My regrets for the length of this piece, first published at DamnYankee.com, but so much is at stake and much needs be said. I originally wrote this as a letter to The Weekly Standard after reading its 2006 article, “Banned in Boston – The coming conflict between same-sex marriage and religious liberty” by Maggie Gallagher, 05/15/2006, Volume 011, Issue 33. The magazine did not publish or acknowledge my letter. And so, I offer it here.
In Maggie Gallagher’s engaging and informative articleabout Catholic Charities of Boston in the wake of Goodridge (a decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Court), neither she nor any of the legal beagles she interviewed so much as mentioned the simplest solution of all. Churches can simply restrict themselves to performing the sacrament of marriage and forgo acting as agents of the State (with a capital ‘S’ to use Nock’s catch-all term) in certifying a couple’s intentions. Then, those churches interested in marrying same-sex couples but located in states that only recognize male-female marriages can confer the sacrament of marriage on any couple the church alone approves, and likewise for churches that recognize only male-female marriages in states where same-sex civil unions are sanctioned. Never mind that people, such as myself, who are not interested in the government’s sanction of anything we do, can even exchange conventional male-female vows in a non-controversial church ceremony and save the fee downtown.
If a church turns in its permit to certify the civil status of a union, couples married in the church but seeking government sanction as well can then go downtown, right after the wedding or years later, pay the fees, repeat their intentions before a state official if need be, and submit to the State’s blessing at their convenience.
People do the opposite all the time: They save a trip to the church alter and get their civil union, commonly called a marriage, certified at the town office after a religion-free ceremony at a banquet hall. Some even show up at a church years later and ask for a church ceremony, to make it right in the eyes of God. (And some never bother with either ceremony, opting for what we used to call a common-law marriage.) This is tolerated more in today’s American culture than ever before; we are collectively unperturbed by any arrangement of co-habitation.)
In this country, perhaps more than in others, we have adapted to a concept that a marriage is one thing and one thing only, that it is the exclusive privilege of the State to sanction, and that, as an option, a church can be called upon to bless it. This is incontrovertibly backwards. The experts Maggie Gallagher interviewed do not seem able to shake this misconception, and thus they predict endless debate and litigation. I wish they had re-examined the common American concept of marriage, which has been confused with the wedding ceremony and all its trappings. Marriage is the union of two people – perhaps even three or more if the state becomes whimsical about it; a wedding is the ceremony that results in a marriage along with the festivity that typically follows immediately afterward.
As for Catholic Charities and the mess they’re in in Boston, it only proves that no good deed goes unpunished. In this country, a church that wants the State to stay out of its affairs will stay out of the government’s affairs. A church that engages in commerce, as Marc Stern pointed out to Gallagher, invites the State’s scrutiny and interference. So too for a church that provides community services cooperatively or under contract with a government agency.
Why, then, does any church assume the civil authority to certify a marriage on the State’s behalf? It may well be rooted in the Middle Ages I suppose, but a joint statement of intentions made in a civil hearing and an exchange of vows in a sacramental ceremony are two distinct things with two separate purposes. In spite of what legislatures or courts may declare about the civil certification of a union, if churches in the United States would just stick to the sacrament and stay out of the civil certification process, they could always be entirely free to perform the sacrament of marriage according to their own rules and with couples they select and approve, without asking the government’s permission to do so! My wife and I, for instance, submitted to our church’s questioning and the related scrutiny of our suitability to become wed. Unless the State presumes to take over that responsibility and force all churches to follow one doctrine on any subject of the State’s choosing, a church still has the final say-so.
People who desire a religious blessing are free to marry in a church and may decline to register the marriage with the civil authorities. And any couple of any description is free to decline God’s blessing and find a civil authority willing to register their pledge (and willing, later, to accept their revocation of it). It is when the church functions as an agent of the State and combines the civil arrangement with the religious sacrament that the State has an interest in who is denied the State’s arrangement by being denied the sacrament.
A church may choose not to acknowledge a marriage certified outside its rules, and the State may choose not to recognize the marriage of a couple who have not paid the registration fee and obtained, of all things, a “license.” (Is that still required?)
