Hayek’s “Rejuvenating Event”

HayekNobelFreeman
Today is the 40th anniversary of F.A. Hayek’s Nobel Prize. My article in The Freeman tells the story behind the so-called Nobel, the controversy around Hayek’s winning it (and sharing it with a socialist economist), and what the prize did for Hayek’s personal life, his reputation, and his impact on the fall of European communism.

If you enjoy the article, please consider sharing it.

my darling potato

RotatoExpress-PotatoOne thing Toastmasters is teaching me is that short is sweet. I need to be sweeter.

For my speech this past week, I spent 8 minutes talking about the history of the potato. That’s one minute longer than I should have.

Each of the first 10 speeches at Toastmasters is supposed to be 5–7 minutes long. To qualify for best speaker of the night, you need to end your speech somewhere between 5 and 7 minutes. That night, two of us went overtime and the third speaker didn’t speak for long enough to qualify. No one was best. ("And all the children are above average.")

When I write for the Freeman, where a feature article is supposed to be 800–1,200 words, my first draft is always too long. It’s tough to write anything substantive in so few words. Same problem at Toastmasters: my speeches run long.

The trick in both cases is to murder your darlings. (That authorial adage has been attributed to every major writer of the last century, from William Faulkner to Stephen King, but it seems to have originated with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.)

I’ve always taken murder your darlings as a directive to trim that fat in my prose, to kill off the side thoughts and turns of phrase I’m most proud of, because they distract from the main purpose of the writing. Clean and efficient prose can also be beautiful.

Murder your darlings applies to more than phrasing or side thoughts; it can refer to whole scenes, several characters, or even, sometimes, what you thought was the point of your piece when you first sat down to write it.

At Toastmasters, I wanted to tell one of my favorite stories, about how the 18th-century French potato evangelist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier got the working poor of Paris to adopt the potato into their diet.

Even though the potato reached Europe shortly after Columbus introduced the New World to the Old, it took centuries to become a common part of European mealtime. For one thing, both the best medical advice and the dominant religious instruction of the time told people to avoid the supposedly malignant tuber.

While religious wars fractured Christendom, Catholic priests and Protestant ministers were united in telling their congregations to shun the potato. Why? Because it wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Surely, if God wanted human beings to eat potatoes, He’d have mentioned them in Genesis.

If that logic strikes you as questionable, wait until you hear what early-modern Europe considered the established medicinal wisdom. According to the "doctrine of signatures," any plant’s effect on the human body can be determined by its appearance. Crack open a walnut and what you find inside the shell looks like a little brain; ergo, walnuts are good for the brain. Dig a potato out of the dirt and what do you get? A filthy, pale, gnarled clump of vegetable flesh. Ergo … potatoes cause leprosy. QED.

By the 19th century, however, the potato had become such a central part of the Western diet that it caused a population explosion in Europe.

How did this maligned root vegetable go from unholy pathogen to European staple crop?

The answer seems to be war.

When soldiers descended on your part of the countryside, they carried away everything edible they could find — above ground.

If you depended on grains, you starved. But if you also grew a few potatoes, an army could pillage all your wheat, slaughter and consume all your animals, and trample your field for months without destroying your backup source of calories. As a Plan B for the downtrodden, the potato proved superior to expectations. It turns out that an acre of potatoes is more nutritious than an acre of wheat. It may have been ugly to the eye and bland on the tongue, but the potato made the peasants who adopted it stronger and healthier — and more fertile.

When Frederick the Great discovered that foreign peasants were surviving the Prussians’ invasions because of this secret buried treasure, he had seed potatoes delivered to all his Prussian peasants, along with instructions on how to plant and harvest them, and ordered all of Prussia to become potato eaters. He threatened those who failed to cooperate with having their ears and noses cut off! The Prussian people quickly adopted a potato-based diet.

Parmentier, the hero of the story I was so hot to tell at Toastmasters, served in the French military and was taken as a prisoner of war by the Prussians. Fed nothing but potatoes for three years, he emerged healthier than when he’d been captured. He returned to France with a mission: convert his fellow countrymen to this miracle food.

Freeman editor Max Borders writes, "Ultimately, there are only two forces in this world that matter: power and persuasion. Those who love liberty shun power."

