Big Questions? Strange Answers

The Atlantic (formerly The Atlantic Monthly) has a feature “The Big Question” where it solicits answers from academics, purported experts, and its readers. Those questions have included recently “What Was the Greatest Movie Quote of All Time?” (September 2019); “What Lost Treasure Would You Most Like to Find?” (August 2019);  “What was the Coldest Act if Revenge of All time?” (January/February 2019); “Whose Untimely Death Would You Undo?” (September 2018); and others going back several years. These questions run across the spectrum from the trivial to the important.

The November 2019 “Big Question” asks “If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be? Some of the answers, especially reveal the mindset of our southpaw friends. Here are a few:

Anna Della Subin, author of Not Dead but Sleeping (haven’t read it and probably will not, unless I’m in a prison cell with nothing else to read): “In 1937, a British colonialist in Kuwait was said to have dreamed of a gnarled, uprooted tree. A dream interpreter recognized the tree and told him that the dream meant oil would be found at the site — leading to the discovery of one of the Earth’s largest oil reserves. One wishes he’d had insomnia instead!

Not sure of Ms. Subin’s point. Does she think that failing to discover oil in Kuwait would have foreclosed subsequent Middle Eastern conflict? Or, does she believe that the discovery of massive oil reserves would have prevented or mitigated the alleged present climate change? My guess is the latter.

Samantha Kelly, history professor, Rutgers: “The invention of agriculture. Imagine far less environmental degradation and income inequality, a shorter workday for all, a varied diet and possible better health outcomes for certain communities, and a profound confidence that the future would provide. A world without industrial agriculture would pretty much be the Eden of the Bible. Hunter-gatherer life isn’t sounding so bad.”

Really? Is this an attempt at refutation of Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature where life was nasty, brutish, and short? And from history professor at a first-tier institution, no less. Maybe Professor Kelly needs to go back to studying history herself. Hunter-gatherer life was authoritarian, hierarchical, and anything but equal, especially for the sexes. The hunters, nearly all male, were the elite. Gatherers were mostly female and subservient. Eden? Give me a break.

Several others from readers, who I will not name, but will identify by their location.

Ann Arbor, Michigan:

The inception of the Eastern Gas Shales Program … The U.S. would be more likely to pursue renewable-energy sources and work to combat climate change if we didn’t have a commercially successful oil and gas industry.”

This reader is certainly a soul-mate of Professor Kelly. Would he be a hunter or a gatherer?

Two of the readers, Los Angeles, and Etowah, North Carolina, would have changed the assassinations of presidents Kennedy and Lincoln, respectively. I could agree with that; though counter-factual historical speculation is in the same class as parlor games.

Another reader, from upstate New York, opined that

“I’d let Rocky Balboa beat Apollo Creed during their first match, thereby saving humanity from 43 years of sequels and spinoffs.”

Now is that profound and astute?  I can’t answer. The only Rocky movie I ever saw was when I was in a captive audience on a flight across the pond. It wasn’t memorable.


“exactly what I want it to do”

For those of us who might’ve forgotten, or never knew, Dr. Susanna Gratia Hupp, who was with her parents eating lunch in Luby’s cafeteria in Killen Texas in 1991 when a deranged individual entered the establishment and proceeded to shoot and kill 22 patrons, including Hupp’s parents. The shooter wasn’t using an AR-15 or AK-47. He was using a handgun that he was illegally carrying. Hupp habitually carried a handgun in her car, which was legal at the time (and still is). She had left it in the car because, being a law-abiding person. Texas at that time had no law that allowed an individual to have a license to carry a handgun on their person, concealed or otherwise. As a result, Hupp helplessly watched her parents and 20 other victims be shot to death. The police arrived and ultimately killed the shooter, but too late to save any of the victims. Subsequently, Hupp, a chiropractor by profession, ran for and was elected a State Representative, and was instrumental in Texas passing a law that provided for non-disqualified individuals to obtain a license to carry a handgun. 

In the wake of the recent multiple totality shootings, Congress is holding hearings on how to respond to these incidents. On Wednesday, September 17, Hupp testified before a Congressional Joint Economic Committee. Unsurprisingly she testified that, among other proposals, the mandatory gun buyback requirement was “a hugely bad idea.” Referring to former representative and Democrat presidential candidate O’Rourke’s proposal to do just that, Hupp said, “[h]e essentially said he does want to take away the guns that are designed to kill. And let me assure you, if someone threatens me or mine, that’s exactly what I want it to do.”


