Monday, September 26, 2005

Visit to Auschwitz

We took a day trip on our recent Carpathian vacation to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the notorious Nazi concentration camps. As we walked under the arch with the words "Arbeit Macht Frei", I was struck by the utter banality of the place. It could have been a set for the miniseries "Holocaust" or, but for the concertina wire, a college campus. There were rows of relatively attractive brick buildings in a grid of cobblestone roads. I do not know if there were trees during the operational years, but there are trees now, and it is hard to imagine that such an innocuous looking place could have been one of the scenes of a government murder spree. Nearby Birkenau, with its wooden barracks, more like stables really, makes Auschwitz look like a resort.

A number of these barracks contain exhibits that explain the working of the camp, and these are presented in a very matter of fact way so that the horror of what happened there becomes all too real. There is no need to sensationalize, and the exhibitors let the events speak for themselves. Entire rooms of human hair, well worn shoes, old clothing, and spectacles speak volumes about the minds of the evil bureaucrats who operated the camp and tried to profit from it.

This was an example of a state doing what states do but without the cover of mystifying rationalizations. Here the state exercised the total control that it craved and sucked the very life out of its subjects in an act of complete parasitism. Inmates arrived, and those too weak to work were sent to the gas chamber and cremated. Their hair, gold in their teeth, and all their worldly goods were taken and sorted for use by the state. Those strong enough to work were marched out and worked hard every day, and those who faltered were disposed of. Rations were inadequate to sustain life and conditions were crowded and uncomfortable, and most inmates eventually became weak and expendable. Government scientists experimented on some inmates to determine how much deprivation they could endure.

I have heard the camps touted as models of efficiency, but I cannot speak to the efficiency of the operation. One hopes that states will be at least as inefficient at murder as they are at everything else. That the government photographed and kept files on inmates that it was going to kill en masse indicated to me that there was an overlay of mindless bureaucracy that doubtless added to the torments of the place.

My having been to these camps makes the state sponsored murders of the last century more real to me. It was by no means enjoyable, but I felt that it was something that one must do if one is in the vicinity.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Back from the Carpathians

Our trip to Poland and Slovakia was a great success, and we are already planning a return trip for next July during the next big Lemko festival. We started and ended in Krakow, a beautiful old city with a fabulous square and one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen. We took a day trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau during our stay in Krakow. We visited the Tatra and Pieniny mountain ranges and rafted down the Dujanec river before settling into our B&B in Gorlice in Lemko country. The highlight of the trip was visiting Mrs Vache Folle's wonderful family in the village of Gladyszow (pronounced Gwa-di-shuv). It turns out that the family there is much more closely related than we had believed, featuring a great aunt and several first cousins and their progeny.

Mrs VF's Lemko kin appeared to view us as quite affluent, which I guess we are by many measures, and they asked how they could be as comfortable as Americans. I replied that they would have to live on borrowed money and give up their family lives. I told them that I viewed them with admiration and outright envy. They have little money and cannot afford to visit foreign countries or go out to restaurants, but they own their own homes free and clear and enjoy much more independence than we do. The families build homes, quite good ones with all the modern conveniences, with their own labor over a 4-7 year period. Almost every family we met had a substantial garden and fruit trees. Mrs VF's family had a farm and kept bees, rabbits, and cows. The food in the area was by far the tastiest and most wholesome I have ever enjoyed, and I attribute this to the proliferation of small farms using natural and organic practices (they can't afford fertilizers and poisons). Folks were surrounded by family and friends and, most importantly, had the time to spend with them. The people were hospitable and generous with their time and resources. As Garrison Keillor says about Lake Wobegone, "all the women were good looking and all the children above average". If I could figure out how to make a living there, I would move to southern Poland in a heartbeat.

I fear that integration into the EU will hasten the end of the lifestyle that I envy.

