalism, or each individual seeking their own personal happiness and life values, and the ideal of altruism, i.e. that man’s highest and greatest value should be in the service to others.  In time it became culturally unacceptable to openly declare so-called selfish motives, such as profit, and all such self-seeking behavior had to be camoflaged as job creation, charitable donations, community involvement.  A man’s profits could only be justified by how much of it he gave away (to charity) for the public good.  In a capitalistic society, values are established by objective criteria; the worth of a man’s product is determined by what another man is willing to trade for it (markets); whereas in a collectivist system, values are assigned according to either subjective (what I think) criteria, or intrinsic (what the value should be) criteria.  We saw this manifested most recently by the current administration assigning salary caps to any organization which receives a government bailout.  Who decides what such caps should be, and by what criteria?  Rather than capitalism, we have what is commonly known as a mixed economy, which is a hybrid of capitalism (private ownership of the means of production), socialism (mostly private ownership of the means of production, but State regulation of it) and communism (all State ownership of the means of production).  A mixed economy resembles feudalism to the extent that you “own” property until the King (the modern State) says you don’t.  In a mixed economy, the State regularly interferes with free market processes, usually in the pursuit of political power thinly disguised as altruistic purposes.  A mixed economy lurches schizophrenically back and forth from free market initiatives to social planning according to which philosophy is currently enthroned by the electorate.  In a mixed economy, political decisions are frequently imposed by force on “free” markets for political or ideological reasons.  Any time such decisions are imposed, they are never market choices or there would have been no need to impose anything by force, edict, or law.  One of the many problems with social engineering is the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Such was the case in 1999 when the Clinton Administration leaned heavily on  Fannie Mae to ease the credit requirements on loans to subprime borrowers.  Home ownership was declared a “right” without regard to financial qualifications.  The banks were eager to make such loans because they got to bundle them and sell them in “securitized” packages at huge mark-ups to investors, primarily foreign governments.  Easing of credit created a gigantic bubble in the real estate asset class, all of which has created our current global crisis.  In a truly free market, without government guarantees, lenders would have been far more circumspect about credit worthiness; and without government interference with credit markets, we would not have had too much cash (and credit) chasing too few goods (real estate), resulting in runaway inflation of home prices.  When the credit bubble collapsed, the promised collateral rapidly deflated in value, causing the banks to stop lending in an effort to improve their reserves, and no one, not the banks, not the government, and not the politicians, wanted to fix a real, current market value to the collateral for loans in default.  To do so would have required a massive mark-down of the banks assets and a considerable number of them would have been insolvent.

The above referenced Newsweek article positively gushes about our rush to European-style socialism, engaging in circular prose and unanswered questions; the questions without acceptable answers.  I give you:  “Whether we want to admit it or not . . . the America of 2009 is moving toward a modern European state.”  And, “As entitlement spending rises over the next decade, we will become even more French.”  Or how about this one:  “Polls show that Americans don’t trust government and still don’t want big government.  They do however, want what government delivers, like . . . protections from banking and housing failure.”  “The Obama administration is caught in a paradox.  It must borrow and spend to fix a crisis created by too much borrowing and spending.” (emphasis mine)  Crisis created by what policies?  No answer.  Then in direct contradiction to what it said before about a decade of increasing entitlement spending by government, this author continues:  “Having pumped the economy up with a stimulus, the president will have to cut the growth of entitlement spending . . . ).  The next article in that issue of Newsweek says approvingly:  “One of the more lasting effects will be a steady drift toward what could be called a European model of governance, regulation, and paternalism. . . the U.S. government will be forced to fill the gap, firmly directing  businesses in all sorts of ways—regulating some industries (particularly banking and the automotive sector) with big brother vigilance, favoring others like clean energy with grants and loans, and turning still others—health care and pensions—into virtual wards of the state.”  Now folks, before we lose our perspective, this loving, paternalistic, omniscient government is the same one that spent Social Security trust funds (the largest Ponzi scheme in history), that lists an enemy nation-state, China, as its largest creditor, that has a national debt equal to $186,717 for every man, woman, and child in America, that is on target to incur $7 trillion in new deficits over the next 10 years, and that has already this year of 2009 incurred a deficit equal to 4 x the total deficit for 2008, which up till then was the record highest!  Folks, this has nothing to do with capitalism.  This is vintage social planning.  The Newsweek article continues:  “So aside from expanding the social safety net, the government will have to take a greater role in guiding business toward ends the state deems healthy for the overall economy.” (Emphasis mine)  This is not the creation of wealth, it is confiscation and redistribution of that wealth to fit social and ideological visions of the planners with the guns.  This is the practical application of altruism in the field of economics, and the only real question is, how do we seize property without losing our producers?  “Publicly funded” means property expropriated from those who produced it.  As Newsweek notes almost as an afterthought:  “Slow growth could kill rugged American individualism, too.”

All of this is possible only because no one has the courage to challenge the socialists on moral grounds; that altruism is theft, not service; and that the great flaw of socialism is not its very unpleasant side effects, but the fact that it separates the producer from the product of his efforts and denies his right to keep it.  It forcibly redistributes that wealth in ways that foster dependence (aka paternalism) and the greed of the needy.  It is a philosophy that is anti-life, as we acknowledge in the Declaration of Independence, wherein we acknowledge the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Since property in a free society comes by the production of objective values that sustain life, expropriating those products is separating a man from his means to his life.

Did capitalism fail?  It never had a chance.

Thanks for visiting.  Leave a comment.  John Bechtel, Greenville, SC