Source” Dallas Morning News, Thursday, September 19, 2019, p. 5A

Equally Poor


Here are excerpts from a recent post from the Mises Institute. For those unfamiliar with that organization, it is named after Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973), because it promotes teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics. That economics school included such luminaries as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

These views are timely because politicians and other activist are harping on the supposed “inequality” of our society and economic system. By this they mean economic inequality, that is some have more material income and possessions than  others, and there is a tremendous disparity in those who have great wealth. Politicians of the left are seeking to level the demographic by, in one way or another, confiscating the property of the wealthy and redistributing it to the so-called have-nots. Assuming this could ever be done, the history of the 20th Century proves it will not work. Winston Churchill observed, and I paraphrase, if we are all economically equal, we will be all equally poor.

Anyway here are the excerpts.
Probably the most common ethical criticism of the market economy is that it fails to achieve the goal of equality. Equality has been championed on various “economic” grounds, such as minimum social sacrifice or the diminishing marginal utility of money (see the chapter on taxation above). But in recent years economists have recognized that they cannot justify egalitarianism by economics, that they ultimately need an ethical basis for equality.
In all discussions of equality, it is considered self-evident that equality is a very worthy goal. But this is by no means self-evident. For the very goal of equality itself is open to serious challenge. 
Many people believe that, though equality of income is an absurd ideal, it can be replaced by the ideal of equality of opportunity. Yet this, too, is as meaningless as the former concept.  
Thus, the egalitarian must not be permitted any longer to end discussion by simply proclaiming equality as an absolute ethical goal. He must first face all the social and economic consequences of egalitarianism and try to show that it does not clash with the basic nature of man. He must counter the argument that man is not made for a compulsory ant heap existence. And, finally, he must recognize that the goals of equality of income and equality of opportunity are conceptually unrealizable and are therefore absurd. Any drive to achieve them is ipso facto absurd as well.
To read the entire post, click  here 

Welcome, Refugees

All the gold in California is in a bank in the middle of Beverly Hills in somebody else’s name. — Larry Gatlin

Within a week of each other, the Dallas Morning News and The Economist (a British weekly that enjoys a wide circulation in the USA) featured similar stories focusing on refugees.

Who are these refugees? No, they are not from Central America, the Middle East, or any place our President not so long ago likened to outdoor latrines. And they are not the “huddled masses” of that obnoxious inscription on the Statue of Liberty.

These refugees are from California. They are not poor, but they are tired. Tired of high taxes, stifling regulation, gridlocked roads, and rife homelessness (that has turned some parts of Los Angeles and San Francisco into literal outdoor privies). The gold in the Golden State is mostly pyrite— fool’s gold. What isn’t is indeed in somebody else’s name. Except that the place of gold has been taken by silicon (in the Valley), and tinsel (in those Hills) for the elites. Talk about economic inequality.

The Dallas newspaper (see link below) focused on one Marie Bailey, a real estate agent in North Texas who created a “move to Texas from California” Facebook pages that now has nearly 12,000 followers. Her theme caused some alarm, at least initially, among long-time locals who responded with a slogan “Don’t California My Texas.” According to Bailey, and those commenting on her Facebook page, most of these immigrants, including Bailey herself, are refugees whose politics lean right and are happy to escape the Progressive paradise. One quote, according to the News’ correspondent, extolled “country, freedom, family, gun rights, and barbeque” and that sentiment seems to characterize most of the commenting former Californians, now Texans.

The Economist’s feature, entitled “A Tale of Two States”(June 22, 2019 print edition Special Report, or on-line (cited below) ,compares the economies and cultures of the two states, observes that they each have radically different visions for the future of America:

Texas and California are the biggest, brashest, most important states in the union, each equally convinced that it is the future (see our Special report in this issue). For the past few decades they have been heading in opposite directions, creating an experiment that reveals whether America works better as a low-tax, low-regulation place in which government makes little provision for its citizens (Texas), or as a high-tax, highly regulated one in which it is the government’s role to tackle problems, such as climate change, that might ordinarily be considered the job of the federal government (California).

The writer asks: Which works better?

