you will cry aloud because of the king you have chosen for yourselves

King of ClubsThe Bible is so much more interesting when you read it not as a single narrative or message, but as various dialogs and debates compiled over many centuries.

In Genesis, multiple traditions are brought together in an attempt to tell a single story, and we have to disentangle the threads. Later in the Bible, entire books will stand in juxtaposition to other books on certain questions, such as Who exactly are God’s people? Or, How does God feel about civil authority?

The Judaism that produced Christianity is a Davidic religion — one that is entirely focused on the question of God’s chosen king. But in 1 Samuel, left surprisingly intact, is as anti-monarchical (and anti-governmental) a message as the American Founders would later specialize in writing.

Here’s Thomas Cahill on the passage in question:

Despite the overall success of the settlement, the Israelites are never without enemies, especially the growing menace of the Philistines, the Sea People, who after the collapse of Mycene sailed across the Mediterranean and began to occupy coastal towns such as Gaza, then inland towns such as Gath. Their encroachments brought them uncomfortably close to the Israelites, who sometimes found themselves living in Philistine towns under the boot of these enemies, whose name will come to mean “crude and uncultivated” and will serve as the basis for the word “Palestine.” (The story of Samson, the magnificent Israelite strongman who harried the Philistines, belongs to this period.) At last, the Israelites reach the conclusion that what they need is someone to give them visible unity, someone capable of uniting them in greater emotional cohesion—a king.

But YHWH is their king. Since the days of the qahal, the desert assembly of the pilgrim people, Israel’s political understanding has been that they are the gathering of God’s people, led by his handpicked spokesmen and answerable to no earthly king, a sort of theocratic democracy. “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you,” God advises the reluctant Samuel, his prophet and priest, whom the people have asked for a king. “It is not you they have rejected but me, not wishing me to reign over them anymore. They are now doing to you exactly what they have done to me since the day I brought them out of Egypt until now, deserting me and serving other gods.”

God is prepared to accept a monarchy, provided the people understand what they are getting themselves into. Samuel gives the people YHWH’s warnings:

This is what the king who is to reign over you will do. He will take your sons and direct them to his chariotry and cavalry, and they will run in front of his chariot. He will use them as leaders of a thousand and leaders of fifty; he will make them plough his fields and gather in his harvest and make his weapons of war and the gear for his chariots. He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, your vineyards and your olive groves and give them to his officials. He will take the best of your servants, men and women, of your oxen and your donkeys, and make them work for him. He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry aloud because of the king you have chosen for yourselves, but on that day YHWH will not hear you.

Is mediocrity intelligent?

ShortNeckedGiraffeWhen I graduated from college, I took a job working for the psychology department. I had unofficially minored in psychology and a couple of the professors liked me and wanted to keep me around.

One perk of this arrangement was that I got to go to Bell Labs (though it wasn’t called that anymore) with the biopsych professor as part of his entourage for a talk he was giving on signs of collective intelligence in species — not in the organisms, in the species itself as a sort of superorganism.

He was presenting to the "artificial life" department within Bell Labs, who wanted to see if phone networks could be made more robust by modeling the patterns of biological life.

The reason I was able to go was, in a sense, that I had decided not to go to graduate school, but here I was surrounded by PhDs who loved their jobs and were fascinated and passionate about their disciplines. And they got to work with high-tech everything. Very different from the bucolic environs of our tiny college campus. It didn’t quite inspire me to reconsider graduate school, but I think it did play a role in getting the biopsych prof to leave the academy for the private sector.

Anyway, it was in this presentation at Bell Labs that I first learned the evolutionary concept of the deme — an idea that has informed my thinking ever since, including my thoughts on politics. Before I was a full-blown libertarian, I was already opposed to uniformity, opposed to central plans, and in favor of decentralization of authority and decision making. That decentralism came from my understanding of evolution and information theory — of cybernetics in its broader sense.

Here’s what a deme is:

A deme is an isolated gene pool within a species. If a gene pool is isolated for long enough, its members can no longer reproduce with organisms from the main gene pool, and the deme becomes a distinct species. But while the deme is still a deme, still compatible with the species’ genetic mainstream (though distinct from it) it plays a crucial role in that species’ survival and future evolution.

The irony, from the perspective of the ever-upward model of evolution, is that this important subspecies is generally considered less "fit" than the main population. Because of its isolation, the deme hasn’t had the full benefit of progress made through the genetic trial-and-error process enjoyed by the mainstream. Not enough "cross fertilization."

Imagine an island where the giraffes aren’t as tall as their distant cousins on the mainland.

But what we often forget about the "survival of the fittest" is that fitness is relative and entirely contextual. What makes an organism better able to pass on its pattern to another generation depends entirely on the environment in which it strives to do so.

There is no absolute "better" evolutionary strategy. Better and worse depend entirely on time and place. As the environment changes, today’s better may become tomorrow’s worse.

FitnessHillClimbingTo make his point, my professor friend showed a "fitness landscape," a 3D graph, with fitness, in the evolutionary sense, mapped onto the vertical access, higher being more fit. Each horizontal axis represented some adaptation or variation of evolutionary strategy. You can only fit two more into a 3D map, but there could be an endless number of such dimensions. The purpose of this graph was to show "hill-climbing" behavior on the part of the abstract blobs that represented different species’ collections of survival strategies.

Now, hill-climbing behavior is not by itself a sign of intelligence. We don’t consider plants to be intelligent just because vines climb up out of the dark undergrowth or because leaves turn toward the sunlight.

But we do tend to consider an entity intelligent (or at least more intelligent) if it shows the ability to seek out higher peeks than the local hilltop it has managed to climb to. You can see that behavior in the graph above. The blob isn’t cohering at the hilltop; it’s sending tendrils downhill to explore the valleys and neighboring slopes. Those tendrils are the demes, lower on the fitness axis but essential to keeping the species-blob from stagnating on a peek that may prove temporary as the environment changes.

That may be too much to take in from such a sketchy but still dense description. You can download the paper here, if you’re interested in the details.

For now, just imagine some catastrophe that makes our vertically challenged island giraffes a successful Plan B for the species. Higher leaves are suddenly detrimental, but that’s what it’s easiest for the mainland giraffes to get to. If there is any cross-fertilization at all, the runty descendants of the island giraffes will begin to take over the mainland.

How fortunate for the species that it didn’t invest everything in the taller-neck strategy.

I have much more to say on this topic, but for now I will leave the political parallels as an exercise for the astute reader.

Was FDR a socialist?

I love Anthony Gregory.

And some of his stuff is just too good to be confined to Facebook.

Here’s a meme that the political Left has been promoting:

"They called me a socialist..."

Now, I’d probably have responded to that by pointing out that

  1. while the Fed and President Hoover may have created the Great Depression, FDR made it far worse and made it last far longer than it would have without the New Deal, or
  2. the so-called name calling that labels FDR a socialist is based on an accurate assessment of his policies, which were consistent with both the left- and right-wing socialisms of Western Europe, if not the big red menace of the East…

And that would have been boring and familiar, even if technically correct.

Instead, the brilliant Anthony Gregory innocently accepts the Left’s point and explores it further:

"They also called him a fascist when he threw people in concentration camps based on race, and a warmonger when he firebombed civilians by the hundreds of thousands, and a hypocrite when he oversaw legalizing alcohol only to turn around and ban weed, and a corporatist when he suspended antitrust to force businesses to merge and created the modern military-industrial complex, and a monster when he destroyed crops as people went hungry, and a liberal when he did it all with a smile." ~ Anthony Gregory

Anthony Gregory on the case for independence

From today’s Libertarian Standard:

Americans make particularly terrible imperialists. We are a people who prefer privacy and liberty in our own lives. We are a people with independence and rebellion in our national heritage. Ours is thus an even more hypocritical empire than that of the British.…

[T]he principles of human nature declared to the world from a small Philadelphia gathering 237 years ago were true then, before the US empire was born, and will remain true long after the US empire collapses.

And, as usual, a link back to my post of July 4, 2005:

“anarchist shadow holiday”

worshipping the wrong goddess



Worshipping the Wrong Goddess

Democracy and Liberty Don’t Necessarily Go Together

July 22, 2013 by B.K. Marcus

Read more of this post

the power of habeas corpus

HabeasCorpusCoverMy friend and comrade Anthony Gregory, whom I blogged about here, has written a big, scholarly book: The Power of Habeas Corpus in America: From the King’s Prerogative to the War on Terror (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013). I’m sorry to say I have not read it yet. It lists for about a hundred bucks, but you can get a copy from the Independent Institute at a steep discount.

