Quietism and Activism

On Twitter I have many friends that I wish I could meet in real life and talk things over with for awhile. Some of them are the sort that refuses to deal with politics at all and want to withdraw their “consent” to be governed by the evil state in any peaceful manner than they can find to do. Others seem to want a revolution to bring down the evil central state and save the world from the U.S. Empire and its murderous military. I was reading a few tweets the other day and both kinds of friends were expressing their views when I thought of Raymond Smullyan and his little book that is a whimsical guide to the meaning and value of eastern philosophy to westerners.

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I am a big fan of  Raymond M. Smullyan‘s book called The Tao is Silent and sometimes I think I like it even better than many of the Murray Rothbard books I have read. (high praise for Smullyan indeed) In one chapter of the book he wrote about the difference between the quietists and the activists.

Smullyan wrote:

There is one ethical philosophy which might be characterized as “letting things go their own way, not interfering, not imposing one’s will on nature, letting things happen of their own accord, not trying to reform the world, not trying to ‘improve’ the world, but simply accepting things as they come.” Such a philosophy is, I believe, called “quietism.” This philosophy is intensely irritating to many people called “activists” who believe this is the worse course possible and is in fact responsible for most of the evils in the world. They would say that the last thing we should do is to let things go their own way; if we do that, things will go terribly! It is up to us to prevent the bad things in the world from happening! I cannot think of any philosophy more irritating to some than quietism! Indeed, many will say that quietism is the perfect philosophy for the “purely selfish individual who has everything he wants in life and to hell with the others!”

In opposition to the activists, the quietist quietly points out (or sometimes actively points out) that the trouble with activism is that people who go forth trying to “improve” the world — even those with the best intentions (at least on a conscious level!)—usually “bungle” matters, and only succeed in making things even worse than they already are. The quietist reminds us, for example, that revolutions often establish even worse tyrannies than they overthrow.

It is not my function here to take sides in the quietism-activism controversy. I admit that my personal bias is towards the quietists—I trust them more than I do the activists. But I do not believe that most efforts to improve the world are “bungling” rather than helpful. Some are bungling, and some are helpful, and I do not have enough statistical data to decide which are preponderant. But, as I said, my sympathies lie more with the quietist. …

The above was typed in by hand from my old dead tree book as I don’t know how to copy anything from my Kindle e-book so any errors in transcription would be entirely mine. (If anyone out there wants to educate me on how to use my Kindly, my iPad, or my cloud reader to copy excerpts for my blog I sure would be thankful.)

Like Smullvan, I tend to side with the quietists and I often abhor the activists. But Stoval, I thought you were an activist! No, I try to educate people and am at most a rabble rouser. I am a Taoist and that may explain my total fascination for the American polymath’s book. I think that everyone should read that little gem of philosophy.

I tend to think that we should speak out against the state and try to educate the masses on the nature of the state and why it is an evil institution that can not be useful to us. Voluntary cooperation is the only path that leads to mankind living in peace, prosperity, and harmony. In many ways, Voluntaryism is exactly what the ancient Taoists were advocating.

I find that I would be a total Quietist except that the state is attacking me at all times by its very existence. So, I am “activist” enough to want to find a way to end the aggression against me. That means I am in the middle someplace but far, far closer to a quietist than an activist.

Vladimir Bukovsky and fighting the system

There is a book by a Russian named Vladimir Bukovsky called “To Build a Castle-My Life As a Dissenter” which is a riveting autobiographical story about Vladimir Bukovsky’s twelve years in the brutal prison system of the old USSR. He was sent there for performing poetry that satirized the Soviet regime and for being a dissenter. In his book Bukovsky documents how he fought and won fighting against the brutal Soviet Gulag system. It is a fascinating story with ramifications for our own time.

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In my lifetime, the very definition of brutal institutional tyrannies was the Soviet Union’s concentration camps called simply “The Gulag”. To imagine that one young man could bring down such a system as a prisoner was simply beyond my imagination until I learned of Vladimir Bukovsky and his story.

Bukovsky spent over a decade in the Gulag system in the sixties and seventies. His arrest and conviction violated the Soviet Constitution, but the Russian communists never followed that document anyway as it was just for show. The Russian Constitution offered many specific civil rights and yet the country became a totalitarian dictatorship anyway. The outlook for Vladimir Bukovsky as he entered the gulag system in the 1960s was bleak indeed.

The Soviet functionaries of its bureaucratic machine were dedicated rule followers and Bukovsky found that the prison bureaucracy had to respond to written complaints within thirty days. This administrative rule governing the camps was instituted for propaganda purposes but it was nevertheless a rule that the prison bureaucracy had to follow, and here Bukovsky found the Achilles’ heel of the system. You see, any prison camp administrator who did not follow that 30 day rule risked punishment himself if his violation was reported by an underling or noticed by a superior. The camp administrator simply could not risk failing to respond to a written complaint and so Bukovsky became the most prolific generator of written complaints in history! Then Bukovsky taught hundreds of other prisoners in the gulag to do the same. They were able to file hundreds of formal complains a day. The load on the prison bureaucracy became overwhelming.

“At the height of our war, each of us wrote from ten to thirty complaints a day. Composing thirty complaints in one day is not easy, so we usually divided up the subjects among ourselves and each man wrote on his own subject before handing it around for copying by all the others. If there are five men in a cell and each man takes six subjects, each of them has the chance to write thirty complaints while composing only six himself.” ~ Vladimir Bukovsky

These formal complaints were addressed to prominent men and organizations in the Soviet system. Each of these targets of a formal complaint had to respond to the complaint within 30 days. “In the Soviet Union, all well-known individuals are state functionaries”, wrote Bukovsky.

The prison bureaucracy had a three day time deadline in which they had to forward on the complaint. If they failed to do so, then they risked punishment and loss of any bonus that might have otherwise been due to them. In the end, the system had to use every last employee to help with the paperwork assault, but there was no way to keep up.

Getting the complaints out was an overwhelming task, but the responses had to be recorded in a special record book. In fact, all complaints had to follow a very complex route of travel and be recorded all along the way. The local prosecutor’s office was involved as was the Interior Ministry, and these offices could not keep up with the massive paperwork flow any better than the prison bureaucracy could. In time all sorts of different bureaucracies found that they were missing deadlines and in danger of reprimands and lost bonuses. Since in any system different bureaucracies are always at war with one another, this paperwork avalanche and missed deadlines became a weapon for ambitious functionaries to use against other functionaries in other departments and eventually the entire bureaucratic system of the Soviet Union found itself drawn into this paperwork war. There was no department or institution in the USSR that was not involved in this massive complaint war. The complaint idea spread far beyond Bukovsky and his group to a large portion of the prisoners in the gulag system. Bukovsky says in his book that he believes that the entire Soviet bureaucratic machine was near collapse when the Soviets finally capitulated and agreed to many specific demands by the prisoners to improve life in the gulags. In 1977 they deported Vladimir Bukovsky.

Vladimir Bukovsky had won. He won by using the rules of the system against the system. it took teamwork, division of labor, dedication, perseverance, and strength of character but the Russian prisoners of the gulag beat the system. As the U.S. becomes more and more like the USSR, we need to keep in mind the strategy of Vladimir Bukovsky. Every system has a weak point and that means that every system can be brought down. Not every system will yield to a paperwork war but If you can spot the weak point in the system, you can exploit it and beat the system. You can win.

A comment about economics and Americans

One of the things that makes communicating our message of freedom and liberty with progressives, modern style liberals, and so many others very difficult is that they believe in so many economic fallacies. We might agree on many things with various people from the far left to the far right but often they can’t really see the situation clearly because they have never studied economics and they don’t want to. Why do they dislike economics so much? What is economics?

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Let us start looking at economics and the American citizen by looking at a few words from Lew Rockwell on the matter:

The most common misunderstanding about economics is that it is only about money and commerce. The next step is easy: I care about more than money, and so should everyone, so let’s leave economics to stock jobbers and money managers and otherwise dispense with its teachings. This is a fateful error, because, as Mises says, economics concerns everyone and everything. It is the very pith of civilization.

It is this lack of caring about economic principles that leads many Americans into false beliefs about government and what “we” should do about various problems. Rockwell continues:

This is a confusion sown by economists themselves, who postulate something called “economic man” who possesses a psychological propensity to always behave in ways that maximize wealth. Their mathematical models, predictions, and analysis of policy are based on this idea.

In the real world, however, we know this not to be the case. The world as we know involves profit seeking but also extraordinary acts of charity, sacrifice, non-pecuniary giving, and voluntarism (though I dislike that term since all commercial exchanges are voluntary too!).

