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Digging the roots

Illusions are the weeds of the mind; the only way to get rid of them is to dig them out by the roots. I believe that excessive faith in government is a major barrier to human progress and it is rooted in one or more core illusions. These short articles are an ongoing project to discover and describe those illusions and the reasons they are so common. Hopefully when this work is complete these essays will become a single integrated whole.

Our feelings evolved in the world of nature. Today we live in the world of commerce that obeys different rules. Look around you; chances are that everything you see was made by someone who was paid to make it. Monkeys or primitive humans see nature or things that were made for other reasons than money. We live in the world of commerce but our feelings are adapted to the world of nature. Thanks to the invention of commerce we are all richer than kings compared to only a few generations ago. Our feelings can blind us to our good fortune and keep us from understanding its source. It is these feelings that allow people to passionately hate capitalism without realizing that the lifestyle they enjoy could have no other source.

Blind trust in feelings can lead to self destructive behavior. Things that feel good can be bad for us and things that feel bad can be good for us. We accept this truth in the realms of drugs, money, and relationships but ignore it in the realm of politics. Understanding the origins of our feelings can help us overcome our illusions and avoid self destructive behaviors, especially in politics.

Foxes, rabbits, and hats

In the world of nature foxes eat rabbits. If the foxes eat more rabbits the rabbit population goes down, the rabbits might even disappear. If the foxes eat fewer rabbits the rabbit population climbs. If one fox sees another fox with a pile of dead rabbits he will rightfully feel that this diminishes the rabbits and thus threatens his survival. Our instincts tell us the rich are our enemy.

In the world of commerce people buy hats. If the people buy more hats the population of hats in the stores climbs. Just the opposite of what happens in nature. If the people buy fewer hats the population of hats in the stores goes down, hats may disappear from some stores. Just the opposite of what happens in nature. If you see a rich person with a thousand hats you may feel this hurts you. But their buying increased the market for hats and thus lowered the cost of a new hat for you. Just the opposite of what happens in nature.

Our feelings evolved in nature but commerce follows different rules. The feeling that the rich harm us is true for nature but false for the commercial world we live in.

The fourth way

Without commerce there are only three ways to acquire things.

  1. Someone who loves you gives it to you; they voluntarily lose it.
  2. You take it directly from nature; everyone else loses the opportunity.
  3. You take it by force from someone; they lose it.

These are the three ways available to animals. These are the three ways available for most of human history when only kings and their friends were rich; kings get rich through taxes and conquest. These are the three ways available during childhood; parents have limited resources so one sibling's gain is another's loss. Thus instinct, history, and childhood experience all tell us that anyone else's gain is your loss.

The invention of commerce created a fourth way to acquire things, purchasing. Unlike the other three ways, when you buy something nobody loses. This feels wrong since evolution, early history, and childhood experience all tell us there is a loss for every gain.

Suppose someone offers to mow your lawn for $10 and someone else offers to do it for $15. Do you harm the one you choose? Do you harm the other one? Did either of them harm you? What if you do it a hundred or a thousand times?

Suppose someone offers you a job for $10 and someone else offers the same job for $15. Do you harm the one you choose? Do you harm the other one? Did either of them harm you? What if you do the job a hundred or a thousand times?

If none are harmed when you buy and sell, are you harmed when others buy and sell? Wealth from government harms you since government wealth comes from the threat of harm (jail). Remember, kings get rich through taxes and conquest. Wealth from commerce doesn't harm you no matter how large the pile.

Socialism, liberalism, and income tax are based on the assumption that the wealth of the rich comes at our expense. This false assumption is supported by feelings from evolution, history, and childhood. Buying and selling do not harm us; we just harm each other when we interfere.

The great separation

Greedy animals must be violent to acquire more than their rivals. Kings use violence (taxation and conquest) to become wealthy. Siblings must be aggressive to get a larger share of parental resources.

