Burden of Proof

Last week Isaac and T.K. had one of the best podcast episodes that I’ve listened to in quite a while. In the final half hour or so they started discussing the burden of proof for our own beliefs, particularly what it would take to convince you to change your mind. I think this is a really valuable exercise. Too often we get bogged down in our own beliefs and become resistant to change, even though we haven’t really articulated what those beliefs are grounded in. Sadly, I think a lot of beliefs aren’t grounded in anything more than “that’s how I was raised” or “that’s how it has always been done”. I’m just as guilty of that as anyone.

We all have a hodge-podge of beliefs and identities that color our perception of the world. Some of these can be  pretty damn important to us, like our thoughts on god and government. Some fundamentally alter the way we live our lives, like our thoughts on veganism or drug use. Others are relatively minor, like which way the toilet paper roll goes or whether throw pillows should exist.

To me, the most troubling ones are those that are based solely on how or where we were raised. If you feel hatred towards someone because they support Alabama football or were born in Europe, that can pose serious problems. If you are a Christian simply because you were raised Christian and never really got to know (and love) people from other religions, then I think that is shortsighted and can be a sign of spiritual weakness. One of the most important things we can do is challenge our own assumptions and come up with a proof that would convince us to change our minds, and then maybe go out there and find someone to challenge us. Steel sharpens steel. Minds sharpen minds. It is intellectually lazy to just say “well I just know” or “nothing could change my mind”.

I don’t think this is just a rhetorical thought experiment. I think it is actually important to write down some beliefs and think about what would make you change your mind. Here are some of my beliefs (all of which have a bundle of assumptions tied into them), and I plan on challenging them in the future.

  • A world where animals don’t die for human pleasure is better than a word where they do die, which is why I’m a vegan.
  • Spiritual belief correlates strongly with birthplace, which means that either there is no supernatural deity or that supernatural deity actually speaks to us through multiple (all?) religions and no belief system has a monopoly on the truth.
  • The use of force against peaceful people is morally wrong, the government is defined by the use of force against unconsenting peaceful people, therefore the government is immoral. This is why I am a philosophical anarchist.
  • More often than not, the government reduces the happiness and prosperity of the people and minimizing government will improve the lives of most people in the short term and all people in the long term. This is why I am an incremental pragmatic anarchist.
  • Happiness primarily comes from experiences, and not from possessions. This is why I am a minimalist.
  • Work is not objectively good and humans will be better off when we don’t need to work in order to meet our basic needs like food, water, and shelter. The arts and sciences will thrive when all humans are able to explore their passions without worrying about survival. This is why I am a supporter of the Basic Income Guarantee and advancing technology to eliminate need scarcity.
  • Technology will eventually advance to the point where humans can live forever. This is why I am a transhumanist.
  • Sex is not solely an emotional or spiritual act and I believe that having multiple, new experiences with a variety of partners can increase happiness and life satisfaction.
  • The use of psychedelics and similar drugs have an overwhelmingly positive impact on society and individuals, and we should support responsible use of them.
  • Sexual orientation is a fluid spectrum that is grounded in biology but there is social pressure to restrict it. If humans lacked social pressure we would likely all be somewhat bisexual, and if we eliminated the taboo around same-sex contact (particularly for men) people would be more comfortable with experimentation and less repressed.
  • Electoral politics is the least effective and laziest way to enact social change, particularly at the federal level. Most people’s time would be better-spent volunteering in their communities, pursuing their passions, and working with local institutions instead of caring or supporting a Presidential candidate.
  • I believe mental health and physical health are related for many people, and eating a healthy, plant-based diet, getting regular exercise, meditating, and seeing a therapist regularly can be a huge benefit to individuals, as well as society.
  • We should be less supportive of people who choose to have children but don’t have the economic or social resources to raise them. Instead of subsidizing childbirth we should be increasing access to contraceptives and sex education. Also, it is more ethical to adopt a child than to have one of your own in the US where there are half a million children who need a stable place to live.
  • If there wasn’t social pressure towards monogamy we would see a lot more “alternative” family arrangements that would provide more options for diverse humans to find happiness and prosperity.

 

Those are just some of my beliefs off the top of my head. They are mostly grounded in a philosophical foundation or pragmatic assumptions, which means they are open to being challenged. I may be wrong about some of my beliefs… hell, I may be wrong about all of my beliefs, but that’s okay. I don’t want unprovable beliefs, I want to keep my mind open to growing and being challenged by my experiences and the experiences of others. Life is too beautifully diverse and long to stay in a bubble being stagnant.

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My Old Life

Visiting DC last month was a bit of an emotional rollar coaster for me. As much as I hated living in that town, my time there was very influential on my life. It was there that I had my first professional job and built a community around a cause I believed in. Many of my fellow freedom fighters are stronger than I am, they were able to push through the tough years in DC and even come to enjoy that terrible swamptown.

I feel like I betrayed them. I took the easy way out. I threw in the towel and rode off into the sunset instead of fighting the beast from the inside.

I don’t regret it, but I sometimes wonder “what if”.

If I had stayed in DC I would probably be a relatively successful mid-level non-profit employee. Maybe I’d work for CKI or IHS, or maybe I would have gone back to school. I’m not sure I’d be married or not… none of my relationships in DC were terribly serious at the time except one, and I think that would have burnt out. I was mostly a Hank Reardon for a community of Dagny’s waiting for their John Galts. I don’t have a problem with my role, I knew I couldn’t have provided what most people in that city look for in a partner. But who knows, maybe I would have become Galt for one of them.

Some people say that it isn’t wise to wonder “what if”. I kindly disagree. I think it is unwise to dwell on “what if” because, to paraphrase Aslan, “we can never know what could have been”. I think reflecting on our choices and running the other scenarios through our heads can be valuable. It can be inspiring to feel like you could have thrived in a variety of scenarios, there is no set path and we should strive to make every path a wonderful one. Future decisions become less scary if we know that we will be alright, regardless of what choice we make.

I’m glad I visited DC. I saw some people that I love and were able to reconnect with them on a level that is difficult without being together physically. It was good to see how successful they are in their lives, and know that I could have had that life if I wanted it. I was also able to meet some kindred spirits for the first time in real life, people who I feel a strong connection to and hope to have in my life for a long time. It gives me hope to know that there are lights fighting the heart of darkness, even if I am no longer on the front lines with them.

I hate DC… but I’ll probably be back soon.

My Worst Addiction

Yesterday, an acquaintance of mine wrote this blog post which really resonated with me. The post discusses his relationship with politics and political news and is well worth the short read. For me, my relationship with politics has become increasingly painful. What used to be an exciting hobby (or even a career passion) has become a source of pain and discomfort.

The more rational I get about politics the more I realize it is a waste of my time, particularly when it comes to sharing political news. Not only is it a waste of my time, it is something that is actively making my life worse. It sucks up my time, makes me angry, and reinforces an “us vs them” tribe mentality. Make no mistake, politics is a drug (especially in the form of Facebook). I know that not all drugs are equal, and some can be incredibly beneficial. My own use of MDMA makes me open to experimentation and I recognize the benefits.

The problem forms when the drug starts to take over your life. When the need to argue with people (even though it won’t change anyone’s mind) or the desire to have the most updated news (even though it literally doesn’t matter) starts to interfere with your health, career, and life. News can actually have value if it leads to other positive change. If you find out about a natural disaster and donate blood or money, that is a wonderful use of news, but that doesn’t require hours of scrolling Facebook each day. This is something that Tim Ferris talks about in his book “4 Hour Work Week”, if news is important then you will find out about it, you don’t need to go searching. It is a waste of time to need minute-to-minute updates on the world, 99% of what you encounter will have no effect on your life and will be completely irrelevant in a matter of days or hours.

When I realize I’ve spent three hours on Facebook scrolling and sharing articles instead of meditating, writing, working out, going for a walk, having sex with my partner, reading, studying, sleeping, socializing with friends, or working, then I have a problem. When I feel the impulsive need to check certain websites the moment I wake up, or “just one more time” while lying in bed, then I have an addiction. When I have a regretful hangover at the end of the day when I realize I didn’t do the things I wanted to do or that I didn’t take care of my personal health, then I have a problem. Politics has stopped being a hobby and started becoming heroin*… and maybe worse, I’ve become a drug dealer to those I care about.