How to account for these? The Austrian approach to economics dispenses with the idea of “economic man,” or rather broadens the meaning of economics to include all action, which takes place in a framework of scarcity. Scarcity requires that we economize on something in all that we do, even when wealth is not the motivation. For this reason, Austrians analyze acting individuals, not maximizing prototypes.

We have to realize that it is individual humans who act and that they respond to incentives via their subjective evaluation of the situation, even when they don’t consciously realize that they are doing so. We must analyze acting individuals and look at what they really do rather than what they say they are going to do. This message is at the heart of the Austrian School of economics.

One of my favorite writers today is professor of economics Walter Block who has been called “Mr. Libertarian” since Murray N. Rothbard passed away. He has been a fierce defender of market anarchy and normally pulls no punches with his analysis of anything that he writes about. He once wrote the following words:

For zillions of years, the human race lived in small groups of 25–50 people or so. We became hard wired to appreciate explicit cooperation: I scratch your back, you scratch mine; I’ll feed you when you’re hungry and/or sick; you reciprocate. Those who wouldn’t or couldn’t do this didn’t tend to leave their genes to the next generation. That is one of the reasons why the family is even today such a powerful institution.

However, in an economy of 6 billion, we can’t all cooperate this way. Rather, we can only cooperate through markets. That is, implicitly, not explicitly.

To illustrate this point, take the recent history of New Orleans. When Katrina struck, prices of oil, gas, milk, water, orange juice, batteries, candles and other such items catapulted. This was implicit cooperation in action. How so? Higher prices means that those first in line at the grocery don’t get everything on the shelves. Elevated prices have a rationing function; at normal costs, people would tend to stock up; if the prices are very much higher, they will in effect if not by benevolent intention leave something for others. This is part and parcel of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” at work. Also, higher prices in post Katrina New Orleans would encourage, through greater profit margins, businessmen from outside of the struck area to bring these goods to those here who needed them the most. This embodies yet another aspect of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.”

An example of the trouble that economic ignoramuses cause can be illuminated with many different examples, but today let me just look at a couple of food shortage examples. Allow me to point out that so-called liberals and progressives think that rising prices in a time of great shortage is a horrible thing and they usually blame “evil and greedy corporations”.  It would come as a shock to our progressive friends (I have some, no kidding) that rising prices in a time of great shortage is actually a good thing. The higher prices preform the rationing that has to happen, and does so automatically. If there is going to be a food shortage after a major hurricane then we don’t want the first people at the grocery store to clean off the shelves at regular prices and hoard it all. We want the prices to rise so that people take only what they must have at the present time. This can be hard on the poor working class as I well know being one of that class myself, but I would rather buy some expensive product if I need food rather than look at empty shelves.

The economically uneducated always seems to wonder why tomatoes cost so much more in the dead of winter than in the summer time when the local crop comes in. It is the automatic rationing function of the free-market that helps man deal with scarcity in a peaceful manner. This is not the terrible thing the progressives imagine it to be. Economics is the study of man dealing with his environment and the fact that nearly all of his wants and needs are in short supply. Economics is the study of how humans deal with scarcity. We study how man deals with his situation through purposeful action, or as von Mises called it: “Human Action”.

Simply, economics is the study of human action and if one is going to have any opinion on politics or society at all, then one needs to study economics so as not to continue to believe in the many economic fallacies that the state has showered you with via their propaganda for the entirety of your life.

So what books would make a good introduction to economics for the average person? There are so very many that I could recommend, but here are three that I find to be wonderful introductions to the subject. First up is the classic text that I think is a great introduction to anyone interested in learning about economics: Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. This one is one of the shortest, surest ways to understand basic economics. Hazlitt was a great writer and this book is not some dry textbook. Another very good introduction to economics would be An Introduction to Economic Reasoning by David Gordon. Dr. Gordon answers the question “Why care about economics?” and then goes on to explain basic economics. Another good introduction is found in Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. This is a primer for everyday people that explains the basics behind any type of economy.

When you are ready and you have the time, there is no text in the world better than Ludwig von Mises’ book “Human Action“. In my opinion, this book by Mises is the most important work of economic or social theory written in the twentieth century. It is also the most important defense of laissez faire capitalism ever written. Yes, it is even better as a starting point for many people than the works of the great Murray Rothbard. This book is the place to find your moorings before diving into the economics, history, and libertarian philosophy of Rothbard. This book by Mises is not only a work on economics, but a full on investigation of the “science of human action.” Starting from a few principles that are a priori, von Mises deduces an entire body of economic theory. This book is highly recommended if you hope to understand the world we live in.