Evolution, history, and childhood all tell us greed and violence are inseparable; acquisition and coercion always go together. Strong animals take from weak. The wealthy were rulers; rulers were violent. The stronger sibling gets more parental resources than the weaker.

The invention of commerce separated greed and violence; government and market diverged into separate institutions operating on different principles.

Greed without violence (acquisition without coercion) characterizes the market. The market deals in money, violence corrupts it. We expect people in business to use money to seek wealth, not to commit violence. Leaders in business like Rockefeller and Bill Gates are hated for their billions of dollars but are not accused of being violent. If they had sought power instead of wealth they would not have been great businessmen.

Violence without greed (coercion without acquisition) characterizes the government. Government deals in violence, greed corrupts it. We expect people in government to use violence to enforce laws and regulations, not to seek wealth. Leaders in government like Hitler and Mao are hated for their millions of victims but are not accused of being greedy. If they had sought wealth instead of power they would not have been great leaders.

Socialists hate capitalism because they think it is violent, that the rich stole their money from us. Socialists accept tyranny because they think violence without greed is not harmful, altruistic dictators don't hurt us because they don't seek personal gain. Our feelings do not reflect the reality of the separation of greed and violence.

Rejection of greed without violence and acceptance of violence without greed are rooted in feelings acquired over millions of years of evolution, thousands of years of history, and our own childhood experience. These feelings lead us to reject capitalism and accept tyranny.

Rewards and punishments

Chimps maintain their position by slapping their rivals and grooming their friends. In their economy each chimp is a producer of rewards and punishments. It seems likely that early humans had the same sort of arrangement. When humans invented commerce rewards and punishments separated into two different parts of society.

Laws control us with fear of punishment. There are volumes of laws telling us how to behave. If you are caught misbehaving you are punished.

Money controls us with hope of reward. People give you money to reward you for behaving the way they want. You give people money to reward them for behaving the way you want. Thus we reward each other for cooperating. Wanting things is really wanting people to give us things.

Sometimes rewards and punishments are easily confused. The government gives welfare recipients money; this seems like a reward. The boss fires you; this seems like a punishment. But look below the surface. The money that the government pays out has been acquired by threatening punishment (jail for nonpayment of taxes) so without punishment this giving could never take place. When you're fired the boss just stops giving you money. Is everyone in the world who doesn't give you money punishing you?

Have you ever been unhappy shopping because prices were too low? Have you ever been unhappy working because you were paid too much? We complain about high prices and low wages but prices are always higher than we want and wages are always lower than we want. Everyone wants more rewards; that's the definition of rewards.

Libertarians are working to create a world with more rewards and fewer punishments, more wealth and fewer laws.

Early relationships

A child's first relationships are with parents and siblings. These relationships form the roots of what feels right and wrong in our relationship with government.

Parents supply shelter, food, medical care, education, and guidance (well or badly) for their young children who in turn obey and seek the approval of their parents. A socialist government creates this relationship between itself and its citizens. It provides shelter, food, medical care, education, and guidance (well or badly) in return for obedience. It feels natural to many people because it duplicates child-parent dynamics.

Child-parent dynamics do not apply to government. Parents generally love and work to help their children; government employees work for pay; they don't even know you.

Siblings competition for parental resources is a zero sum game since the parents distribute fixed resources among the siblings. Siblings each seek the maximum resources from the parents at the expense of the other siblings. Citizens communicate neediness to get the most resources from government just like siblings communicate neediness to get the most resources from parents. Because of sibling dynamics people assume that some are rich because others are poor and vice versa.

Sibling dynamics do not apply to commerce; commerce is not zero sum. When you buy food it doesn't make someone hungry; when you buy a house it doesn't make someone homeless.

Love of government and hatred of the rich have roots in early childhood relationships to parents and siblings respectively. When these childhood dynamics are carried into adulthood they interfere with our understanding of government and economics.