So, I think it is time to make another focused effort at weaning myself of the drug. I love Facebook for a lot of things, including getting news that is positive (we live in the safest, most awesome time in human history and science is doing some fucking awesome things) and communicating with friends, but it is terrible for true change in the world. Sharing an article about the homeless issues that effect LGBT individuals replaces volunteering at a shelter to help those individuals. Sharing an article about yoga replaces going to a yoga studio. Sharing an article with writing tips replaces actual writing. Facebook allows us to signal who we are without actually producing anything of value. Sharing a post is literally the least you can do to help change the world.

I know, despite my best efforts, I will probably back chasing that political dragon looking for a fix. But that’s okay, the effort matters and with effort, support from family and friends, and some tools (ie StayFocused app on Chrome) I can improve my life. Research on addiction shows that it isn’t as much about the drug as it is about the community, if I can build a community without politics then I can escape it’s clutches and focus my creative energy on something of actual value, something that actually matters. Hopefully, the community that I have will stay with me if I shake of politics completely, I would like to imagine our friendship is deeper than libertarianism.

*I actually kind of hate using heroin as the evil drug example. I know people who use heroin recreationally without any addiction, and I’m not really in a place to judge other’s drug of choice. Hell, their use of heroin is healthier than my use of politics and some of my food habits. But, it is the drug that most people are familiar with as having a really high level of addictiveness. Maybe I should have used nicotine instead…

To Stay or To Go

Recently I posted on Facebook that my partner and I are considering moving to Wilmington, North Carolina. Wilmington has just about everything we have been looking for in a city. It is cheap, a college town, is about the right size (~100,000 people), dog friendly, and bike friendly (both intercity and intracity). Being a college town means there are good breweries (and home brewing options), social opportunities, fitness options like aerial silks, dance, and martial arts, has transpersonal therapists in the city, and is vegan friendly. It also happens to have a pretty awesome location near the beach, but within driving distance of the mountains, hot springs, Asheville, festivals, and swinger clubs. Yes… we have a document where we track things and give it a rating, you can’t take my economics training away.

Anyway, the one criticism about this move is that it is North Carolina and they have shitty politicians. This is mostly in reference to HB-2. It isn’t really worth getting in to my views on HB-2 as a libertarian/anarchist, I’m more interested in this idea that the best response to government you disagree with is to leave. Personally, I don’t think that is always the case.

I do need to take a moment and recognize my privilege a bit. As a white, straight-passing male in a heterosexual relationship, I am able to safely live in places that others can’t. If I were transgender, homosexual, or even African-American, some areas of the country would be an actual danger to my life to live there. In those cases I 100% support people moving… hell, I support people moving for any reason that makes them happy. But, I don’t think that “the government is shitty” is a good enough reason for me to abandon a place.

First, as a libertarian the government is pretty shitty everywhere. Every local, state, and federal government has laws on the books that I philosophically oppose.

Second, change doesn’t really happen by abandoning a place. A few libertarians are trying to gather in New Hampshire via the Free State Project… kind of trying to turn it into a version of the Bay Area but for libertarians instead of progressives and LGBT individuals. If that is what makes them happy then go for it, but unless the plan is for New Hampshire (or the Bay) to secede from the United States then they are going to be effected by the power in other places. Which is why I think it is an important tactical issue for social change for people to live where they can and fight how they can. This doesn’t necessarily mean political activism or voting (which is the weakest of all forces for social change), but simply having a libertarian or progressive presence in a conservative region can slowly impact that region.

Let’s look at what can happen to a place where people of a certain view abandon it. Let’s take a fictional state called “Not Cool” (NC). This state sends 100 representatives to the federal government and each of these representatives is chosen by their district. These representatives can effect change on the federal level through the legislative process, and the more representatives of a certain view point the more powerful the change. When more people of an opposing viewpoint lives within a district that forces representatives to become more moderate, or to adopt some positions of the opposing side in order to get elected or stay in office. (This same argument can be used to show how things will get worse within a state as people leave because the same people will be electing state level representatives)

Now, right now the political landscape is a bell curve that ranges from Liberal on the left (1-7), Moderate in the center (8-14), and Conservative on the right (15-21). Due to the history of NC the representation tends towards conservative, but the tip of the bell curve is actually on the conservative side of “moderate”. Sure, some conservative legislation can be introduced by this group but there will also be one liberal and a ton of moderates to help balance that a little.