I hope to be able to blog about some of my impressionsn over the next week or so at the risk of being more tedious than usual.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Happy Thoughts

Turning from the tragedy of current events, I have tried to find solace in thoughts of happier times and the joy that a fun toy can bring to a child. My earliest favorite toy was a farm that included a tin barn (I cut myself on it occasionally, and it would not be regarded as child-safe today), a tractor, some fencing and a set of toy livestock. I was especially fond of a red calf for some reason. My second favorite was tinker toys, a pre-Lego building set. I also had Lincoln Logs and an electric train, but my dad played with these a lot more than I did.

I recall a toy that I desperately wanted in my preschool days but never got- Mr Machine, a robot that looked really cool on TV commercials but was actually pretty lame. Just as well I never got it.

Most of the toys I had and enjoyed were inexpensive items that would wear out and be replaced time and again, eg. the slinky, superballs, silly putty, paddle balls (we called them bolo bouncers where I came from), crayola crayons, and play dough. These were the "staples". We also still played marbles when I was a kid, but this more or less died out when I was about 12.

Briefly, a toy called click clacks, two glass balls on a string that you banged together, was popular. I remember thinking that Chuck Berry's Dingaling song was about click clacks. Supposedly, the balls would shatter and send shards of glass into your eyes. It never happened to me, but the toy was not very fun and we got tired of them quickly. Most seemed to have ended their lives wrapped around telephone wires. Of course, everyone went through a yo yo phase.

My personal favorite non-staple toys included a set of monsters and toy soldiers called "Hamilton's Invaders". You could play out your own Japanese monster movie. The main monster was a green bug with jaws that could grab the army men. The set came with a cannon as I recall and some other minor monsters.

I was a science geek and built models of spacecraft. I also had a chemistry set and a model of the human body called the "Visible Man". You painted and assembled the body, guts and all, and encased them in a transparent plastic skin. Later, my cousin and I buried the skeleton part in an old cigar box and convinced his sister that it was the body of a stillborn baby. Naturally, I had dinosaur models as well. I wanted, but never got for some reason I don't recall, models from the back of Eerie and Creepy magazines, e.g. Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, and "The Forgotten Prisoner of Castlemare".
My sister and I shared a "Thingmaker", a device that made plastic spiders and bugs in molds. These were called Creepy Crawlies, and it was fun to make them and place them in strategic places to frighten our elders. We also had "Incredible Edibles", a similar device that made foul tasting but comestible candy spiders and bugs. We had a device called a "Time Machine" that took plastic rectangles, heated them up until they turned into monsters, and compressed them back into rectangles. Finally, we had a kit that allowed us to enshrine objects in acrylic and make paperweights and such. I had a rock tumbler, but that was frankly more work than fun. In fact, none of these toys was all that fun, but we got a kick out of having the toys that were being advertised on TV. We had gone through a poor spell where we got few popular toys, and it felt better to have enough economic security to get the supposedly cool stuff.

I had tons of green plastic army men that had to be replenished form time to time as they were blown up with firecrackers or set afire. I never went in for GI-Joe, the only action figure available at the time because it seemed too much like a doll for my tastes.

All time favorite toy that I would still play with?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Off to Ruthenia

Mrs Vache Folle and I are leaving Saturday for an eleven day trip to Ruthenia, now in southern Poland. A quarter of Mrs VF's ancestors came to America over a century ago from the village of Gladyszow, and we are supposed to be meeting some of her kinfolk who remained there. (It is good to keep in contact with family since you never know when you are going to need a kidney.)

We will visit Krakow for a few days then head out to the country to see the ancestral haunts.

Mrs VF always thought her grandfather was Ukrainian, but we have learned, through my genealogical research, that he was actually Ruthenian or Galician, related to Ukrainians but whose ancestral homeland now lies within Poland. Grandpa was born in New Jersey, but his folks were subjects of the Austrian Empire when they left Europe in the late 1890s. Some time before 1910, the family returned to Gladyszow, and Grandpa came back over on his own in the early 1920s and settled in Plains, Luzerne County, PA where he mined coal until his death in 1960 from lung disease.