I knew that Anthony was writing it, and I knew the general topic, but it wasn’t until I read Allen Mendenhall’s review in the Freeman that I understood how radical, and how very Gregoryesque, the book turns out to be:

"Sometimes it takes a non-lawyer like Gregory to remind lawyers of the philosophical implications of the practical and everyday functions of the law. Likewise, it takes a philosopher, again like Gregory, to show that a series of small legal victories is really one big loss in a larger scheme."

The foundational legal principle of habeas corpus is really one big loss? Read more of this post

Does capitalism make us dumb?


The anti-capitalists contend that the market fosters whatever has the broadest appeal, even when the lowest common denominator indulges our basest appetites.

Defenders of freedom and markets tend to fall back on one of two strategies: either explaining why capitalism’s apparent vice is really a virtue (would we really prefer a system in which a self-selected elite got to plan the supply independent of demand?), or championing the products impugned by capitalism’s critics.

Ludwig von Mises took the first position. In The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, he defended the popularity of detective stories not because of any inherent virtue in the genre but because murder mysteries were what the reading public wanted, whether or not the literati approved of their preferences.

Attempts at the second approach include compelling defenses of car culture, panegyrics to the Twinkie, even praise for shoddy products.

Some targets of disparagement, however, deserve a third approach.

One such target is the canned laughter of television comedies, which has been the object of critical censure for over half a century.

As University of Minnesota art history professor Karal Ann Marling says,

Most critics think that the laugh track is the worst thing that ever happened to the medium, because it treats the audience as though they were sheep who need to be told when something is funny — even if, in fact, it’s not very funny.

James Parker, entertainment columnist for the Atlantic, disagrees. In fact, he laments the laugh track’s recent decline:

Silence now encases the sitcom, the lovely, corny crackle of the laugh track having vaporized into little bathetic air pockets and farts of anticlimax. Enough, I say. This burlesque of naturalism has depleted us.… Who knew irony could be so cloying?

So do we file the laugh track in the same category into which Mises put pulp fiction?

Or should we instead follow the model of the staunch defenders, and explain why the elitists are simply wrong?

The third approach is to question the premise. Is the laugh track really a product of the market, or did it dominate TV comedies for decades because of government regulation of broadcast media?

In "Did Capitalism Give Us the Laugh Track?" I act as defense attorney in the case of The People versus Capitalism, pleading not guilty in the case of the laugh track.


Given the limited length of a Freeman article, I had to give an extremely condensed version of the history of broadcast media and cartelization. You can find a more thorough account of that story in my 2006 article for the Journal of Libertarian Studies: "Radio Free Rothbard," available in PDF and HTML.

Cross-posted to the Libertarian Standard.

a PDF is not an ebook

Ceci n'est pas un ebook.On the Invisible Order blog, my beloved missus explains why a PDF is not an ebook, despite what the advertising may claim.

Here’s my summary:

It’s not an ebook if you can’t read it on your iPhone.

She also explains why there is no automated process for converting PDF files to ebooks. (And there won’t be, until artificial intelligence improves significantly.)

For the full story, read her post.

recycling regress

TrashWhen the current governor of Wisconsin proposed a state budget that would eliminate mandatory recycling, he discovered that even his Republican Party allies considered such a move too extreme. "Some officials worry," one editorial said, that "Wisconsin communities will revert to a sort of Wild West dumping ground if Gov. Scott Walker’s budget passes as is."

Notice the appeal to a progressive theory of history: if the government cuts spending on a favorite program, communities will revert to an earlier stage of history.

Conservatives, classical liberals, libertarians, and all other skeptics of the so-called progressive agenda have long been smeared as reactionary, backward, even Neanderthals.

Today the model is so well established that we rarely question it: what’s old is bad; what’s new is good. We must continue to move forward. Don’t let them take us backward to the bad old days.

Our libertarian forebears deserve some of the blame. Read more of this post

life lessons from boozy bots

CocktailBender My 6-year-old son, Benjamin, is asking when we will start to build robots together. A friend of mine is talking about starting a robotics club in the Charlottesville area, and I think Benjamin is now picturing us creating the autonomous bots and droids of science fiction. I’m trying to lower his expectations a bit, first by introducing him to programming through MIT’s wonderful Scratch system and iPad games like CargoBot, Cato’s Hike, Kodable, and Benjamin’s favorite: A.L.E.X.

So when I saw something on the other night about “Team Robotics,” I had to take a quick look. Hulu immediately warned me, “This video is intended for mature audiences.”

Really? Would this turn out to be some sci-fi fantasy about gynoid sexbots? That sure wasn’t the impression I was getting from the picture of Team Robotics: Read more of this post