My friends, you should seek to understand economic thinking and you should encourage those you know to do likewise. Economics is far too important to leave to the professional economists.

A turning point: War Collectivism

Any well-read individual would have to agree that the early U.S. was basically a Classically Liberal state with a nearly laissez-faire outlook on the market. Please note the qualifiers in that sentence, I am well aware that the founders were not perfect and that the early U.S. system was certainly not perfect either. It was, however, practically a heaven compared to today’s U.S. Empire if you desire a laissez-faire market approach.

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So when did the U.S. go wrong? There are so many points in history where the people allowed the state to grab more power that picking one is almost a fool’s errand. But there is one point in history that seems to be the birthing point of the corporatist system that we have now. I mean “corporatist” just as Benito Mussolini mean it — as a synonym for fascism. When did the U.S. make a great leap towards the fascist system that we have now?

Rothbard:

More than any other single period, World War I was the critical watershed for the American business system. It was a “war collectivism,” a totally planned economy run largely by big-business interests through the instrumentality of the central government, which served as the model, the precedent, and the inspiration for state corporate capitalism for the remainder of the twentieth century.

The large business interests who were at the “top of the heap” naturally wanted to stay there, but there are always many who want to out-compete and take their place. Large industry and business leaders found that the cartels that the government enforced by legislation and regulation during World War 1 practically insured their place in their respective industries and that was a certainly a desirable thing to them. It is often an eye-opener for most people to discover that large business enjoys its symbiotic relationship with government in spite of its public denunciations of various regulations.

Throughout the western world the war showed the big business leaders that it was possible to move to a system that offered stability (for them), subsidies, privileges, control, and power. Extensive governmental intervention and planning became the means by which the wealthy would stay wealthy and reap even more profits as governments guaranteed their place in the hierarchy. War collectivism offered the advantages of monopoly, government contracts for the favored, guaranteed profits, restricted production for higher prices, and all the rest of the classical pattern of monopoly privilege. Even labor costs could be more controlled as the state would back the producer against the union in the interest of “the war effort”. Intelligent union leaders joined in and became partners in the fixed game which was, in many ways, a reversion to a form of  mercantilism.

In America the new mercantilism was more industrial and manufacturing based than the old form since the industrial revolution had come about since the days of the old mercantilism, and just as importantly, the new system had to appear to be more “democratic” and less class-based in America in contrast to the old English system. There was need to provide the appearance of promoting the overall good of the country and all her people rather than just the wealthy elite and their business interests. And so American “liberalism” was pressed into service to provide the ideology and cover. The so-called liberals proclaimed that the new system was not mercantilism at all but rather it was radically different than the old exploitative system and that its aim was for the betterment of all the people. This was seen to be democracy in action. It was claimed that the government would protect everyone from the business leaders and control those evil rich men — in spite of the fact that the business elites were the senior partners in this whole enterprise.

The new “liberals” gained prestige, income and power as many became the government planners who were needed to plan out the vast details and regulations of the new collectivist system. The liberal intellectuals helped  develop this new system of government intervention that they saw as superior to the two major alternatives available to them: laissez-faire capitalism or Marxian socialism. These “liberal” or progressive intellectuals saw this new order as the path to the future where government planning (done by themselves of course) would bring a heaven on earth — or as close to it as man can come. The state became their religion.

In various western countries the new system of collectivism was called by different names, but the system was similar at its heart. Benito Mussolini called the system “fascism” while some in England called it “the third way”. Americans never gave the system a name other than call it “progressivism” or “liberalism”. Regardless of the name or the various differences due to local culture, the system was war-collectivism. And so, it should not have surprised anyone that another war would be needed to bolster this war collective system, and soon enough along came World War 2 with all its destruction. Following the hot war of WW2 came the “cold war” and all the small proxy conflicts around the world. In fact, the U.S. Empire has been at war almost continually since adopting war collectivism in the 1920s.

America’s participation in World War One was a disaster for the limited government, laissez-faire system the country had enjoyed, and it was a disaster for her people. The evil legacy of Woodrow Wilson, the country’s first “progressive president”, who lied the country into war lives on to this day. Much evil is born during wars, and the side that looks to be the “victor” never escapes without its own woes. Wilson and WW1 brought America the final end of its Classical Liberal period.