Last year, Mrs VF learned that she had a cousin who had settled in the Chicago area, but he died just before she contacted him. I dug up her family's Ellis Islands records, free from , and learned dates of arrival and village of origin. I put her in contact with some tour guides specializing in "Lemko" visitors, the name for Ruthenians, and the upcoming trip was planned. Ellis Island

Our last major vacation was also had a family history theme, and we visited Shrewsbury and environs from which some of Mrs VF's other ancestors had come. We saw a lot of out of the way things that typical tourists would not have seen, and I hope that this trip is as rewarding.

I won't be blogging until we get back, but I am sure that my imaginary readership will bear up under the strain tolerably well.

Outer Space Business Idea

Kirsten at Enjoy Every Sandwich reports on plans by entrepreneurs to launch inflatable space habitats. One plan is to build hotels in space for tourism.

Ever since I read the Millenium Project, I have hoped that private individuals would get on the ball and start populating space. Trouble is, there seem to be few incentives to go to the trouble of developing space travel and habitats. So far, tourism is the main idea for making money in space. I have what I believe is a fantastic business idea for space- orbiting nursing homes.

There are a number of advantages to orbiting nursing homes. Not the least are the benefits of weightlessness for frail elderly bodies. Think of the reduction in pain and injuries that ending weight bearing will afford. Moreover, flatulence will no longer be problematic and may even increase mobility as residents harness their own jet propulsion. Finally, having our elderly kin in outer space means that we will have a handy excuse for not visiting them.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Racists Coming Out of the Closet

My anthroplogical interests centered on evolutionary psychology and human biology. Much of my research involved human fertility and understanding the "demographic transition", and I was a member of the professional association of physical anthropologusts for a number of years. As a member of that body, I was selected to recieve a free, unsolicited abridged copy of Race, Evolution and Behavior: A Life-history Perspective by J.P. Rushton of the University of Western Ontario. The gist of the work was that humans vary on a continuum from an "r" reproductive strategy (reproduce a lot and invest little in the offspring) and a "K" reproductive strategy (reproduce less but invest heavily in the offspring). According to Rushton, Africans were on the "r" end of the scale and Europeans and Asians on the "K" end. This was said to correlate as well with brain size, testosterone levels, maturation rate, intelligence and other factors.

It was an interesting theory in some ways, but from my own studies I was pretty sure that there was no evidence that Africans actually engaged in a reproductive strategy that differed from that of other similarly situated humans. Indeed, it appears that foraging people the world over have always had low fertility compared to farmers, that farmers have relatively high fertility, and that industrialized societies see a return to low fertility (a phenomenon that I attribute in large part to opportunity costs for women). This is true of populations from every continent.

Rushton seems to base his suppositions on perceived behavior patterns of people of African descent in post-industrial North America. He explains the phenomenon of black men's fathering multiple children out of wedlock as the operation of the "r" strategy. It is difficult to measure the fertility of such men, and we are left with the fertility of African-American women on which to base our conjectures. White fertility (births per 100,000 women of child bearing age) in 2000 was 65.3, while black fertility was 70.0, hardly a difference crying out for a genetic explanation. In fact, black fertility has fallen about 15 points over the last 20 years and is approaching parity with white women's low fertility. It seems to me much more elegant to attribute trends in black fertility to the social and economic factors with which fertility correlates rather than contriving an evolutionary divergence. Rushton ignores the extensive literature dealing with differences in fertility among economic classes and types of subsistence. In later work, he characterizes the evolution toward the "K" end of the continuum as "progress".

I have since discovered to my dismay that there are quite a few seemingly intelligent and articulate folks on the web who seem to me to be more than a little obsessed with biological differences among races and who are determined to explain every possible social ill in terms of human biological variation, especially putative differences in general intelligence. The Bell Curve brought this issue to the forefront some years ago and has made it a more acceptable topic of discussion and research. Several web sites seem to devote a great deal of energy to the topic, e.g. La Griffe du Lion, Steve Sailer, Gene Expression.

I do not deny the significance of race as a biological concept, since it is clear that folks with common ancestry are likely to share certain genetic legacies and to be differentially affected by disease and environmental factors. But I do deny its supposed moral and political significance. I do not deny that individual humans are endowed with varying degrees of intelligence and other characteristics; however, I deny that this has the moral or political significance that race baiters ascribe to it. Those who are poorly endowed by nature, whether they are black or white or another hue, warrant an extra measure of solicitude, not contempt. And we are all equally moral actors and citizens regardless of our other endowments.