Where Frederick used power, Parmentier used persuasion. And some trickery.

The king of France was easy. For His Majesty’s birthday, Parmentier gave him potato flowers and served him various potato-based dishes. Once the king was sold, the royal court rushed to follow, followed rapidly by anyone who aspired to greater social status.

Parmentier began to hold all-potato dinner parties for the VIPs of Paris, including such foreign dignitaries as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson — which is how the "French fry" came to America; Jefferson had them served in the White House.

That brings us to my favorite part of the story. The French working class wasn’t so easily persuaded. In fact, the aristocratic association with potatoes made them ever more suspect to the impoverished Parisians on the eve of the French Revolution. So Parmentier resorted to guile. He got the king’s permission to plant 40 acres of potatoes just outside Paris, and had soldiers patrol the perimeter and chase away the inquisitive. All of Paris was soon convinced that something valuable was growing in those 40 acres.

When the soldiers withdrew at night, the city’s poor snuck in and pilfered the royal potatoes. Et voilà: Parmentier’s triumph.

That last story, the tale of Parmentier’s cunning, is what took me over my time at Toastmasters. I knew I was going over time when I told it, but that last story was the whole point of my speech.

Each speaker at Toastmasters receives a small slip of paper from every person in the meeting with comments on that evening’s speech. My reviews were generally quite positive, but a couple of them told me I should have cut the last story and ended on time.

Before delivering my speech, and while delivering it, I couldn’t imagine leaving out that story. But as soon as it was over, it became clear that the story — much as I still love it — undermined the larger story I had told.

AudiblePotatoI opened with my lifelong love of French fries, and how I no longer eat them. The narrative then followed the potato from the Americas over to Europe and back again with Thomas Jefferson. From the end of the French fry in my life to the beginning of the French fry in America: a perfect narrative circle. And one that was easily told within 5–7 minutes.

But like my scheming hero, Parmentier, I had my eye on a prize that had nothing to do with the demands of my audience. Had I focused more on the organic shape of the story I was telling, the needs and virtues of that shape, and the experience of my audience — rather than my own darlings within the story — I would have realized that Parmentier was perhaps more like Frederick than I want him to be. I should instead have emulated Thomas Jefferson’s lighter touch.

why libertarians wanted Scotland to secede

Scotts-secedeMy Facebook feed is full of disappointment in Scottish voters’ recent rejection of independence from Great Britain. For a while there, we were all wearing the white and blue Saint Andrew’s cross, at least in spirit. Why do we feel so let down?

Our brief Scottish fever and subsequent despondency over the No vote must have seemed especially puzzling to those who knew the immediate goals of the separatists. As libertarian scholar Robert Higgs writes, “the contest was essentially between the establishment plutocrats, on the one hand, and the welfare drones, on the other. It’s tough to root for the ‘good guys’ when one cannot identify any good dogs in the fight.”

Many libertarians have been fans of secession for a while, so much so that we have become uncomfortably associated with one of modern history’s most illiberal institutions: Southern slavery. If our ideological opponents want to paint us as apologists for the rich and powerful and enemies of the little guy, they don’t need to reach much farther than our retrospective support for the “wrong side” in the American Civil War.

And no matter how many times we defend ourselves by pointing out that the issues of secession and slavery are distinct — and that the War between the States was not fought for emancipation but for taxes, tariffs, and political centralization — we will always be on the losing side of that conflict in the popular imagination.

Scotland offered us a chance to root for the secessionists without rooting for the slavers.

But was it any better to be rooting for the socialists?

One comrade put it to me this way: if the dominant political culture of the Green Mountain State wanted to withdraw from the Union so it could form the People’s Republic of Vermont, should local libertarians side with their socialist neighbors in secession? Do the classical liberal principles of independence and self-determination trump the protection of the Bill of Rights, or might a Vermont libertarian support political centralization in good conscience?

I, for one, would lock elbows with the Green Mountain State reds and march for separation. And I trust that many Vermont libertarians would join me. Because libertarians know the dirty little secret of democracy: who’s in charge and what they believe doesn’t matter nearly as much as the institutions and incentives that will outlive any current administration. We also know that the smallest political units will inflict the least long-term damage.