Well, given that migration from state to state is lopsided in favor of Texas, especially by middle-class families, it seems that the Texas model is favored. That being said, the Progressive movement’s appeal of free-stuff, even if it means less free-dom, remains strong among many. Even those seeking to escape from California’s high taxes and high-degree of regulation may be loathe to give up a lot of the free stuff. This attitude could change the Texas culture. But that is doubtful, at least in the short term.

Progressive schemes cost money. One reason for the success, albeit limited, of the national Progressive movement, was its enabling by the Constitution’s Sixteenth Amendment, which went into effect in 1913 and gave the Congress a potentially unlimited source of revenue to fund Progressive schemes and boondoggles. California has an income tax that takes 13.2% (as of now) of income from top earners (at least to the extent that they don’t earn enough to hire accountants and tax lawyers to take advantage of dodges. Texas is constitutionally forbidden to impose an income tax.  Instead it relies on sales taxes, sin taxes, user fees, and local property taxes. All of these have their limits, which are much lower than income taxes.

For most of its history, the USA has been more about liberty than equality of result, especially in the economic sphere. That is the primary reason the country has produced so much for so many — liberty allows innovation.  The three main Progressive hiccups — the Wilsonian movement, FDR’s New Deal, and LBJ’s Great Society —  all increased government involvement in everyday lives, but were mitigated somewhat by subsequent reactions, and never completely stanched free enterprise. The Progressives disdain the income or wealth gap between the rich and the poor, or for that matter, the middle class. But forced equality doesn’t work, which many Californians are discovering. And those who give up liberty for more equality will soon have neither.

Welcome to Texas.

The Meaning of the Declaration

This post was published on previous Independence Days. It is worth repeating on this day.

The Fourth of July is a day for picnics, fireworks, parades, and all kinds of activities celebrating our Nation’s birth. It should also be a time for reflection on the founding principles. The source of those principles is most immediately found in the Enlightenment. This was a cultural, intellectual, and, later, political movement of the late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries that historians regard as the culmination of a sea-change of thought about the relations of human beings with the universe that began with the Renaissance and Reformation and their precursors. Enlightenment thinkers emphasized the use of reason as the basis of knowledge and understanding and the primary method of discovering moral and physical truths which many regarded as inseparable. Their use of reason led to the idea of the essential sovereignty of the individual person, and the rights of man (in the generic sense) to life, liberty, and estate, or property. The Enlightenment is associated with such thinkers as Isaac Newton, John Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Adam Smith, and others in Europe, and Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine in America. The United States of America is the only nation founded on the basis of common ideas, rather than accidents of geography, of kinship or tribe, or conquest. Some historians have described our primary founding document as an Enlightenment Manifesto. Leonard Peikoff in his book The Ominous Parallels described America as the “Nation of the Enlightenment.” I have spent some time parsing the Declaration of Independence to show why this is so. Please read on.

When in the Course of Human Events…

The first seven words of the Declaration of Independence are themselves revolutionary. Before Thomas Jefferson (with help from Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and others) penned this document, all important legal documents began with the paean to God, or the monarch. The Magna Carta, the Mayflower compact (which some call the first American Constitution) are some examples. There are countless others. This Declaration recognized human, not supernatural, not authoritarian, events which drive this change. This is not to say that it rejects a deity, or even Christianity. It emphasizes that this is the act of human beings, and it is done in the name of a group of people freely associating.

… it becomes necessary…

The word “necessary” in the Enlightenment sense means naturally caused; that is, inevitable because it is of nature. It is akin to a natural law like Isaac Newton described in his treatises on motion and gravity. The law of gravity requires – makes necessary – that an object falls to the ground. As the Declaration goes on to say, events have made American independence necessary.

… for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another…

Political connections are a human construct, not the divine right of kings. The King is not the state – Le roi n’est pas l’état.

…and to assume among the Powers of the Earth the separate and equal Station…

The people of the colonies are “assuming by their own act a status that is independent sovereignty is equal to all the other nations on earth. This assumption is not a grant; it is not a sufferance of the colonial master. It is inherent by right, by the law of nature.

… to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them,…

This is the core of Enlightenment thinking. God is revealed through nature, and the laws of nature are the laws of God. Jefferson may have been treading lightly here. He probably was a Deist, which many Enlightenment figures were, including Benjamin Franklin, and most notoriously Thomas Paine. He had to recognize the Judeo-Christian tradition because most of the colonial leaders, not to mention the ordinary colonists were at least nominally Christian. Deism as such, was not hostile to Christianity, or other forms of religion, but those faiths did not tolerate Deists.