The scientific and quasi-scientific discussions about race have been misused and misapplied by some hateful people to justify the ineptitude of the state in handling the aftermath of Katrina. The victims are seen as deserving their fate because of their inherent inferiority. The country will be better off, say they, with the herd having been culled, so to speak. The racists are coming out of the closet, and the conservative movement is exposing the racist undertones that it has been trying to deny for some time. This appears to be needed to reassure the "base" in the face of undeniable incompetence and callousness on the part of the Bush regime.

Racist intellectuals set the stage for a more intrusive and more powerful state when they suggest that some races require more "moral guidance from society". The statist cannot bear the idea of black people free to live as they please. The patronizing statist imposes regulations for black folks' own good, and the less well intentioned statist imposes regulations to protect himself from those scary black folks and, sometimes, just for the sheer joy of making people unhappy.

I do not advocate suppressing discussion of human variation, but I think that it is critical to emphasize that scientific propositions about variable human endowments and whether or not this variation coincides with "race" should have no bearing on how we treat one another as individuals. To grant moral or political significance to racial categories would be a move to an oppressive collectivism and a denial of the centrality of the individual. Then again, this appears to be what statists are striving for.

UPDATE: A commenter has inspired me to look at Steve Sailer's column that I obliquely referenced above I wish to emphasize that I did not intend to suggest that Steve Sailer defended the ineptitude of the Bush administration, only that propositions such that blacks wanted native judgment could be and are misused by others to justify allowing black people to suffer and die. Steve Sailer, in contrast, argues that, if one assumes that many of the people of New Orleans are poorly endowed, the government response should have been more prompt and more solicitous of their particular needs. Steve Sailer argues that ignoring racial issues can lead to miscalculation of needs in an emergency, and I presume that he would denounce the misuse of his statements much as I have.

Working for Not Much

Kevin Carson links to an interesting post about how much it costs us just to go to work . Pollard, the author, describes a scenario in which a Canadian household earning about 80K Canadian actually nets only 20% after accounting for the costs of work. The calculations include having to live in a more expensive place than necessary if you did not work and savings from growing some of your own food and making things yourself that you have to buy now.

An acquaintance of my wife's recently discovered that her New York apartment was valued at over $1 mm. Her husband suggested that they sell the apartment, get a trailer in the country, and retire, but she would have none of it. I would be tempted.

The Pollard piece inspired me to crunch the numbers in my household's case, and it turns out that at least half of our net income after taxes can be characterized as "costs of sales"i.e. we would not have the costs if we were not wage slaves. The big ticket item is the monstrous mortgage that we could reduce or forego in a cheaper area (heck, some communities in the prairies are giving away land if you will settle on it). Cut out commuting costs, the second car and associated expenses, the dog walker, the lawn and snow plow guy, and lunches in the city and you come up with over $20K in additional annual savings by not working. If it was conceivable (and it is not) that we might grow our own food, make our own furniture, and do our own home repairs, we might well save even thousands more.

I just have to figure out how to earn the balance that would be needed in the outback where work is probably scarce. Oh, and convince Mrs Vache Folle to move to the land of the slack jawed. The former problem is surmountable. The latter - not so much.

Recall Bush

In the aftermath of the bungling of the aftermath of Katrina, I have heard some lament that it is a shame that we are stuck with Bush and his gang for three more years. Too bad we don't have a parliamentary system or a recall procedure. We do have one way to get rid of Bush - impeachment. If enough of us signed on to a petition to impeach Bush, even the Republican congresscritters would likely throw Bush to the lions to save their own political skins.

Don't we need some high crimes and misdemeanors to charge the man with? In the first place, we can surely drum up some plausible crimes what with the lying the country into an immoral war and all. Secondly, the Clinton impeachment showed us that you don't really need a high crime or misdeameanor, just the sheer numbers to vote out articles of impeachment. High crimes and misdemeanors seem to be whatever the majority in Congress says they are, so there is no need to quibble over the technical details.