Our focus on economic education is not just about helping potential voters to understand the damage done by price fixing, protection, and other interventions into the market economy; it’s also about understanding the nature of collective decision making, when and why special interests win out over the general welfare, and how even well-meaning people will usually make things much worse through the coercive mechanisms of government.

What economics has taught us is that the bigger the collective making the decisions, the easier it is for a political class to feed its cronies to everyone else’s detriment. The smaller the polity, the harder it is for an elite to externalize its costs, and the easier it is for the public to be informed on the cause and effect of political policies.

Small nation-states (or even better: city-states) can’t afford to erect significant trade barriers. They can’t afford to impose heavy regulations on local businesses or burdensome restrictions on the freedoms of individuals, because in a small state both businesses and individuals have the power of easy exit. If an independent Scotland had tried to build a giant welfare state, how would they have funded it? What would keep the biggest taxpayers from fleeing the tax-consumers, crossing a nearby border into the welcoming arms of less intrusive political masters?

No matter what political ideology drives an independence movement, real independence for a small political territory requires smaller government to survive. Perhaps the Yes voters were seeking a more generous dole from a new Scottish welfare state, but what economic principles teach us is that the citizens of an independent Scotland would instead have discovered greater prosperity, freedom, and flourishing.

Spidey the G-Man

Spider-Man-SHIELDI posted to Facebook on Saturday about how much Benjamin loves Ultimate Spider-Man, which we watch together on Netflix.

Nick Ford wrote in the comments, “I’ve heard really mixed things about USM. How do you like it, Bk?”

I find that I can’t track down anything on Facebook that’s older than a week or two, so it makes sense to me to move some of my longer thoughts back over to this blog:

I have really mixed feelings about Ultimate Spider-Man, but none of them make the show any less entertaining. It is very smartly put together and cleverly written. Benjamin absolutely loves it, but he loves other shows that I can’t sit through 5 minutes of. I find USM a pleasure to watch. Any kid who has seen Marvel’s recent movies will be happy to see the Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor visiting the show. Even Wolverine has made an appearance, though unfortunately he was wearing the silly yellow costume. This can’t be done on the big screen yet, because Marvel doesn’t hold the feature-film rights to Spider-Man: they licensed those rights to Sony, who holds onto them tenaciously.

For kids who don’t already know Spider-Man or the Marvel universe, USM is especially well done. Peter Parker is still in high school, struggling with the tamer side of teen issues, and constantly breaking the 4th wall to chat with the viewer. More than that: even in the middle of what would otherwise be intense scenes, the show will shift into Peter Parker’s mind, where everything looks like video games, anime, and juvenile comic-strip characters — including a big-rounded-headed sort of Muppet Babies version of Spider-Man. In the main story, Spider-Man is self-centered and overconfident; in Parker’s head, he’s goofy and self-effacing. The show knows how to switch back and forth with a timing that never lets things get too intense for 8yo Benjamin, or too goofy for his dad.

My main problem with the show is its premise: Spider-Man and his teen-hero comrades are all government agents. Yes, JJ Jameson still libels him as a criminal, and the cops consider him a vigilante at best, but in the end he’s a G-man with the full force of Nick Fury and SHIELD as backup. He even has access to the high-tech gadgetry of SHIELD’s equivalent of Q division.

I wrote a blog post last January about Batman vs James Bond. In that dichotomy, I think Spider-Man should be much more like Batman. But “Ultimate” Spider-Man is James Bond Junior.

Nick read my Batman vs James Bond post and disagreed vehemently:

Now that I’ve read your article I realize we have some pretty strong disagreements here…

For one thing I don’t think Batman fights for the people (as much as he might claim this sometimes). He fights for himself and his own idea of justice as well the idea that no one should suffer what *he* went through.

As far as I can tell Batman is a revenge on Gotham. It has done nothing but attract more people to the “challenge” of Batman. He attracts way more villains than he defeats and Gotham always represents darkness, paradise lost and defeat. It notably doesn’t represent success even if Bruce himself does (while, notably, most of the population seems to live in destitution or barely getting by).

“…but I can’t recall Batman ever even picking on drug users.”

I know you were probably alive in the 80s (and I certainly wasn’t) so I am surprised you never saw Batman beat up drug users. Comics certainly have a infamous history of depicting drugs and alcohol (think: Tony Stark’s infamous alcoholism and Green Arrow’s sidekicks addiction to heroin, etc.). Batman and Anarky (a favorite character of mine) both attack drug users in Anarky’s debut issue.

“For Batman, as for libertarians, a crime isn’t a crime without a victim.”

This isn’t true either. Batman has *constantly* interrogated “criminals” who he only *suspects* are doing something wrong. He does this in The Dark Knight Returns and he does it almost everywhere. He does it even when they aren’t violating rights or even if he just thinks they have some information that he needs. Batman tortures…a *lot*.

An example of this (though it’s Dick Grayson under the cape and cowl, not Bruce but whatever, the MO remaisn the same):

http://toobusythinkingboutcomics.blogspot.com/…/grant…

I’d also argue against that The Dark Knight Returns *doesn’t* depict a libertarian Batman.

At this point in his life Bruce is an outlaw, true. And the government doesn’t like him much and he rebels against that, also true. But there’s no libertarianism here. Just because the government doesn’t like someone and they’re doing something they declare illegal (vigilantism) doesn’t mean we should consider them libertarians.

Batman has nothing *inherently* against the structure or order that the government and police have set up. Sure, he may not want “corruption” but as soon as James Gordon takes over it he pretty much takes it for granted (with some exceptions of course) that the police and him are working together to rid the streets of Gotham with crime.

Batman more actively works together with the state and its agents then against it. And even when he *does* go against it it isn’t for any libertarian reasons. He just wants to be a vigilante and that doesn’t mean he’s a libertarian.

On another note, Frank Miller is a goddamn fascist personally (see: his comments on Occupy Wall St and his book “Holy Terror”) and I very much doubt he had anything more than the lone-hero and rugged individual in mind when he wrote TDKR.

“But while WayneCorp may well have risen on government contracts, Batman is not on the payroll. Bruce Wayne is spending his own money to fund his war on crime. This may put him in the ranks of the feudal warriors, but it sets him apart from agent 007.”

Due to how intertwined big business and the government is I don’t think you could reasonably contend that Bruce is only relying on his money for these things.

House of Refuge: Fiction for a Future of Freedom

HouseOfRefuge-CoverToday Liberty.me adds Mike DiBaggio’s award-winning novella House of Refuge to the Library.

I was very excited by the opportunity to release a Liberty.me edition of this story, as my editorial preface should make clear:

Editorial Preface by B.K. Marcus

I became a devotee of seasteading — the creation of autonomous communities out at sea — during the summer solstice of 2014, while seated in the Austin Music Hall, surrounded by hipsters half my age.

We were at Voice & Exit, an event, “built around a simple idea: human flourishing.”

The hipsters were waiting, I suspect, for the liberty-minded lectures to end and the arts festival portion of the evening to begin.

I was there to hear about the end of the era of coercion. They were there for collaborative wall painting, group yoga, and the electronic violin of soundscape guru Govinda (né Shane Madden).

Maybe the alien setting made me more receptive to new ideas — or even some not-so-new ones. Seasteading, in particular, was not a new idea for me. Yet something opened me up to the visionary talk given by “aquapeneur” Joe Quirk, director of communications for the Seasteading Institute.

Joe talked about the technological benefits of seasteading and the untapped potential of the oceans for healing the planet and feeding the world. His focus, however, was on the unique opportunity uncolonized waters present for escaping the crippling strictures that land-based monopoly governments impose on both freedom and innovation.

The American Founders saw the future of freedom in the idea of federalism: small governments that would have to compete for citizens, akin to businesses having to compete for customers. It was, after all, such freedom of movement — of “voting with one’s feet” — that had allowed individual liberty to grow, however imperfectly, in late-medieval Europe. The Founders looked to the model of Greek and Italian city-state republics as a way to keep the state (coercive territorial monopoly government) from growing in America the way it had done in the Europe of their recent ancestors.

But federalism among territorial governments requires small political domains. As Sheldon Richman said in a recent session at Liberty.me U, the smaller the jurisdictions, the cheaper it is to vote with your feet.

It’s hard enough to uproot your family and move to the next town or county in the hope of lower taxes and fewer illiberal laws. It’s much harder when the laws and taxes become ever more centralized over ever vaster territories. As the enemies of freedom seek greater international “cooperation” on banking, taxation, and regulation, how do we recover the liberalizing power of exit?

Those of us with a fondness for science fiction — especially written science fiction — may see our salvation in the colonizing of space. While Star Trek has its Federation and Star Wars its Empire, author Robert A. Heinlein (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Time Enough for Love) offered a different vision of the future, one in which new pioneers could push new frontiers to keep the option of individual liberty alive. Innovation, Heinlein understood, happens at the outer margins of coercive authority, not in the capital cities or central planets of interstellar governments.

But as Joe Quirk put it that solstice day in Austin, “First the ocean, then outer space.”

However unfamiliar, challenging, and even dangerous the oceans may be for 21st-century pioneers, they are far safer and more familiar than the irradiated vacuum outside our gravity well. And ocean colonization will be cheaper. In fact, it will be profitable. The seasteads will innovate both technology and systems of community, law, and governance. If you don’t like how your current ocean city is being run, just sail on to a more compatible arrangement. You can leave the government without leaving your home.

And knowing the tenuous grasp any floating city will have on its citizens, each government will finally face the appropriate incentives to serve the governed — to provide the legal infrastructure to allow maximum private innovation, the best environment for secure wealth creation, and a civic culture that is respectful of privacy and individual autonomy. Talk about human flourishing!

Why did this vision finally take hold for me that day? I’d heard about seasteading for many years. I read about it soon after Patri Friedman began to evangelize for the idea. So why hadn’t I caught the bug before Voice & Exit? Why am I now fired up by the potential for real human freedom offered by “voting with our paddles,” whereas before, seasteading was just one of the many topics buzzing around the liberty movement?

As I said, it might have been that the culture shock of Voice & Exit had disoriented me to the point where my mind was more open to radically different perspectives. But I’m not quite as excited about biohacking, smart drugs, 3D printing, or other disruptive technologies that were discussed that day.

Maybe Joe Quirk just found the right way to bypass my defenses. He is an effective speaker, and his quiet passion and deadpan delivery probably match my aesthetic better than the energetic enthusiasm of most evangelists.

But I suspect much of the credit goes to the science fiction story you are about to read.

House of Refuge is first and foremost a fast-paced adventure story,” author Mike DiBaggio writes in his special introduction to the Liberty.me edition. “And I think it is fully capable of being enjoyed by those who don’t agree with its anti-war and anti-statist undercurrents, or for those who don’t care to look too deeply for lessons in their literature.”

I first read the ebook last spring, shortly after it won second place in the Students for Liberty/Libertarian Fiction Authors 2014 short fiction contest. After starting to talk with Mike about releasing a special edition to Liberty.me members, I very much had his story on my mind when I rediscovered seasteading in Austin. Had Mike’s fiction been my catalyst?

After the Austin event, my family visited the Houston space center on our way out of Texas. The visitors center exhibit that my eight-year-old son and I were most excited by wasn’t anything from the past, present, or future of NASA. It was Star Trek’s Galileo shuttlecraft, restored by fans and donated to the space center. Surrounded by a well-financed propaganda program to promote government funding for centrally planned space exploration, I found that the high point of my visit was instead this fan-restored TV stage prop from the original 1968 science fiction series.

It may seem inappropriate to include a television prop among the exhibits promoting real science and real exploration, but the connection between science fiction and the early history of NASA is an important one. I’ve heard more than one post-Apollo-era astronaut or NASA scientist say that it was Star Trek that turned their imaginations — and later their studies and careers — toward the stars. In the original Cosmos series, astronomer Carl Sagan had similar things to say about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s sci-fi pulp hero John Carter of Mars.

Science fiction captured hearts and shaped imaginations, making the idea of space exploration more and more mainstream — less and less, well, science fictional.

If a government agency can benefit so significantly from imaginative literature, why can’t the advocates of peace and freedom?