The fourth relationship

Relationships among higher primates, primitive humans, and children fall into three broad categories: family, friends, and strangers. Each category can be subdivided; for example family includes parents, siblings, offspring, spouses, etc. I choose these categories because our instincts shape our feelings toward family, friends, and strangers. These relationships seem natural because they have been with us since before the dawn of humans.

With the invention of commerce a fourth category was created which never existed in nature, the commercial relationship. This category includes employer, employee, customer, client, contractor, etc. Your relationship with these people is not the same as your relationship to family, friends, or strangers. Even if you have never seen them before, it is important to be friendly to people in commercial relationships. Although you are friendly to them you cannot expect favors, shared values, or solidarity. You may never see a customer again but you should not treat them like a stranger. You may cater to your boss's wishes every day but still not regard him as a friend. Since commercial relationships are not family, friends, or strangers we have no instinctive feelings about them.

People like to imagine a comfortable world with only the first three types of relationships since our ancestors lived in such a world their whole lives and we all lived in it as children. Discomfort with this new and unnatural category of human relationship may be at the root of much passion against commerce. At first commercial relationships seem alienating and uncomfortable, leading to a condemnation of the market as disrupting natural human relationships.

Number attitude

People have feelings, animals have feelings, maybe plants have feelings. Feelings make life worth living but they do not make civilization. One invention that lies at the root of civilization is numbers. Without measurement there is no technology, just craftsmanship. Without money there is no civilization, just villages. Without numbers we are just clever animals, as we were for hundreds of thousands of years. There was no measurement or commerce in Eden.

People are ambivalent about numbers; we have power over them but they have power over us. Some value technology over craftsmanship because they know it can be reproduced. Others value craftsmanship over technology because it can't. Some value cities over villages because there are more choices. Others value villages over cities because there are fewer choices.

Children react differently to arithmetic, where answers are absolutely right or wrong. One child may feel " No adult can make my answer wrong when I get it right. This increases my power, I love it." Another child may feel "I can't convince people my answer is right no matter how I try. This decreases my power, I hate it." These attitudes can persist into adulthood and color our feelings toward government and market.

Number lovers believe in money and market forces because they see them working. They see government interfering with our ability to work things out through money. To them government is like an abusive parent who takes their children's money and punishes harmless behaviors.

Number haters believe in government and political forces because they see them working. They see the market interfering with our ability to work things out through politics. To them the market is like a negligent parent who does not support their children or give them guidance.

Social animals dominate and submit to each other all the time, among humans this is called government. Politics is based on feelings, not reason. Rulers are chosen on the basis of sound bites and photo opportunities designed to elicit emotional responses from voters. Budgets and appointments are decided by dominance struggles among officials. The Nazis, famous for their detailed organization and record keeping, were created and sustained by charismatic leaders. Their economic policies were doomed from the start; war was necessary to delay financial disaster.

Measurement enters our social interactions in the form of money. We serve our employers because they give us money. People serve us because we give them money. Our feelings can't be measured and can change instantly. Money does not change; its function is to be measured.

We care about freedom and democracy but do they matter more than wealth? Are people happy with freedom and democracy when they have no hope of wealth? Do people miss freedom and democracy when their wealth is secure?

Without money we can't measure our desires against the scarcity of the resources needed to fulfill them. I like rock and roll; a cheap radio lets me indulge myself every day. I like raw fish but it is costly so I rarely eat it. I can't afford an audience with the Dali Lama but I can cheaply read his words in books and watch him on television. Without money I can't decide which needs to indulge and which to forego.

Without money manufacturers can't decide what to make. Without competition they have no reason to improve their products and no way to decide between different materials and processes. Ludwig Von Mises revealed the fatal flaw in all command economies when he showed that prices contain information. Prices tell the consumer about the scarcity of different things they want. Prices tell the producer about the desire for different things they might produce. Without prices even the most intelligent and well meaning people make wasteful errors producing and consuming the wrong things.