A marriage not recognized by the State is no less a marriage in the eyes of God. Americans seem more concerned with the definition of marriage according to the IRS than the definition according to sacrament. But, in spite of what the Internal Revenue Code may say about it, and I’m not going to waste time searching the Code, even the IRS makes no demand of proof that a couple filing a joint tax return produce a civil license to call themselves married. In the several decades that my wife and I have been married we have never been called upon to show it and we don’t even have a copy of any such license.
I submit that Catholic Charities of Boston, if unable to reconcile the two definitions of marriage, must remain true to its own traditional definition. The church’s standards remain constant, or one can hope that they do, while the State is free to write a law declaring the union of peanut butter and jelly a marriage (requiring a permit), if it wants to. Not realistic? What about the union of three people, then? Is that so far-fetched? And how would a church handle a legislative or court definition like that? If some rich socialite can will her estate to her terrier, what’s to prevent the State from taking the next logical step and permitting her to marry the dog first?
If Massachusetts loses the services of the Catholic adoption agencies because the State has a better definition of marriage, and thereby a better definition of family, then let the State do a better job of handling adoption. That is, let the people of Massachusetts, who presumably are unperturbed by their elected representatives’ fiat in allowing the court to correct the church’s stodgy and now-erroneous definition, fork over the revenue that the State will need to go it alone in adoption services. The people of Massachusetts have said, through their representatives, that they don’t need the church’s help. Let them live with that decision.
It is plain that Massachusetts has, until now, consigned a number of children to Catholic Charities to be placed according to the church’s standards, or according to some standards jointly agreed upon. (And once placed, the children live under the parents’ standards.) The State now chooses no longer to consign children to that agency, (chooses in the sense that the agency felt compelled to close), because the agency’s standards, which are not changing with the whim of popular culture, were set centuries before there was a fickle legislature in Massachusetts with the voters’ assent to write ever-changing law.
Perhaps the next step will be for the State (of Massachusetts in this case) to follow up by visiting the homes where children have been adopted and ensuring that the adopting parents have the proper non-discrimination notices posted, thus assuring that the children rescued from Catholic Charities are subsequently protected from Catholic or Sunni or Hindu influence at home.
This is not a tirade against the exchange of devotional vows by homosexual couples, nor against adoption by homosexual singles or couples. (The latter — deciding who is suitable to adopt a child, is always the State’s sole responsibility.) This is merely a defense of the church’s right to remain unaffected by the State in the practice and promotion of its beliefs, and likewise an insistence that the State practice its shenanigans without regard for the sensitivities of any church. In either regard, that is as it should be.
Do I believe that homosexuals should not be parents? No, I do not believe that. Do I believe that homosexuals should endure State-sanctioned persecution? No, nor any persecution. Do I believe that the State, by prohibiting discrimination, will put an end to persecution? No. And that is where the State’s “solution” becomes insidious, for it is the State’s apparent belief that, by prohibiting discrimination and assiduously enforcing the prohibition, unlawful discrimination will evaporate. In its zeal, the State will neglect certain of its children, perhaps its most vulnerable citizens. It’s a legislative victory on behalf of those who feel stigmatized by society for their sexual orientation. It’s a tragedy, perhaps, for someone more vulnerable.
I do believe it is the duty of those whose activism brings about anti-discrimination legislation to concede that the law will not instantly change people’s perceptions or end discrimination overnight; to concede also that, while unlawful discrimination is not OK, there just may be a population more vulnerable than those whose grievance is redressed by a single act of a sacrosanct State, in this case, the decision of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts.
A vocal cadre of indignant activists, whatever cause they advocate, and a complicit legislature or crusading court, should always consider these realities. That’s not to say that they should jointly search out all possible affected parties and concoct grievances for them too, but only that they should jointly acknowledge, and let the law make allowance for, the fact that, as a society, we are somewhat like a small crowd jammed into an elevator. I shouldn’t be expected to accept having the point of your umbrella jammed into my foot, but I should accept being jostled a little. You should accept my unintentionally offensive odor, but I should take care to bathe daily so that there is at least a limit to how smelly I can be from day to day. And when the door opens and opportunity presents, we should put space, but not hatred, between ourselves.
What’s missing here is tolerance, or, as Maggie Gallagher quoted Marc Stern, “‘Live and let live’ is the only thing around the world that works.” Isn’t it fair to say that those protected by the anti-discrimination law, (the entire body of those protected, as distinct from their most vocal advocates), are chiefly seeking tolerance for what sets them apart? Isn’t it also fair to say that those thus protected owe their fellow citizens tolerance for their various beliefs and standards as well, however distasteful? That was briefly the objective in America, when the law set out to prohibit harmful acts and promote responsible action — before law became the monster it now is, dedicated to the eradication of any notice of obvious differences, the police state of political correctness. It should shame the Massachusetts legislature, and indeed, the people of Massachusetts who permit that body to represent them, that the chief beneficiaries of this new mess will be the lawyers, who will likewise miss the point of tolerance, to the considerable expense of the people whose taxes support them.
A church’s only role in American society, in order to assure First Amendment protection, is to preach its doctrine and exhort its listeners to faith and right action. Marc Stern agrees when he says, “Beyond speech, nothing is safe. People exhorted may then individually put their faith into practice without too much threat of State interference. But churches have become big business in America, some, no doubt, with more paid accountants than clergy. Concerted action, in contrast with individual action, makes a church appear very effective in its doctrine and charity, but it also calls the church to submit, account, and justify. I do not disapprove the State’s legitimate scrutiny of many churches’ big-business affairs, since the Constitution calls upon the federal government to regulate interstate commerce.
For churches worried about whimsical, peanut-butter-and-jelly definitions of marriage, why fret whether federal or state legislators will one day grant religion-based exemptions? This was a development that Robin Wilson speculated on in Gallagher’s article. Why not simply turn in your permits to confer civil status to a marriage and restrict yourselves to conducting religious ceremonies only? And offer newlyweds an instruction brochure explaining, for whatever town or municipality they’re in, how to register for a State license to be wed as well, either before or after the church blessing. For those few couples who still wait for their wedding night, they’ll have to choose whether the celebration of the sacrament constitutes the wedding or the hearing on their civil petition. That decision may depend more on whether they’re interested in the IRS benefits, probate, and insurance beneficiary status or in the blessing of God.
Even if the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, or in Massachusetts, gives up certifying the civil status of marriages, the result of Goodridge for Catholic Charities of Boston remains the same. Massachusetts voters have put them out of the adoption placement business. I’m glad I’m not a child-pawn in that state’s politics.
The net profit of my first few years of life appears to have been a fairly explicit understanding of the fact that ignorance exists… This understanding came about so easily and naturally that for many years I took it as a commonplace, assuming that everyone had it. My subsequent contacts with the world at large, however, showed me that everyone does not have it, indeed that those who have it are extremely few. They seemed particularly and pitifully few when one contemplated the colossal pretensions which, in its modesty, the human race puts forth about itself… a society by and large “too ignorant to know that there is such a thing as ignorance”!
…As time went on, I became convinced that Calvin’s idea of invincible ignorance had a validity… But why should ignorance have persisted as a fixed quantity throughout human history, as apparently it has done; and why should the direct effort at enlightening ignorance remain as inveterately impracticable and inadvisable today as it was in the days of Socrates, Jesus, Confucius, Im-hotep, or it must have been found to be by the wiseacres of the Neolitic period, if any such there were? Albert Jay Nock
The Darwin awards come to mind, but that’s only one type of stupid. Compare Nock’s observation above with…
THE BASIC LAWS OF HUMAN STUPIDITY by Carlo M. Cipolla, with illustrations by James Donnelly
The First Basic Law of Human Stupidity asserts without ambiguity that:
Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
At first, the statement sounds trivial, vague, and horribly ungenerous. Closer scrutiny will however reveal its realistic veracity. No matter how high are one’s estimates of human stupidity, one is repeatedly and recurrently startled by the fact that:
a) people whom one had once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid, and b) day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one’s activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments.
The First Basic Law prevents me from attributing a specific numerical value to the fraction of stupid people within the total population: Any numerical estimate would turn out to be an underestimate. Thus in the following pages I will denote the fraction of stupid people within a population by the symbol σ. [sigma]
The Second Basic Law
Cultural trends now fashionable in the West favour an egalitarian approach to life. People like to think of human beings as the output of a perfectly engineered mass production machine. Geneticists and sociologists especially go out of their way to prove, with an impressive apparatus of scientific data and formulations, that all men are naturally equal and if some are more equal than others, this is attributable to nurture and not to nature. I take an exception to this general view. It is my firm conviction, supported by years of observation and experimentation, that men are not equal, that some are stupid and others are not, and that the difference is determined by nature and not by cultural forces or factors. One is stupid in the same way one is red-haired; one belongs to the stupid set as one belongs to a blood group. A stupid man is born a stupid man by an act of Providence. Although convinced that fraction of human beings are stupid and that they are so because of genetic traits, I am not a reactionary trying to reintroduce surreptitiously class or race discrimination. I firmly believe that stupidity is an indiscriminate privilege of all human groups and is uniformly distributed according to a constant proportion. This fact is scientifically expressed by the Second Basic Law which states that:
The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
In this regard, Nature seems indeed to have outdone herself. It is well known that Nature manages, rather mysteriously, to keep constant the relative frequency of certain natural phenomena. For instance, whether men proliferate at the Northern Pole or at the Equator, whether the matching couples are developed or underdeveloped, whether they are black, red, white, or yellow, the female to male ratio among the newly born is a constant, with a very slight prevalence of males. We do not know how Nature achieves this remarkable result but we know that in order to achieve it Nature must operate with large numbers. The most remarkable fact about the frequency of stupidity is that Nature succeeds in making this frequency equal to the probability quite independently from the size of the group.
Thus one finds the same percentage of stupid people whether one is considering very large groups or one is dealing with very small ones. No other set of observable phenomena offers such striking proof of the powers of Nature.
The evidence that education has nothing to do with the probability was provided by experiments carried on in a large number of universities all over the world. One may distinguish the composite population which constitutes a university in five major groups, namely the blue-collar workers, the white-collar employees, the students, the administrators, and the professors.
Whenever I analyzed the blue-collar workers I found that the fraction σ of them were stupid. As σ’s value was higher than I expected (First Law), paying my tribute to fashion I thought at first that segregation, poverty, or lack of education were to be blamed. But moving up the social ladder I found that the same ratio was prevalent among the white-collar employees and among the students. More impressive still were the results among the professors. Whether I considered a large university or a small college, a famous institution, or an obscure one, I found that the same fraction σ of the professors are stupid. So bewildered was I by the results, that I made a special point to extend my research to a specially selected group, to a real elite, the Nobel laureates. The result confirmed Nature’s supreme powers: σ fraction of the Nobel laureates are stupid.
This idea was hard to accept and digest but too many experimental results proved its fundamental veracity. The Second Basic Law is an iron law, and it does not admit exceptions. The Women’s Liberation Movement will support the Second Basic Law as it shows that stupid individuals are proportionately as numerous among men as among women. The underdeveloped of the Third World will probably take solace at the Second Basic Law as they can find in it the proof that after all the developed are not so developed. Whether the Second Basic Law is liked or not, however, its implications are frightening: the Law implies that whether you move in distinguished circles or you take refuge among the head-hunters of Polynesia, whether you lock yourself into a monastery or decide to spend the rest of your life in the company of beautiful and lascivious women, you always have to face the same percentage of stupid people – which percentage (in accordance with the First Law) will always surpass your expectations.
The Third (and Golden) Basic Law
The Third Basic Law assumes, although it does not state it explicitly, that human beings fall into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit, and the stupid. It will be easily recognized by the perspicacious reader that these four categories correspond to the four areas I, H, S, B, of the basic graph (see below).
If Tom takes an action and suffers a loss while producing a gain to Dick, Tom’s mark will fall in field H: Tom acted helplessly. If Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain while yielding a gain also to Dick, Tom’s mark will fall in area I: Tom acted intelligently. If Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain causing Dick a loss, Tom’s mark will fall in area B: Tom acted as a bandit. Stupidity is related to area S and to all positions on axis Y below point O. As the Third Basic Law explicitly clarifies:
A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
When confronted for the first time with the Third Basic Law, rational people instinctively react with feelings of skepticism and incredulity. The fact is that reasonable people have difficulty in conceiving and understanding unreasonable behaviour. But let us abandon the lofty plane of theory and let us look pragmatically at our daily life. We all recollect occasions in which a fellow took an action which resulted in his gain and our loss: We had to deal with a bandit. We also recollect cases in which a fellow took an action which resulted in his loss and our gain: We had to deal with a helpless person. We can recollect cases in which a fellow took an action by which both parties gained: He was intelligent. Such cases do indeed occur. But upon thoughtful reflection you must admit that these are not the events which punctuate most frequently our daily life. Our daily life is mostly made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness, and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties, or harm. Nobody knows, understands, or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation – or better there is only one explanation: The person in question is stupid.
Most people do not act consistently. Under certain circumstances a given person acts intelligently and under different circumstances the same person will act helplessly. The only important exception to the rule is represented by the stupid people who normally show a strong proclivity toward perfect consistency in all fields of human endeavours.
From all that proceeds, it does not follow that we can chart on the basic graph only stupid individuals. We can calculate for each person his weighted average position in the plane of Figure 1 quite independently from his degree of inconsistency. A helpless person may occasionally behave intelligently and on occasion he may perform a bandit’s action. But since the person in question is fundamentally helpless most of his action will have the characteristics of helplessness. Thus the overall weighted average position of all the actions of such a person will place him in the H quadrant of the basic graph.
The fact that it is possible to place on the graph individuals instead of their actions allows some digression about the frequency of the bandit and stupid types.
The perfect bandit is one who, with his actions, causes to other individuals losses equal to his gains. The crudest type of banditry is theft. A person who robs you of 100 pounds [£] without causing you an extra loss or harm is a perfect bandit: You lose 100 pounds, he gains 100 pounds. In the basic graph the perfect bandits would appear on a 45-degree diagonal line that divides the area B into two perfectly symmetrical sub-areas (line OM of Figure 2).
However the “perfect” bandits are relatively few. The line OM divides the area B into two sub-areas, B1, and B2, and by far the largest majority of the bandits falls somewhere in one of these two sub-areas.
The bandits who fall in area B1 are those individuals whose actions yield to them profits which are larger than the losses they cause to other people. All bandits who are entitled to a position in area B1 are bandits with overtones of intelligence and as they get closer to the right side of the X axis they share more and more the characteristics of the intelligent person.
Unfortunately the individuals entitled to a position in the B1 area are not very numerous. Most bandits actually fall in area B2. The individuals who fall in this area are those whose actions yield to them gains inferior to the losses inflicted to other people. If someone kills you in order to rob you of fifty pounds [£] or if he murders you in order to spend a weekend with your wife at Monte Carlo, we can be sure that he is not a perfect bandit. Even by using his values to measure his gains (but still using your values to measure your losses) he falls in the B2 area very close to the border of sheer stupidity. Generals who cause vast destruction and innumerable casualties in return for a promotion or a medal fall in the same area.
The frequency distribution of the stupid people is totally different from that of the bandit. While bandits are mostly scattered over an area stupid people are heavily concentrated along one line, specifically on the Y axis below point O. The reason for this is that by far the majority of stupid people are basically and unwaveringly stupid – in other words they perseveringly insist in causing harm and losses to other people without deriving any gain, whether positive or negative.
There are however people who by their improbable actions not only cause damages to other people but in addition hurt themselves. They are a sort of super-stupid who, in our system of accounting, will appear somewhere in the area S to the left of the Y axis.
The power of stupidity
It is not difficult to understand how social, political, and institutional power enhances the damaging potential of a stupid person. But one still has to explain and understand what essentially it is that makes a stupid person dangerous to other people – in other words what constitutes the power of stupidity.
Essentially stupid people are dangerous and damaging because reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand unreasonable behaviour. An intelligent person may understand the logic of a bandit. The bandit’s actions follow a pattern of rationality: nasty rationality, if you like, but still rationality. The bandit wants a plus on his account. Since he is not intelligent enough to devise ways of obtaining the plus as well as providing you with a plus, he will produce his plus by causing a minus to appear on your account. All this is bad, but it is rational and if you are rational you can predict it. You can foresee a bandit’s actions, his nasty manœuvres, and ugly aspirations and often can build up your defenses.