I propose that petitions be circulated demanding that the House issue articles of impeachment and that the Senate convict and remove Bush and Cheney from office forthwith. President Hastert would probably behave himself a little better if he knew that we were already collecting signatures on a petition to oust him as well. Impeachment should be a routine matter, and every future president should have at least one impeachment trial per term. It is hoped that in this manner, presidents will be rendered less powerful and will be distracted from adventurism.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Threat that Binds

When I was a child, I loved the television series The Outer Limits. One episode involved some scientists who tried to fake an alien invasion so as to unite the Earth against an outside threat. The premise seemed so plausible to me for at the time it was the height of the Cold War and we Americans seemed united against the Red Menace. The Soviets, and to some degree the Chinese, had missiles aimed at me and were looking for any sign of weakness to kill or enslave me. I was a child, as I said, but many of my elders (outside of my contrarian family) seemed to feel that the threat justified a huge national security apparatus, military adventures in faraway places, conscription, and increased domestic surveillance. They were taxed out the wazoo and their sons and brothers and husbands were dying by the thousands in Asia, but it was all worth it to keep the Communists at bay.

So dire was the threat made to seem, I recall, that it seemed to me inevitable that the Communists would one day rule the world. They were so powerful, and their message, whatever it was, was so compelling that the Free World could barely hope to contain them let alone turn back the tide. Our Way of Life was in peril, and it was unthinkable to question the danger. My uncles questioned it, though, and asked how the Russians, who were so backward and weak when they encountered them in World War II could be so formidable now just twenty years later. Wasn't their system corrupt and inefficient and so mismanaged by the state that it would be impossible for them to mount a credible threat to the US?

It was only much later as I acquired an advanced education that my uncles' questions began to make sense to me. We had been spending untold billions and had not diminished the Soviet threat one iota since I was a child. On the contrary, the actor Ronald Reagan, who had somehow been elected president, was calling for even more massive spending on defense and a bizarro missile shield. My acquaintances in international studies and in government suggested that the Soviets were really pretty weak militarily, despite the scary martial parades and goose stepping soldiery. They couldn't even control Afghanistan, for crying out loud. And their military spending figured to be only a small fraction of ours. Ours appeared to exceed that of the next five countries combined.

Still later when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, it came to light that the Soviet Union had never been even half the threat that the government had made it out to be. We had wasted all that money and manpower for over 40 years on a grossly exaggerated danger. The public didn't spend much time thinking or talking about this embarrassment. Rather, it was heralded as a great triumph of Reagan's militarism. In fact, the fall of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe for the military industrial governmental complex. People were beginning to talk about a "peace dividend" and freeing up all the capital and manpower tied up in the national security apparatus. It was vitally important to find another enemy to replace the Soviets.

The first Gulf War and commitments in the Balkans kept the apparatus tolerably busy in the 90s, and we never really demobilized from the Cold War.

Now, we enjoy the benefits of Islamofascism as an enemy, and the national security apparatus can breathe easy. The best thing about the new enemy is that it is an abstraction and can never be inconveniently defeated like the Soviet Union was. It is sufficiently frightening to turn the people into sheep and sufficiently vague that any adventure can be explained as furthering the so called War on Terror. Better yet, the enemy has attacked us and is probably among us; therefore, the national security apparatus demands and gets a lot more domestic power. Even better, any failure of the government can be explained as a lack of resources/power/resolve such that failure will be rewarded with even more resources/power/resolve ad infinitum.

Such an enemy may someday turn America into a totalitarian state if we do not dispel the illusion that fuels the national security apparatus. I was fooled by the Cold War and even joined the Army. In my defense, I was young and unsophisticated and a victim of government schooling to the age of 20. Now I am older (but still unsophisticated) and far wiser (although certainly not objectively wise), and I am smart enough to question it when the government finds an "enemy", be it drugs, poverty, terror, or terriers. I wish that my conspecifics who were conned by the Communist threat will remember and question the latest scam.