… a decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind requires that they declare the causes which impelled them to the Separation.

The people seeking independence are telling the world why. They are justifying their actions to the rest of the world, not just their former British overlords. Reason is what gives actions legitimacy, according to Enlightenment principles. Reason is given to men by God, or nature, and they are expected to justify their actions by it. In order for the world to grant its approval and sanction, human actions must be reasonable.

The next paragraph of the Declaration is a treatise on government and gives the underlying philosophical basis and general justification for independence.

We hold these Truths to be self evident…

The introductory phrase is an epistemological statement that breaks from the long-standing Aristotelian Scholasticism’s presumed authority of the past. The Enlightenment held that the empirical observation, and reasoning from those verifiable observations, is the basis of knowledge. The intellectual tradition of the Western world – indeed, the entire world – had been that the received wisdom from the past should not be deviated from and should form all premises on which knowledge was based. The primary Western authorities, of course were the Scriptures and the Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle. Beginning with Francis Bacon, the early modern thinkers gradually broke with this method, at least insofar as it attempted to explain the workings of the physical universe. To them, self-evident truths are those that could be apprehended by ordinary minds that are neither clouded by superstition nor addled by passion. The Enlightenment scholars, and other humanists, did not necessarily reject religious Christianity to provide moral guidance and inform men as to the relation with God in eternity, but believed that God manifested truths about the physical universe in nature.

… that all Men are created equal…

The notion of equality of human beings in the Enlightenment did not mean that everyone was the same; that is, equal in physical, intellectual, and moral character. Neither did it mean that they should be leveled to the same economic status. The operative word here is “created.” Its use in this context means that no one is given any special status in relation to others merely by the accident of birth. The Aristotelian description of the universe included the Great Chain of Being. This construct held that there is a order from God in heaven down to the inanimate rocks in which every species of being has a place. In the human order, the King and his nobles have their places at the top, and the peasants and serfs have theirs at the bottom, with different levels of status or importance in between. The Chain of Being was not a ladder, and one’s place was immutable. It was a crime or a sin to attempt to rise above or sink below the status to which one was born to. The Seventeenth Century doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings was a logical deduction from the concept of a Chain of Being. The King was God’s lieutenant on earth. The Enlightenment broke with that concept, and declared that there was no inherent aristocracy based merely on the accident of birth. The turmoil of the English Civil War, the Restoration, and then the Glorious Revolution broke the chain in England by the end of the Seventeenth Century. It would persist in France until that country’s Revolution, a hundred years later. That was not long after the American colonies won their independence, with a little help from their friend – France, ironically, while still under the ancien regime.

… that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,…

The quality of being human means that there are rights which are given by God, the Creator of nature and the universe, which cannot be abrogated by the whim of human authority. Those rights may be forfeited, but only by conduct of the individual as rationally determined in the due process and course of valid law.

… that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness –…

This enumeration of rights is declared to be, by the use of the word “among,” not exclusive, but these are the basis of, and imply, others. It comes directly from John Locke’s formulation that when human beings are in a state of nature, these are their individual rights. Locke’s Second Treatise on Government termed these rights as protection of “life, liberty, and estate” – estate being interchangeable with the concept of property. Jefferson changed “estate” or “property” to the “pursuit of happiness,” which included the right to possess and enjoy property, but was broader in scope. The proposition that the pursuit of happiness was a fundamental right was revolutionary in itself. From almost time immemorial, and certainly in the Christian tradition at least until the Reformation, life on earth was not supposed to be happy. Life was an arduous journey through a vale of tears on the way to an afterlife of happiness, or punishment, depending on how one conducted oneself in this world. Rather than pursuing happiness here on earth, it was self-denial and mortification that were virtues, not enjoyment or seeking betterment of living standards and conditions. This, of course, was a doctrine which kept the Great Chain of Being intact, as well as the hoi polloi in line. Individual liberty was nonexistent, because the individual person was subject to the collective, that is, the King or state. One’s life as well belonged to the same sovereign.

That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…

Legitimate governments are created by the consent of the people, not imposed from the top down. The people, who in a state of nature are unable to adequately protect their lives, their liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness, including the protection of their private property, form a government for this purpose. In order to accomplish these ends, certain aspects of the fundamental rights are limited, and ceded to a constituted authority by consent, whose primary – and only legitimate – function is to secure the essence of those rights.