Political Dist of NC 1

 

Now, what happens if liberals decide to abandon NC as some sort of protest against some bad laws. Well, the state still has 100 representatives, but the views of the populace have shifted to the right and the next round of elections puts more conservatives into office, thus opening the “Overton Window*” in that direction. Now, the political leaders in NC have the numbers to introduce even more conservative legislation on all levels, making thing more difficult for non-conservatives nationally and at the state level.

Political Dist of NC 2

Anyway, the whole point of this is to show that I don’t find it the argument that a place has terrible politicians as a great reason to not live somewhere, at least not on it’s own. I’m also not trying to convince people to stay in a place that has terrible politicians. Like I said earlier, if I was in a position where I would be in danger then hell yeah I would leave a place. I think that is really the crux of it, we should all just live where we want to live and take all relevant factors into consideration. If you want to live in the Bay and pay $4,000 a month for a broom closet, go for it. If you want to live in New Hampshire where it is -5 degrees for eight months of the year, have fun. If living in Phoenix with 105 degree weather from February to October is your thing, get some. There are a variety of issues that make a place the perfect home for someone, and for me the politics is the least interesting or important part.

 

*The Overton Window is the range of policies that the population will accept. For example, most people aren’t going to kick someone out of office if they support legal marijuana for adults  or some punishment for marijuana possession, but if a politician’s views are to far in either direction (marijuana available in middle school vending machines or the death penalty for simple possession) then they probably won’t be elected or kicked out quickly. This is why I would be terrible in politics, my views are way outside the mainstream. The Overton Window is generally shifted by forces outside of politics. Politicians, after all, aren’t leaders, they are followers. They very rarely go against the public will on issues. Real social change comes outside of elected politics.

Notes: Clearly the numbers and bell curve design are used for simplicity to make the point. In reality, things are much more complex than that. Hell, the simple “left-right” paradigm is pretty inaccurate in a lot of cases. Also, political parties play a roll in generally trying to make federal offices more moderate. This is simply to show that abandoning a place may have negative unintended consequences.

Politics Makes Us Worse

*sigh* I miss Ron Paul.

I didn’t think he ever had a real chance of winning and his views were impractical given the political realities of the world, but man, libertarians behaved better when he was around. He was a standard bearer that sparked positivity and creativity among libertarians. They created videos and blog posts and went to rallies to support liberty. Now, many (most?) libertarians have just resorted to the same dirty, simplistic “drive by memeing” political discussions that we used to be the target of.

I am sure there is not a libertarian out there who has not heard some version of “oh, you’re a libertarian? You must want businesses to poison their customers” or “oh, you’re an anarchist? Why don’t you move to Somalia?”

These “arguments” are frustrating and grounded in either ignorance or intellectual dishonesty. They are simplistic and act as a way to deflect normal political discourse. They forced libertarians to try and explain libertarian policies on the extreme. Instead of talking about why eliminating licensing for hair dressers or lowering taxes would benefit people we were forced to explain Peter Leeson’s research that Somalia is better off stateless or how the market would punish businesses who harm their customers. These rebuttals are accurate, but they are so far from where we are as a society that the conversation is fruitless.

Now, libertarians seem to be doing the exact same thing, particularly when it comes to Sanders. They share memes that say things like “Share with a Sanders supporter. Socialism leads to Venezuela”. It might feel good to stick it to the socialists but all it really does is signal that you hate socialism and burns bridges with future allies. Instead of explaining why Sanders ideas couldn’t really work or why another candidate is better, these memes just deflect. They ignore the political realities of the world. The US is nothing like Venezuela for a ton of reasons and many countries have policies more socialist than the US and they are thriving. The US also has a strong opposition party in charge of the House of Representatives that would prevent a lot of economic harm. Sanders also isn’t calling for the nationalization of oil or arresting profit seekers.

These memes feel good but they are deflection. They don’t attack anything of substance though, they are just attacking the word “socialism”, which is the same trap some other intellectuals fall into when they attack “capitalism”. They are attacking a word without defining it and not attacking any of the realistic results of the policies introduced. Rarely, if ever, do I see someone who posts an anti-Sanders meme explain which other realistic candidate I should support instead or why I should support a third party candidate instead. It is all anger and deflection. It is a way to see the “enemy” as dumb, ignorant, or evil instead of admitting that humans are complicated and our support of a candidate might be well thought-out and mature (even if it is different than yours).

By making people support Sanders (or, for that matter Trump) into one-dimensional beings, libertarians do themselves a disservice. It prevents real discussions of pragmatic policy and destroys any chances for alliances. Personally, I think libertarians have more in common with our friends on the left than the right. Instead of attacking Sanders we should be supporting him as the least likely to kill people overseas, least likely to throw people in cages for drug use, and least likely to try and roll back the more equal treatment under the law that the LGBT community faces. Or, if you are going to attack Sanders, explain why the other viable candidates (Clinton, Trump, Cruz, or Rubio) are the better choice. Providing solutions and engaging in rational debate is better than attacking and burning bridges.

GOP Debate

I’ve made a pretty solid effort to minimize how much attention I pay to politics this year, for a variety of reasons. Presidential politics, much like professional sports, has the ability to control your emotions but you have no real control over the outcome. It is just a mathematical reality that your vote for President means basically nothing. There might be a weak argument that putting in work during the primaries can pay off, but this cycle that doesn’t seem to be the case. But, a group of us got together with a bunch of booze and a drinking game sheet so we decided to watch the shitshow.

To be honest, that debate terrified me. The whole stage (sans Rand) was filled with people who are willing to murder innocent civilians and implement draconian policies to restrict our rights. It was an interesting situation where in an attempt to be strong they preached paranoia and cowardice. It is a cowards move to take away freedom because you are scared.

Besides, much of what they said would be impossible to implement and likely unconstitutional. But the GOP candidates don’t really care about that. They see themselves as a benevolent paternalistic dictator who could keep us safe if only we would obey their orders and let them chain us inside our homes. Over and over again they said keeping Americans safe is their first duty… as if that type of control over a population is possible or even desirable.

In order to guarantee 100% safety from “terrorism” (whatever that even means at this point) they would have to put in place a North Korean level police state. Borders would need to be closed, communication monitored and restricted, economic bans on certain items put in place… it would require complete control over the lives of every person in the country. The reality is, you can’t guarantee safety. There are always going to be incidents and uncertainty in the world. It is ironic that conservatives will point to the rapid decline in violence in the country when the gun debate rolls around, but then they will turn to the state to protect them from terrorism as if that is some sort of imminent danger in our day-to-day lives.

It is this kind of crazy shit that makes me want to leave the United States. There are other countries that are more free, have lower taxes, and safer from internal fascism. Many of the candidates kept saying that America is the greatest nation (or that we need to return to some magical time when America was great), but that simply isn’t true. There is no objective measure in which America is the greatest, or probably even in the top 15 at this point. You can’t say we are “free” when we have the largest prison population in the world. You can’t say we are “strong” when we are terrified of every shadow on the wall, will sacrifice our freedom for security, and act like a insecure schoolyard bully.

The world is safer now than it has ever been. Yes, there is an incredibly small chance that a terrorist act could happen, but that chance is so small that it should have no effect on how we live our lives. And we certainly shouldn’t sacrifice our principles, rights, and basic humanity in order to minimize it. I don’t know how anyone on that stage can call themselves Christian and support the policies they talked about. No true follower of Christ would support killing innocent people, engaging in racial profiling, or locking the hungry out of the country. There is just now way around it, if you are supporting any of these GOP candidates and call yourself a Christian then you have sold out your faith in exchange for politics.

The film “Circle”

**SPOILER ALERT – I am going to discuss the film “Circle”. I don’t plan on discussing major plot points but there might be some spoilers in it. If you hate spoilers then maybe don’t read this, you should watch the movie on Netflix though. If you are like me and actually find spoilers to make the viewing experience even better than feel free to read on (I’m not alone), or if you don’t plan on seeing the film but are curious what the premise said about society keep reading. Really, do whatever the hell you want, I just wanted to give a warning so that people don’t screech at me.