The Predictability of Katrina

Some of my conspecifics wonder aloud how the government screwed up the mitigation of the Gulf Coast catastrophe so badly? Didn't they know that the failure of the levees and the flooding of the city was a fairly well known scenario? Didn't they know that tens of thousands of poor folks would be unable to evacuate without significant help? Of course, they did.

George "Not as Bad as Hitler" Bush was originally opposed to the idea of a Homeland Security Department. He, or whoever does his thinking for him, realized that the risk of a further terrorist attack was minute and that the new Homeland Security bureaucracy would not be able to prevent a terrorist attack in any event. The bloated national security bureaucracy already in place had not prevented the World Trade Center disaster. Homeland Security was nothing more than the politicians' way of making it look as if they were doing something and increasing their power in one stroke. The Bushians set about managing Homeland Security to their political advantage without regard to whether their activities enhanced or reduced national security. They set up highly visible, albeit useless, airport screening systems and funnelled Homeland Security dollars to districts in accordance with political calculation. They publicized prosecutions of supposed terrorists, none of whom turned out to be actual terrorists, but we were all assured that the Ministry of Justice was on the job. Oh, and I almost forgot the color code thing. That was huge.

FEMA is, if I understand it correctly, actually more involved in governmental continuity than in relief and mitigation. Much of the budget of FEMA is devoted to keeping government in business in case of disaster, and this has apparently been the focus of the current regime. FEMA is more about control than assistance, and I am pretty sure that when this is all over we will find that FEMA will have obstructed relief much more than it helped anyone. In general, FEMA relies on other agencies and private charities to provide actual assistance. The National Guard, FEMA's mainstay, is short on manpower and bereft of equipment and supplies thanks to the adventure in Iraq. And, in keeping with Bushian practice, FEMA is headed by incompetent political hacks. FEMA is incapable of helping the victims of Katrina, and all it can do is assume "control" of the relief efforts.

The Bushians probably didn't plan on having so many assets tied up in Iraq, what with expecting flags and flowers and all. They have been playing the odds with national priorities and have chosen to pursue their foreign adventures while hoping that hurricanes and earthquakes and such would be manageable while they were tied up overseas. Being a War President has political benefits that you just can't get from being the boring old Emergency Preparedness President. Besides, nobody is likely to blame the Bushians for natural disasters (all the religious wingnuts are on their side), and any shortcomings in mitigation will probably be soon forgotten.

And in the case of New Orleans in particular, most of the Bushian supporters will have evacuated and few, if any, Bush voters will have perished. George "Than Whom Stalin was far Worse" Bush gambled that his popularity as War President and our irrational fear of terrorism would trump his shortcomings in the competence department and that he could ride the Iraq adventure into history and Republican hegemony. This plan hit a snag with the Iraqi resistance, and folks had already lost faith in the "Commander in Chief" by the time Katrina hit. Time will tell, but the Bushians may yet be able to spin this disaster to their advantage or at least to cast blame elsewhere.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Bumbling Idiots

Thomas Knapp hits it right on the head in this post where he points out that government's priority in New Orleans appears to be shooting people rather than rescuing them. This is the state exposed for what it is, a force for destruction and death.

My conspecifics at work are disgusted with the governmental response to the catastrophe. Even the most rabid Bushites in the office are calling for his ouster. I am gratified to hear my usually statist conspecifics proclaim that this is what comes of leaving these things to government, but I am sorry that it is taking so much pain and death to bring this lesson home to them. I hope that the failure of government will linger in their minds the next time they are called on to support some government program.

The "bumbling idiots", as one of my conspecifics put it, are still grasping for talking points. So far, all they seem to have is the race card and the blame the victim card, and I don't think that this will get much traction (I hope it won't). The "wrath of God" meme is apparently not catching on, at least within the circles I run in.

