Thursday, October 16, 2008

Changing my mind

I’ve changed my mind.

I don’t mean right this second, but many times over the years. And I thought I’d explain where I’ve changed my mind, and why, about different matters -- some big issues, some not as big.


Let’s start “in the beginning”, so to speak. In other words this God thing. I no doubt, started life an atheist, that is, I wasn’t born believing in a supreme being. And an “a-theist” is one who lacks a belief in a god, and as an infant I lacked beliefs in most things, including a god. But I won’t count that.

At some point I accepted there was a god. I did so for simple reasons. Everyone told me there was. It was on television, in books, even in the Pledge of Allegiance which we were forced to say daily at school. My parents said there was a god and so did most of my friends. So I accepted the idea without giving it any thought -- which is how I think most people become believers. My theism was the result of simply not thinking, just believing what I was told.

Then I gave up that belief. Why?

In one sentence: the main reason I gave up theism was that I decided that the concept of a god made no sense whatsoever.

To flesh it out some. I decided that the god concept was either vague and meaningless (liberal theology) or precise and contradictory (orthodox theology). Next I concluded that logic didn’t support the existence of such a being, that the evidence didn’t exist to support such a conclusion. And finally, I decided that, based on history, the concept itself was destructive to human decency, rational morality and a free and tolerant society.


As a child I was instinctively socialist -- but then children often want what other people have and want to take it from them. I don’t think that was my motive. I genuinely thought that a beneficent government could hand out goodies in an almost endless supply and thus banish poverty, sickness and misery from the planet. I don’t think I thought the state could raise the dead and cast out demons, but I wasn’t far off. I was particularly enamored with the Scandinavian welfare state system and listened to Swedish language records with the thought of settling there one day.

My visit to Sweden persuaded me that it was among the last places on earth where I actually wanted to live. But what made me change my mind wasn’t that visit -- though it helped.

I changed my mind because I studied history and economics. I realized that the economic principles of socialism, regardless of what good motives may compel them in some people, were flawed. Socialism was contrary to human nature. From each according to his ability punished the able and reduced their numbers. To each according to their need rewarded need and swelled the ranks of the needy. This required another burst of socialism, making the results more apparent. Long term it is difficult to sustain such a system.

Socialism assumed that the economic system itself was not connected to the results achieved. Thus we could redistribute the results, that is change the pattern of results but without changing the pattern of production. That is clearly false.

And finally, as we have been warned, any state big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you’ve got. History shows that, in reality government usually does more taking than giving.

Most importantly I saw how socialism, in various guises, increases state power. State power ends up in the hands of the wealthy and the powerful, not in the hands of the poor and needy. Redistribution of wealth exists but there is far more redistribution from the less-well-off to the better-off than is acknowledged by the Left. Also the rise of state power threatens important social goals such as freedom of speech, social tolerance, and harmony. So I stopped being a socialist.


I stopped being a conservative shortly after I stopped being a socialist. I adopted conservatism because I stupidly accepted the idea that it was the alternative to socialism. When I had abandoned my socialism I assumed I must be a conservative. That lasted only a few years.

I realized quite quickly that conservatism was another form of socialism in that it promoted a big state with the ability to force people to adopt its agenda. I don’t like bullies and conservatives are bullies (but then, so are socialists). I see conservatives as socialists of the soul. And conservatives have no love for social tolerance -- they often openly oppose it. They have no love for freedom of speech and actively seek to repress it.

Worse, in my view, conservatives often love war. Just as the socialists want to confiscate the wealth of others, for their own benefit, conservatives want to confiscate the blood of others. The socialist may be cavalier in how they spend other people’s money but conservatives are too cavalier in how they spend other people’s lives.


No, I didn’t stop being a classical liberal, or a libertarian. But I have changed my mind on some aspects. I once naively thought libertarianism had all the answers. I now realize that no system of social organization has all the answers. In fact, there may be no answers to some questions.

But the strength of libertarianism is not found in the answers it gives, for it doesn’t give answers. Instead, it is a social environment where incentives exist to encourage people to find answers and it rewards people in direct proportion to the importance of the solutions they discover. It also removes the main roadblock to finding solutions -- the ability of vested interests to prevent change. Liberty is not the answer -- liberty is the state of being that allows us to find answers. And equally important, it is a environment that allows us to ask questions which other systems suppress.


Objectivism, is the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and is a subset of libertarianism. Rand certainly influenced me and there is much that I find that is good and right in her writings. But there are aspects of the Objectivist movement that I find disturbing. This was not the case for me when I first started reading Rand -- she had the gospel and I was ready to listen.