Two nights ago my partner and I watched the movie “Circle” on Netflix. I really enjoyed the film and I highly recommend it, particularly if you enjoyed “Last Man on Earth”. The two have a similar method of getting you to think and analyze the way we live our lives. Anyway, the whole story takes place in a single room. In this room there are about 50 people who have no idea how they got into the room. I thought at first this was going to be some sort of Saw rip-off. That is kind of why I picked the film, I love the Saw movies and the underlying philosophical questions they can raise, but this was a bit different.

In the center of the room is a machine that kills a person if they try to move away from the platform they woke up on or touch someone else. Every few minutes a countdown begins and at the end of the countdown the machine kills a seemingly random person. It turns out that each person has an implant in their hand and can anonymously vote for who will be killed next, the person with the most votes get killed at the end of the countdown.

Basically, all the people in the room must choose to vote for the death of other people in order to survive and as the participants start talking to each other we start to see some insight into how people value other humans. The participants are all a bit stereotypical, which generally wouldn’t make a great film but it works in this situation. You aren’t supposed to really feel attached to complex characters, it is more of a reflection of how we operate in the real world. We always group people together based on preconceived notions and stereotypes. This is a battle between which archetypes our society values the most.

Some of the group members include a Gordon Gecko style Republican businessman, a lesbian woman who is married and has a daughter, a pregnant woman, a Marine in uniform, a Latino male who can’t speak English, an elderly African-American man, an overweight white police officers, a pastor, a 16-year old frumpy nerdy guy, a young Asian male, and a 10-year old girl. Some of the racial and economic stereotypes seem over the top at first (and they would definitely be over the top in a standard film) but it works in this case. I think those stereotypes are necessary in this case, and in some ways are the point of the film.

So, as the characters get a grasp on the situation they are in they start trying to decide who to vote for to buy time. The plan is to kill of people who “deserve it” the most and hopefully they can escape. Do you kill off older people first because they have lived the longest? How about criminals or people who are “bad”? Do parent’s count more than people without kids? Does a 10-year old count more than a pregnant woman? Does the pregnant woman count as less because she is unmarried? Do certain people have an obligation to sacrifice themselves for others because of their gender or job? Does someone who is living a “sinful” life like the lesbian woman count as less? Is a banker worth more than someone who works at a non-profit? Should Americans count as more than non-Americans? How would you vote if your life was on the line? Or would you vote at all? How would you make that decision when others are pressuring? How does the pack affect individuals?

While the situation is sensational I don’t think the ethical questions it raises are that far-fetched. When we support a specific policy, whether it be war, immigration restrictions, or welfare expansion, we are making a statement on the value of one person’s life over another based on very little information about that individual. When we make economic decisions based on whether a product was made in America we are prioritizing the prosperity and life of one group of people over another.

These decisions are inevitable, and in some ways every decision we make in life has at least a small effect on someone else. I don’t think many people give much thought to this, though as an economist I have thought about some sides of this (which is why I support free markets). Humans are not islands and our decisions effect real people who have families and passions and dreams, and too often I think we make decisions with only the stereotypes in mind. We prioritize those like us, we see them as having more value because of some “us vs them” tribalism… they have the same race as me, the same nationality, the same religion, the same politics, the same lifestyle, etc. We dehumanize people just a little bit if they are different than us. It isn’t conscious for most people, but it happens all the time. We go on auto-pilot without analyzing our choices or views, particularly when politics are involved. Maybe, just maybe we should give more thought to our actions and recognize the humanity in us all.

The worst, of course, is when we participate in politics. Each person, usually based on Republican or Democratic, sees the other side as the enemy; stupid and/or evil. We forget that each side is filled with people who are doing their best in this world and haven’t had the same experiences that we have. They haven’t read the same books, had the same types of mentors, seen the same things, but that doesn’t make them the enemy. We are all a team on this planet and maybe if we remembered the humanity instead of reducing each other to stereotypes we would get out of this all alive.

Sonder n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.