Sadly, I am pretty sure that the massive failure of government in New Orleans will be used as justification for even more government. The problem will likely be framed by some as arising from not enough government, too few bureaucrats, too little power. About the best we can hope for is that discourse will focus more on the incompetence and screwed up priorities of the people in office. It is probably too much to hope for any meaningful discussion about how much government contributed to the disaster in the first place. I will do my part, for what it's worth.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Gas Prices

My car pool companion put off buying gasoline on Tuesday so he could get home earlier. His local station had regular unleaded at $2.69.9. When he went to fill up on Wednesday morning, the price had risen to $2.89.9. When we left work on Wednesday, we passed two Mobil stations within a block of each other, one with regular unleaded at $2.99.9 and the other at $3.49.9. By the time my companion got to his neighborhood, his local station was charging $3.09.9. I better fill up this evening before the prices hit the $4.00 mark.

We pay about fifty cents a gallon in state and federal gasoline taxes in New York, so our retail price in the northern burbs is running about $2.50 to $3.00. The stations make about a dime a gallon, and I reckon wholesale prices are headed toward $3.00 as well.

My car pool companion and I live about 45 miles from work, and gas prices matter to us, so much so that we car pool. He has a brood of mewling children to feed, and petroleum product price increases really hit him hard.

Although I have regaled him with my libertarian rants during our commutes for 18 months and have seen him lose a lot of faith in government (he has gone from pro to anti on the war, for example), I have been appalled to hear him clamor for the government to "do something" about gas prices. Among his proposals: government run oil wells and refineries in wilderness areas, price controls, lifting all environmental rules on refineries, having government create fuel efficient hybrid vehicles, and nationalization of the oil industry.

I am apparently a miserable failure as an advocate of libertarianism. I point out that much of the problem has been created by government meddling, and while my companion agrees that this is so, he still thinks that the solution is more government! It is hard not to give up on the guy.

Now the chaos in New Orleans is used by my statist conspecifics as support for the necessity of government. This is what will happen to all of us if government is reduced or eliminated, they say. Looting and crime will be rampant. I point out that this has happened despite, and in a real sense because of, massive government, that private charities are responding well while the government agencies fiddle around, and that the situation is not at all normal. A lot of the "looting" is understandable foraging for supplies and subsistence, and a few real criminals seem to be taking advantage of the situation and vulnerable people. I wish people would stop using the word "anarchy" to describe the emergency.

A Cure for the Statist Meme Complex

James at Independent Country had another thought provoking post ( in which he concludes that libertarianism has no “Holy Grail”, i.e. a single message of such power and consistency that it trumps competing messages. One of my principal academic interests is “legitimizing discourse”, and one of my political interests is developing arguments for libertarianism that appeal to “lay” people, such as myself. Although I generally come to this from the perspective of psychological anthropology, I find that the tools and concepts being developed in “memetics” are helpful in thinking about discourse. See, for example, these on-line papers

I have come to believe that libertarians should try to frame their arguments in terms of a direct challenge to statism. The enemy is the state and the beliefs and ideas that legitimize it, and libertarians must undermine these memes to increase market share in the marketplace of ideas.

Take a look at this post and the comments (excuse the gratuitous bad language and incivility of the commentariat):

In this post, Steve Gilliard holds up to ridicule a Florida community college professor who argues that taxpayer dollars should not be used to rebuild New Orleans, that private charity and insurance would be better suited to handling such situations. I feebly confront the grotesque mischaracterizations of the libertarian arguments, e.g. that libertarians do not want to help the afflicted, and run up against the usual “social contract” nonsense. The legitimacy of the state is not questionable in the minds of the commentariat. This is a “progressive” site, but I have encountered the identical arguments and attitudes at “conservative” sites such as The statist mindset transcends the liberal/conservative divide, and almost all public discourse assumes as an underlying premise the unquestioned legitimacy of the state.

I liken statism to a parasitic meme that has successfully infected and exploits the vast majority of the population. The challenge of libertarianism is to devise a cure. Statism has considerable advantages that must be neutralized:

Salience: the state is ubiquitous and imposes itself on its hosts many times every day.
Threat: the state is associated with protection from one’s evil grasping conspecifics and alien enemies of indescribable malevolence. In addition, the state demands obedience and will kill its hosts if necessary to protect the meme.
Bait: the state offers many boons such as roads, libraries, schools, the social safety net. Moreover, the state holds itself out as the only source of these blessings.
Transfer: the state attaches itself to other important memes such as God, the family, and self identity. It preys upon our innate sociability and desire for community membership by pretending to be that community.
Authority: the state appears to be supported by so many smart and authoritative people.
Bandwagon: just about everybody buys into the state; therefore, it must be a good idea.
Self protection: the statist meme complex contains defense mechanisms that ward off counter memes, e.g. the “love it or leave it” meme, the “anti-statists are crackpots/traitors” meme, and the “social contract” meme.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the characteristics of the statism meme complex. The statism meme is persistent, unquestioned and seemingly unshakeable. The state has become for most people part of the existential background, just like gravity or weather.

I agree with James L. Wilson that there is no Holy Grail. The hosts of the statism meme are individuals who are differently situated, and the libertarian message must be tailored to different categories of people, some of whom will never be cured of statism, e.g. government workers, welfare recipients, government contractors, recipient of subsidies or protection, and others who are dependent upon or who use the state. Most hosts are not highly educated or capable of understanding or being swayed by abstract reasoning (and many who are capable expect to benefit from the state), and the liberty meme will have to appeal to them on more of an emotional level.

That said, I have been brainstorming about ways to come at the statism meme complex (let’s call it the SMC henceforth) by attacking its characteristics:

Salience: The Liberty Meme is already pretty well distributed, but it has been co-opted by the SMC. It may be possible to devise ways to distinguish Liberty from the SMC and arouse some cognitive dissonance in SMC hosts. Also, the SMC could be held out as too salient and intrusive in a kind of memetic ju jitsu. Finally, the visibility of libertarianism as an alternative should be increased, possibly by fielding libertarian candidates who unabashedly espouse liberty even with no hope of electoral success.
Threat: SMC hosts could be confronted with the ways in which the state is a threat to themselves and what they value. Publicizing more widely and bluntly the great harm that states have done might be beneficial. Also, noting and honoring the work of institutions of civil society might help to alleviate SMC host’s fear of their conspecifics.
Bait: Freedom itself is the boon as far as libertarians are concerned, but the concrete blessings of liberty must be conveyed to SMC hosts. It must also be demonstrated plausibly and simply how government services will be provided with a diminished or nonexistent state. Some pilot programs or examples of how non-state institutions are providing services should be publicized.
Transfer: Libertarianism can lay plausible claim to associations with Jesus Christ and the Founding Fathers. Moreover, American culture is infected with the “autonomous individual” meme, and this plays right into libertarianism.
Authority: Libertarians need more talking heads on the TV and radio. At present, we tend to rely on dead geniuses for pithy quotes, and these probably resonate more with hosts of the Liberty Meme than hosts of the SMC. The latter may simply interpret the quotes in the light of the SMC.
Bandwagon: This will only come with increased numbers, but the counter-meme might be useful in the interim. There is a streak of contrariness in Americans who may like to think of themselves as bucking the crowd, and this can be exploited.
Self protection: Libertarians need to neutralize the SMC’s defense mechanisms by (a) problematizing and deconstructing them, and (b) coming up with some catchy and simple retorts. The latter is more of a challenge. I would welcome any suggestions that I can use. Moreover, libertarians may wish to come up with some defense mechanisms for the Liberty Meme that make it more likely for the people we cure to avoid re-infection by the SMC.

I recognize that libertarians are probably already doing a lot of the things I suggest and have thought about this with better minds than I have. The focus seems to me to have been on crafting consistent and rational arguments that might appeal to the right side of the bell curve, and I think that success for libertarianism lies in propagandizing the left side and the middle of the curve. Intellectual consistency may be the least important characteristic of our message. Many on the right side are also on the dark side and will never be cured of the SMC because their lives and fortunes are inextricably tied up with it. Moreover, we already have a well-developed intelligentsia as a vanguard, and I think that it is time to take the message to the masses. We need the libertarian equivalent of the sayings of Chairman Mao (a very strange analogy, indeed, but you know what I’m saying).