One problem that I see is that Objectivism attracts narcissists. I don’t mean narcissists in the sense of people with high self esteem -- the narcissist doesn’t have self-esteem. I mean narcissists as in individuals who exhibit all the traits of narcissistic personality disorder. I am not saying Objectivism creates individuals with NPD, but it sure does attract them.

I find Objectivists to be highly intelligent, for the most part, but relatively uninformed. Many wrongly assume that all knowledge begins and ends with Ayn Rand and thus they are unable to see where Objectivism may have problems. They are often unread in history and economic theory. I’ve been more than once surprised by how little many Objectivist read or study issues -- but then they assume they have all the answers already. Many are totally unfamiliar with Hayek’s work and the tradition of spontaneous order. Many literally believe that basic libertarian principles began with Rand, and that prior to her birth the world was in the Dark Ages. While the Dark Ages were before Rand’s birth, libertarian ideas have been floating around for centuries. The first flowering of libertarian thought came long before 1905. And most of Rand’s principles were already embraced and expounded by individuals that most Objectivists have never heard of.


I once was very proud of my country. Eight years of George Bush cured that. I’m still proud of many things. American history is filled with greatness -- but the real greatness was prior to the 20th century, not during it, as many assume. If anything, the 20th century dramatizes the disease that is destroying America. America was the first nation with a constitution born in rationalist, libertarian principles. It was the nation that embraced the Age of Enlightenment. But that is the past.

What destroyed my pride in America is that it became infested with the germs of imperialism. And it is not coincidental that the rise of imperialism in America comes with the rise of Big Governmentalism (both Left and Right). They are conjoined twins. While one or the other sometimes lives alone, they are very often found joined at the hip.

The American people are largely unaware of the world around them -- and they are uneducated on basic principles, largely the fault of a deficient state education system. That is a source of the causes for the decline of America as well.

The true greatness of America are in the ideas it once embraced, not the people who live here, or the politicians we stupidly elect to govern us. Any nation that embraces those principles embraces greatness. But America has abandoned those principles and so today, I am not proud to be an American. I am a citizen of the world, a lover of liberty, a believer in humanistic liberalism. I am not a nationalist, a socialist, or a collectivist of any kind.

Smaller issues

Those are some of the grand areas where I’ve changed my mind but there are some small areas as well.

Immigration: I was once a restrictionist and advocate of closed borders. Basic economics and the facts of history persuaded me otherwise. I have traveled the world and lived in around half a dozen countries in all hemispheres. I don’t fear immigrants because I have been one and lived among people with cultures very different from my own. I think nationalists need to get over it.

Gay marriage: I once opposed gay marriage. Really! I argued that gays could get all the rights, that any couple should have, by legal contract. That simply is false. I ignored areas where the state violates the rights of gay people and which can not be remedied by private contract. This “libertarian” argument against gay marriage is based on ignorance of the ramifications of forbidding gays to marry and the myriad of ways in which rights of gays are restricted by their inability to marry.

Big Business: Ayn Rand called it “American’s Persecuted Minority”. I call it a special interest group that, more often than not, is willing to use state power to confiscate the rights and wealth of others. Rand wrote passionate novels of entrepreneurial giants who are defenders of the rights of all. There is a reason this is called fiction. While some such businessmen exist most are not like this at all.

Business leaders are not different than the rest of us in many areas. They can be just as willing to violate the rights of others as is the average voter. But businessmen are not uniquely evil either. Their morality is no higher, or lower, than your typical individual. The key difference is that because they have money they attract the attention of politicians.

The politicians want the money of the wealthy for their campaigns. To secure that they offer Big Business legislation which will redistribute rights and wealth from poorer folks to themselves. Business, forced to operate in free markets has to satisfy consumers. Business, operating in a regulated market, has to satisfy politicians. And in return politicians satisfy businessmen. It is the perverse incentive of politics that corrupts business, not business that corrupts politics. A political system that lacks the power to redistribute rights or wealth would not attract the interest of the wealthy, who would then be forced to satisfy consumer demand in order to secure their fortunes.

Those are a few of the areas where I’ve changed my mind over the years. If the past is indicative of the future then there will be other areas where I will change my mind in the future. I’m fallible and have made mistakes, and I will continue to make them. But I try to hold beliefs which are consistent with the facts as I best understand them. New facts, or previously ignored facts, may change my mind. If they do, I'll let you know. This mind is a work in progress, with progress being the operative word.

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