… That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

A government can become destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, the use of the word “whenever” seems to imply that it is inevitable that at some point the government will become destructive of such. It is part and parcel of these unalienable rights for the people to alter or abolish it, and create a new government. A new government, however, must be instituted on the core principles stated.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed.

When government has existed for a long time, some deference must be given to it for that quality alone. Stability and just expectations are aspects of the unalienable rights, which themselves must be respected. This passage recognizes that the governments will not be perfect, and there may be better ways of accomplishing the protection of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness at various times, and under different conditions. Just because a government may act in an imperfect manner temporarily is no reason to take the drastic step of abolishing it. The phrase that “mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable” echoes William Shakespeare’s observation in Hamlet that we “rather bear the ills we have than fly to those we know not of.”

But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government and to provide new Guards for their future Security.

This sentence states the conditions necessary to overcome the presumption that governments long established should not be changed. When they are fulfilled, revolution becomes a right – and duty.

Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World.

Thus begins the justification for Revolution and nature of the grievances against British rule. It is followed by a bill of particulars containing twenty-seven specific grievances committed by the Crown, personified by King George III. If one studies the Constitution later drafted and ratified, it is possible to find a provision there which addresses nearly every one of the complaints found in this bill of particulars.

In every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

After the bill of particulars, the Declaration provides additional justification for independence by asserting that the people of the American colonies have brought their grievances to the attention of the King, and his ministers, to no avail, and only to receive further injury.

Nor have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from Time to Time of attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our Connections and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.

This penultimate paragraph reminds the people of Great Britain that the American colonists have notified them of the grievances, and they have nevertheless done nothing to prevail upon Parliament and the King’s ministers to change policies and redress the grievances. It concludes by defining the relations going forward that the Americans will have with the British: that is, a separate and equal station, along with all other nations of the Earth, and not as sworn enemies.

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of Our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce and do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor.

The use of the lower case “united” indicates that each of the new entities are separate States, though united in purpose. Unification will come later, and remain tenuous, in many ways, even unto this day. The Declarations appeals to God as a witness, but is done in the name of the “good People of the Colonies” who are to be the sovereign. Divine Providence will protect them. The signers pledged their “sacred honor,” the most precious possession to an Enlightenment man. As for their lives and fortunes, they were aware they were committing treason against the British Crown, which was subject to the severest of penalties.

It was over seven long years of war and privation before the Declaration of Independence was ratified by the Treaty of Paris in which Great Britain gave up all claim to sovereignty over its former colonies, but these words written and approved by the patriots in Philadelphia two hundred and twenty-six years ago finally became a reality. It remains so to this day, perhaps imperfect, but there is nothing better. Indeed, there is nothing like it in the world.


Note: The writings of Professor Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania, who is the editor of Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, gave me the idea for this essay. He teaches 17th & 18th Century intellectual history. Professor Kors is one of the founders of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a watchdog organization that fights the increasing denial of freedom of expression on American college campuses.

Whither Flight MH370?

At 12:42 a.m. March 8, 2014, Malaysia Flight 370, a Boeing 777-200ER airliner vanished into the Indian Ocean. Today, more than five years later, what happened to 227 passengers, 10 flight attendants, and two pilots-remains a mystery. For quite some time, preposterous theories — space aliens had abducted them — has as much support in evidence as any others.

William Langewiesche, a professional pilot and one of the world’s prominent aviation writers, in a feature in July’s The Atlantic makes a persuasive argument as to the flight’s fate. Malaysian officials have claimed the plane’s disappearance was an accident of some unknown cause. Together with one Blaine Gibson, a self described adventurer who apparently is of independent means, and Grace Subathirai Nathan, a Malaysian lawyer, Langewiesche searched for and sorted out information that points to the airliner’s captain intentionally flying it and its occupants into oblivion, and Malaysian authorities anxious to cover up this misdeed.

The article is long and detailed, and is worth reading, particularly if one is a detective story fan or aviation enthusiast. Much of the underlying evidence might be open to challenge, and some writers including on Clive Irving in the Daily Beast (for whatever that’s worth) but it deserves consideration and further investigation. The remaining important answers, Langewiesche opines, do not lie at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, but with the authorities in Kuala Lumpur.

The Atlantic, July 2019, pp. 79 – 94.  On line at: