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.

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

Class War in the Time of Robin Hood

FreemanRobinHood600

A couple of offhand comments from historian Simon Schama in A History of Britain (one in the book and one on TV) prompted me to write about classical-liberal class-conflict theory and the legend of the western world’s most famous bandit-hero:

“Class War in the Time of Robin Hood” in today’s Freeman.

If you enjoy the article, please consider sharing it with your network.

when evil institutions do good things: the FCC’s PTAR law

StreetTVIn my Freeman article "TV’s Third Golden Age," the summary subtitle that the magazine chose was "Programming quality is inversely proportional to regulatory meddling." I couldn’t have said it better. But does that mean that everything the FCC does makes television worse?

All laws and regulations have unforeseen consequences. That usually means unintended damage, but there’s no law of history that says every unplanned outcome is pernicious.

If you’re an advocate of a free society — one in which all arrangements are voluntary and there is the least coercive interference from governments or other thugs — history will present you with an unending series of conundrums. Whom do you side with in the Protestant Reformation, for example? The Catholic Church banned books and tortured scholars, and their official structure is one of hierarchy and authority. Easy enemy, right? Clear-cut bad guy. But the Church had kept the State in check for centuries — and vice versa, permitting seeds of freedom to root and flourish in the gaps between power centers. Whereas the Protestant states tended to be more authoritarian than the Catholic ones, with Luther and Calvin (not to mention the Anglicans) advocating orthodoxy through force. There’s a reason all those Northern princes embraced the Reformation: they wanted a cozier partnership of church and state.

This is certainly not the history I was taught in my Protestant private schools.

Similarly, most of us were schooled to side with the Union in the Civil War, to see Lincoln as a savior and the Confederacy as pure evil. But as much as the war may have resulted, however accidentally, in emancipating slaves, it also obliterated civil liberties, centralized power, strengthened central banking and fiat currencies and — to borrow from Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s great book title — enslaved free men.

"Father Abraham," as the pietists called him after his assassination, was a tyrant whose primary goal was always what he actually achieved: central power over an involuntary union. Recasting this guy as an abolitionist hero is one of the many perverse legacies of America’s official history. But it’s a mistake to simply reverse the Establishment’s verdict and claim that the Confederacy was heroic. Plenty of Johnny Rebs were fighting a righteous battle against what they rightly deemed to be foreign invaders, but even if you ignore the little problem of the South’s "peculiar institution," the Confederate government was no more liberal than its Northern rival. "While the Civil War saw the triumph in the North of Republican neo-mercantilism,” writes Hummel, “it saw the emergence in the South of full-blown State socialism.”

Reading history without taking sides may fit some scholarly ideal (actually, it seems to be a journalistic ideal created by the Progressive Movement to masquerade their views as the only unbiased ones), but it is not a realistic option. We cannot do value-free history. If we try, we instead hide or repress our biases, which makes them a greater threat to intellectual integrity.

Neither can we say, "a plague on both their houses," and retreat to the realm of pure theory, libertarian or otherwise. We have to live in the real world, and even if we are not activists or revolutionaries, the same intellectual integrity that must reject "neutrality" also requires that we occasionally explore the question of second-best or least-evil options.

I remember several years ago, when my very libertarian boss surprised me by speaking in favor of increased regulation of banking. His point was that the banks were not free-market institutions; they were government-created cartels enjoying a political privilege that protected them from the consequences of the market while they surreptitiously depleted our property and spoiled the price system that drives all progress in the material world. Ideally, he’d want the government out of banking altogether, but in the meantime having them do less damage was better than letting them do more.

It may seem anticlimactic to follow the Reformation, Civil War, and fractional-reserve banking with a little-known FCC rule about TV programming from almost half a century ago, but I’ve been reading television history for a while now (1, 2, 3, 4) as illustrative of larger patterns in political history.

The Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR) was a law instituted in 1970 to limit the amount of network programming allowed during TV’s most-watched evening hours.

According to industry analyst Les Brown, the PTAR was adopted

to break the network monopoly over prime time, to open a new market for independent producers who complained of being at the mercy of three customers, to stimulate the creation of new program forms, and to give the stations the opportunity to do their most significant local programming in the choicest viewing hours. (Les Brown’s Encyclopedia of Television)

If you still accept the official myth that the airwaves are "That most public of possessions given into the trust of the networks," as Harlan Ellison describes them in The Glass Teat, and that the federal government’s job is to manage the radio spectrum in the best interests of that public, then I’m sure you don’t see any problem with PTAR. (You can read my paper "Radio Free Rothbard" [HTML, PDFDownload PDF] for a debunking of this official piety.)

But a libertarian could easily jerk his or her knee in the opposite direction. How dare the central government tell private station owners what they can and can’t air on their own stations, right?

The problem with such an ahistorical take on the issue is that broadcast television was a creature of the state from the beginning. Radio may have had a nascent free-market stage in its development, but television was a state-managed cartel from the word go.

So am I saying that PTAR was a good thing? Is it like the possibly beneficial banking regulations imposed on a cartelized banking system? Should we view CBS versus FCC as the same sort of balance-of-power game that Church and State played before the early modern period of European history?

Maybe, but that’s not why I find PTAR an interesting case for the liberty-minded historian. As is so often the case with laws and regulations, PTAR’s main legacy is in its unintended consequences.

"Despite the best of intentions," writes historian Gary Edgerton in The Columbia History of American Television, "the PTAR failed in almost every respect when it was implemented in the fall of 1971."

[P]ractically no local productions or any programming innovations whatsoever were inspired by the PTAR. In addition, any increase in independently produced programming was mainly restricted to the reworking of previously canceled network series, such as Edward Gaylord’s Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk’s The Lawrence Welk Show.… Rather than locally produced programming, these kinds of first-run syndicated shows dominated the 7 to 8 P.M. time slot.

This renaissance of recently purged rural programming was certainly not the FCC’s goal, but the creation of the first-run-syndication model is one of the great unsung events in media history.

A quick note on terminology: to the extent that I knew the word "syndication" at all when I was growing up, I took it to be a fancy way of saying "reruns." For example, Paramount, the studio that bought the rights to Star Trek after the series was cancelled, sold the right to rerun the program directly to individual TV stations. When a local TV station buys a program directly from the studio instead of through the network system, that’s called syndication. But syndication isn’t limited to reruns. Studios created first-run TV programs for direct sale to local stations as far back as the 1950s, but they were the exception. The dominant syndication model was and is reruns. But two events created a surge of first-run syndication: (1) PTAR, and (2) the rural purge I obliquely alluded to above.

I write about the rural purge here, but I’ll summarize: as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, television network executives did an about-face on their entire approach to programming. In the 1960s, each network tried to win the largest possible viewership by avoiding controversy and appealing to the lowest common denominator in public tastes. This meant ignoring the rift between races, between generations, and between urban and rural sensibilities — what we now call red-state and blue-state values — in the ongoing culture wars. This approach was dubbed LOP (Least Objectionable Program) theory.

Basically, this theory posits that viewers watch TV no matter what, usually choosing the least objectionable show available to them. Furthermore, it assumes a limited number of programming choices for audiences to pick from and implies that networks, advertising agencies, and sponsors care little about quality when producing and distributing shows. (Gary Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television)

By the end of the decade, however, NBC vice president Paul Klein (who had christened LOP theory just as its tenure was coming to an end), convinced advertisers that they should stop caring so much about total viewership and focus instead on demographics, specifically the Baby Boomers — young, politically radicalized, and increasingly urban TV viewers — who were most likely to spend the most money on the most products. CBS was winning the battle for ratings, but Klein pointed out that their audience was made up of old folks and hicks, whereas NBC was capturing the viewership of the up-and-comers.

Klein may have worked for NBC, but it was CBS who took his message to heart, quite dramatically. In 1970, the network rocked the TV world by cancelling its most reliably popular shows: Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry RFD, Hee Haw, Lassie, and The Lawrence Welk Show.

In Television’s Second Gold Age, communications professor Robert J. Thompson writes,

CBS, in an effort to appeal to a younger audience made socially conscious by the turbulent 1960s, had dumped its hit rural comedies in the first years of the 1970s while their aging audiences were still placing them in Nielsen’s top twenty-five. Critics, who for the most part had loathed the likes of Petticoat Junction and Gomer Pyle, loved some of what replaced them.

I loved what replaced them, too: Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and the like. "Several members of Congress," Wikipedia informs us, "expressed displeasure at some of the replacement shows, many of which … were not particularly family-friendly." But that was the point: the networks were no longer aiming to please the whole family: just the most reliable consumers.

But despite capitalism’s cartoonish reputation for catering only to the bloated hump of the bell curve, that’s not how the market really works. It is how a cartel works, and the broadcast networks behaved accordingly, both before and after the rural purge. In the 1950s and ’60s, they aimed for the largest possible viewership and to hell with minorities of any sort. The demographic revolution changed the target, but not the tactic: aim for the big soft mass. That’s certainly how the big players would behave in a free market, too, but the telltale sign of freedom in the economy is that the big players aren’t the only players. Fortunes are made in niche markets, too, so long as there aren’t barriers to entering those niches. As I’ve said, TV is descended from radio, and Hoover and his corporatist cronies had arranged it so that there could only be a few big players.

That’s where we come back to the FCC’s Prime Time Access Rule of 1970. PTAR created a hole at the fringe of the prime-time schedule, just as the rural purge was creating a hole in the market. All those fans of Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk didn’t just go away, and they didn’t stop spending their money on advertised products, either. Before PTAR, the multitude of fans of "rural" programming would have had to settle for mid-afternoon reruns of their favorite shows (the way Star Trek fans haunted its late-night reruns around this same time). But the rural fans didn’t have to settle for reruns, and they didn’t have to settle for mid afternoons or late nights. They could watch new episodes of Hee Haw or Lawrence Welk at 7 PM. In fact, those two shows continued to produce new episodes and the local stations, which were no longer allowed to buy from the networks for the early evening hours, bought first-run syndicated shows instead. The Lawrence Welk Show, which had started in the early 1950s, continued for another decade, until Welk retired in the early ’80s. And the repeats continue to run on PBS today. Hee Haw, believe it or not, continued to produce original shows for syndication until 1992.

I loved Mary Tyler Moore, and I didn’t care so much for Lawrence Welk, but what I really love is peaceful diversity, which cannot exist in a winner-takes-all competition. The rise of first-run syndication was a profound crack in the winner-takes-all edifice of network programming.

The strategy CBS, NBC, and ABC had gravitated toward for short-term success — namely, targeting specific demographics with their programming — also sowed the seeds of change where the TV industry as a whole would eventually move well beyond its mass market model. Over the next decade, a whole host of technological, industrial, and programming innovations would usher in an era predicated on an entirely new niche-market philosophy that essentially turned the vast majority of broadcasters into narrowcasters. (Gary Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television)

This idea of "narrowcasting" is the basis of quality in entertainment (and freedom in political economy, but that’s another story).

I’m not out to sing the praises of the FCC for increasing economic competition and cultural diversity — these consequences were entirely unintended — but we do have to recognize PTAR as a pebble in Goliath’s sandle, distracting him for a moment from David’s sling.

Does Thoreau Belong to Our Tradition?

ThoreauStampEditorial Preface to Here There Is No State


“THE HIPPIES CAN’T HAVE THOREAU,” wrote former Freeman editor John Chamberlain in July of 1967.

It had been 150 years since Thoreau’s birth (July 12, 1817), and the US Postal Service had caused some controversy by issuing a commemorative stamp.

What was the issue? Conservatives complained that Thoreau looked like a hippie.

Chamberlain called their complaints “well-meaning but stupid.… They wore [beards] in the Nineteenth Century, you know.”

The conservatives of the late 1960s were not alone in seeing the similarity. The bearded counterculturalists wanted to claim Thoreau as one of their own. “Indeed,” proclaimed one underground newspaper of the time, “Thoreau was one of America’s first hippies.”

But Chamberlain objected on behalf of conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians: “Thoreau belongs to a lot of us who are bored to death by the new psychedelic mindlessness.”

Who had the better claim? Was Thoreau a forebear of the Left or the Right? Was he a hippie or a classical liberal? For or against liberty, commerce, and private property?

As Ken Kifer writes in Analysis and Notes on Walden (2002), “Today, Thoreau’s words are quoted with feeling by liberals, socialists, anarchists, libertarians, and conservatives alike.”

This collection, Here There Is No State (the title is taken from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”), shows us that Henry David Thoreau belongs more to the advocates of liberty than he does to our illiberal opposition.

Not everyone, however, wants to claim Thoreau as a part of our tradition.

Gary North recently called Thoreau “one of the most successful literary scam artists in American history,” describing Walden as “anti-capitalist and pro-green.”

As Chamberlain pointed out, Thoreau was a working capitalist whose family owned a pencil-making business, but, says North, Thoreau’s background did not make him a friend of the free market. “He was an American version of Frederick Engels, who converted Karl Marx to socialism in 1843.”

In Here There Is No State, we collect Thoreau’s two most famous works and bring together three scholars to comment on those works and their author.

While “Americans know Thoreau primarily as the author of the book Walden,” writes Wendy McElroy, “it is ‘Civil Disobedience’ that established his reputation in the wider political world. It is one of the most influential political tracts ever written by an American.”

Here There Is No State opens with Wendy’s introduction to “Civil Disobedience,” followed by the great individualist essay itself.

In her introduction to Walden, Sarah Skwire responds to Gary North and sets the record straight on what the book is and is not, and where it fits in our tradition. “I think that we must consider the possibility,” Sarah writes, “that Walden has its reputation because many who teach it choose to ignore its politics, which are strongly libertarian and even anarchist.”

Both Gary North and Sarah Skwire invite us to read critically and decide for ourselves, so the entirety of Walden is included in these pages.

Thoreau-HereThereIsNoState-CoverFinally, Jeff Riggenbach closes this volume with an essay on why we can consider Thoreau not just a “great writer, great naturalist, and great advocate of self-reliant individualism” but also “one of the founding fathers of American libertarian thought.”

Wendy, Sarah, and Jeff are all members of Liberty.me and are available to our community for questions or comments on the writings and legacy of Henry David Thoreau.

Enjoy the book and join us online to continue the conversation.

B.K. Marcus
Senior Editor
Liberty.me

My Toastmasters Icebreaker speech

icebreakerMister Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, esteemed guests. The irony of the "Icebreaker" speech, at least for me, is that talking for 4 to 6 minutes about myself strikes me as neither easy nor interesting.

Last January, my wife Nathalie and I drove up to Baltimore to attend the annual cocktail party of one of our biggest clients.

We got all dressed up and mingled with hundreds of strangers.

Quick show of hands, who here has been to a party full of strangers in the past year or so?

When two strangers meet at a party, what do they say to break the ice?

Yes, right, here in America, we say, "What do you do?"

Nathalie informs me, by the way, that this typical American icebreaker is not what people say in Europe. When two French people meet, for example, the first question is "Where are you from?"

When I was growing up in New York City, watching way too much TV, the stereotypical socially awkward icebreaker — really a failure to break the ice — was "Read any good books lately?" And on TV, after this question was asked and the laugh track died down, the two strangers would grow quiet, look away, and silently admit defeat.

Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting this, but I honestly don’t know why that’s supposed to be such a bad question. I’d much rather be asked about good books than about what I do for living.

What do I do for a living, you ask?

I’m a publishing consultant. I work with independent authors and free-market institutions to get their books onto Kindles and iPads and sometimes into print.

And if you met me at a party and asked me what I do for a living, I’d probably give you that answer in the same perfunctory manner in which I just did here.

But if you were to say, "Oh, you work with books? What sort of books do you read for fun?" — You’d see me light up. You’d see me come alive. As they say in books, you’d see me warm to my subject.

I work with economic books and with writings in the classical-liberal tradition, but that’s not what I read for pleasure anymore.

Those things are what I did read for pleasure when I was a web-application programmer for a big bank, but now I read quirky historical narratives, such as The Professor and the Madman, about a certifiably insane Civil War veteran and the role he played in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary; or A History of the World in 6 Glasses, which reviews the past 4 or 5 thousand years through the lens of beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee, and Coca-Cola.

What am I reading now, you ask? Actually, I’m mostly listening to this one as an audiobook. I go back and forth between text and audio. The book is by Tom Standage, the same author who wrote 6 Glasses. It’s called Writing on the Wall: Social Media The First 2,000 Years. One of the many things he talks about is the advent of the coffeehouse in 17th-century England.

Standage claims that coffeehouses and the publishing network based out of coffeehouses were really the first Internet. I love Starbucks, and I bet their coffee is better than what I would have been served in 17th-century London, but I still wish I could go back and spend some time in one of those old coffeehouses, where everyone was reading and writing and debating ideas.

I also read less-quirky historical narrative, but my favorite books are the ones that take two seemingly disparate ideas and see what results when you combine them.

And the truth is, my passion isn’t in books, either. It’s really in new ideas.

Better than "Read any good books lately?" would be "Had any interesting thoughts lately?" or "Learned any new ideas lately?"

I have a best friend whom I followed to Charlottesville 20-something years ago, and then did not follow back to New York when he left. He’ll phone me to say, "I had a thought I think you’ll appreciate." And then we’ll talk for an hour.

When I get off the phone, Nathalie asks, "How’s David?"

"I don’t know."

"What do you mean you don’t know? You just talked to him for an hour!"

"Yeah, but that’s not what we talked about."

When David and I were kids, we were sort of famous among our peers and the local grownups for walking around the streets of Manhattan deep in conversation, just the two of us. That turns out not to be typical for a couple of preteen boys.

As I mentioned before, I watched way too much TV, and it’s part of why I read so late and so slowly, but one contemporary criticism of television that never made sense to me back then was that it was a passive medium. You just sit there and zone out. I never zoned out! I engaged the TV as a source of ideas, sometimes a mentor, often an intellectual adversary.

We don’t let our 7-year-old son Benjamin watch too many videos — in fact we don’t have a TV in our home — but I can see him doing the same things with online cartoons and movies that I did with TV around his age. He wants to talk about them afterwards, ask questions, critique the premises, figure out how everything works.

Benjamin is also a lot more sociable than I was at his age. I suspect he won’t have any trouble at cocktail parties when he grows up, even if, like his old man, he’s most passionate about the kind of ideas that are better discussed over coffee than over cocktails.

This brings me to why I’ve joined Toastmasters. I think Tom Standage is right about the 21st-century Internet being our modern version of the 17th-century coffeehouse. Much as I love Starbucks, it’s not a hotbed of radical new thinking.

It provides the wireless Internet access I can use to get to the hotbed of ideas, but I engage those ideas in my writing and reading, and mostly online — not face-to-face with other human beings.

Through Toastmasters, however, I hope to become a more adept and spontaneous tradesman of ideas, presented and discussed in the real world, offline, where I don’t always have time to compose my thoughts (the way I composed this speech).

I thank you for listening to me, and I thank you for the help you’ve already given me in bringing my life out of the house, off of the Internet, and into the world.

Mister Toastmaster.

Roofs or Ceilings: the San Francisco earthquake of 1906

SanFranHouses1906On this day in 1906, a great earthquake struck San Francisco and the coast of Northern California at 5:12 a.m.

One of the worst natural disasters in US history — and the single greatest loss of life in California’s history — the quake and the resulting fires killed at least 3,000 people and destroyed over 80 percent of San Francisco.

More than half the city’s survivors were left homeless.

Why is this natural disaster part of our tradition, the tradition of liberty?

Because 40 years later, in 1946, the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) published 500,000 copies of a pamphlet arguing against continuation of wartime rent-control laws, using the great earthquake as historical evidence for how a homeless population can quickly find shelter in a free market.

MisesLastKnightOfLiberalismThis pamphlet — called “Roofs or Ceilings,” and written by two young Chicago economists named Milton Friedman and George Stigler — was 20-year-old Murray Rothbard‘s introduction to FEE. It drew him into the movement, such as it was. He continued to read FEE’s publications and began attending their conferences, but a year and a half later Rothbard had still never heard of Austrian economics.

FEE only became Austrian later in the decade, and only because of Ludwig von Mises.

What was the pre-Misesian movement like? Friedman and Stigler’s pamphlet is a good indication.

Read more in “The Tepid Movement before Mises.”