We have to help people imagine alternatives to monopoly government before we can hope for any popular support for those alternatives. Heinlein and other individualist science fiction writers have helped more than one generation of libertarians imagine long-term alternatives, but humanity’s future in space is too remote. Joe Quirk is right to point out that we skipped a step: before we leave the earth, we need to leave the land.

And if seasteading’s radical experiment in thousands of competing governments on myriad ocean cities succeeds, we may yet find the call of outer space less alluring.

Mike DiBaggio’s story of adventure and heroism, set entirely at sea, exemplifies the sort of fiction I think the freedom movement needs much, much more of — a tale that demonstrates the evils of force and the virtues of freedom without ever allowing an ideological agenda to distract the reader from the action and drama.

Enjoy House of Refuge and let me know if you agree. Will it draw you into the blue revolution, as it helped do for me, or is it just a ripping good yarn?

Mike and I are both available to continue the conversation on Liberty.me.

BK Marcus, Chief Bookworm
Tannersville, New York
July 2014

Are seasteaders politically agnostic?

SeasteadingInstituteLogoSince hearing Joe Quirk, director of communications for the Seasteading Institute, speak at Voice & Exit in Austin last June, I have become very excited about the creation of autonomous communities out at sea. I think seasteads may be the future of freedom and innovation, a way to bring greater health and wealth to humanity as a whole, and greater liberty to individuals. Pursuing these goals is, as I see it, the positive agenda of libertarianism.

So is seasteading fundamentally libertarian?

The folks over at the Seasteading Institute say no. They claim that the institute and the movement are politically agnostic.

The Seasteading Book itself (perpetually in beta, it seems) has this to say:

While the authors have a libertarian viewpoint, we want to stress that seasteading is politically agnostic. We’re attempting to describe (and create) an enabling technology for small-scale sovereignty. This will give many different groups the autonomy to experiment with their theories. We find it very satisfying to be empowering all minority political groups, not just advancing our own vision.

And in this “Floating Cities” video, Joe Quirk says,

Seasteaders are agnostic about what political systems are going to work in the future. Our goal is to create a Silicon Valley of the sea, where lots of seasteads — hopefully thousands some day — compete to attract residents. And the best social systems attract the best people…. Why not give your political opponents a chance to try out their ideas on a seastead? You can laugh at the fiascoes, and you can learn something if something surprising works. We think the inevitable result will be that solutions will emerge that are not part of what we argue about now…. I would love to see a socialist seastead trying out its ideas. I would love to see an anarcho-capitalist seastead trying out its ideas. I’d like to see political systems I’ve never heard of and don’t understand trying out their ideas. I’d like to see them attracting different types of people, different kinds of ideologues to different seasteads…. And hopefully we’ll create a diversity of political systems suitable to different kinds of people with different kinds of values, and in this market of governance, we’ll discover the best solutions for how to live together.

But how is this different from libertarianism? So long as individuals are free to enter and exit these competing governments at will — and to take their property with them — the world of a zillion seastead communities would exemplify libertarian free-market anarchy.

DeltaSync-Seasteading-Promo

Do socialists believe that libertarians want to prevent them from practicing voluntary socialism?

Do the opponents of the freedom philosophy somehow believe that we want to deny them their options?

The only option we refuse to acknowledge is the option to deny us our options.

I suspect the Seasteading Institute is wise to distance itself from a political philosophy so many people misunderstand. Their goal is to save the world through the freedom of association, not to clear up muddleheaded misunderstandings of that very freedom.

I cheer them on and hope to join them in the blue revolution. But I do think there’s a place for battling muddleheadedness, and it frustrates and saddens me that the best strategy for promoting the blessings of liberty may be to distance oneself from our tradition.

celebrity sightings

One great benefit of traveling down to Texas for Voice & Exit was getting to hang out with some Texan heroes of liberty.

Before V&E with Albert Lu, host of The Power & Market Report:

(This was taken after my first taste of Texas BBQ! Yum.)

(This was taken after my first taste of Texas BBQ! Yum.)

At V&E with John Papola, creator of my favorite hip-hop video, “Fear the Boom and Bust” a Hayek vs. Keynes Rap Anthem:
bkPap

After V&E with Jeff Riggenbach, the voice of liberty, author of “The Libertarian Tradition” and Why American History Is Not What They Say:
bkRigg

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