With a stupid person all this is absolutely impossible as explained by the Third Basic Law. A stupid creature will harass you for no reason, for no advantage, without any plan or scheme and at the most improbable times and places. You have no rational way of telling if and when and how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy. Because the stupid person’s actions do not conform to the rules of rationality, it follows that: a) one is generally caught by surprise by the attack; b) even when one becomes aware of the attack, one cannot organize a rational defense, because the attack itself lacks any rational structure.
The fact that the activity and movements of a stupid creature are absolutely erratic and irrational not only makes defense problematic but it also makes any counter-attack extremely difficult – like trying to shoot at an object which is capable of the most improbable and unimaginable movements. This is what both Dickens and Schiller had in mind when the former stated that “with stupidity and sound digestion man may front much” and the latter wrote that “against stupidity the very gods fight in vain.”
The Fourth Basic Law
That helpless people, namely those who in our accounting system fall into the H area, do not normally recognize how dangerous stupid people are, is not at all surprising. Their failure is just another expression of their helplessness. The truly amazing fact, however, is that also intelligent people and bandits often fail to recognize the power to damage inherent in stupidity. It is extremely difficult to explain why this should happen and one can only remark that when confronted with stupid individuals often intelligent men as well as bandits make the mistake of indulging in feelings of self-complacency and contemptuousness instead of immediately secreting adequate quantities of adrenaline and building up defenses.
One is tempted to believe that a stupid man will only do harm to himself but this is confusing stupidity with helplessness. On occasion one is tempted to associate oneself with a stupid individual in order to use him for one’s own schemes. Such a manœuvre cannot but have disastrous effects because a) it is based on a complete misunderstanding of the essential nature of stupidity and b) it gives the stupid person added scope for the exercise of his gifts. One may hope to outmanœuvre the stupid and, up to a point, one may actually do so. But because of the erratic behaviour of the stupid, one cannot foresee all the stupid’s actions and reactions and before long one will be pulverized by the unpredictable moves of the stupid partner.
This is clearly summarized in the Fourth Basic Law which states that:
Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
Through centuries and millennia, in public as in private life, countless individuals have failed to take account of the Fourth Basic Law and the failure has caused mankind incalculable losses.
The Fifth Basic Law
Instead of considering the welfare of the individual let us consider the welfare of the society, regarded in this context as the algebraic sum of the individual conditions. A full understanding of the Fifth Basic Law is essential to the analysis. It may be parenthetically added here that of the Five Basic Laws, the Fifth is certainly the best known and its corollary is quoted frequently. The Fifth Basic Law states that:
A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
The corollary of the Law is that:
A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.
The result of the action of a perfect bandit (the person who falls on line OM of Figure 2) is purely and simply a transfer of wealth and/or welfare. After the action of a perfect bandit, the bandit has a plus on his account which plus is exactly equivalent to the minus he has caused to another person. The society as a whole is neither better nor worse off. If all members of a society were perfect bandits the society would remain stagnant but there would be no major disaster. The whole business would amount to massive transfers of wealth and welfare in favour of those who would take action. If all members of the society would take action in regular turns, not only the society as a whole but also individuals would find themselves in a perfectly steady state of no change.
When stupid people are at work, the story is totally different. Stupid people cause losses to other people with no counterpart of gains on their own account. Thus the society as a whole is impoverished. The system of accounting which finds expression in the basic graphs shows that while all actions of individuals falling to the right of the line POM (see Figure 3) add to the welfare of a society; although in different degrees, the actions of all individuals falling to the left of the same line POM cause a deterioration.
In other words the helpless with overtones of intelligence (area H1), the bandits with overtones of intelligence (area B1), and above all the intelligent (area I) all contribute, though in different degrees, to accrue to the welfare of a society. On the other hand the bandits with overtones of stupidity (area B2) and the helpless with overtones of stupidity (area H2) manage to add losses to those caused by stupid people thus enhancing the nefarious destructive power of the latter group.
All this suggests some reflection on the performance of societies. According to the Second Basic Law, the fraction of stupid people is a constant σ which is not affected by time, space, race, class, or any other sociocultural or historical variable. It would be a profound mistake to believe the number of stupid people in a declining society is greater than in a developing society. Both such societies are plagued by the same percentage of stupid people. The difference between the two societies is that in the society which performs poorly: a) the stupid members of the society are allowed by the other members to become more active and take more actions; b) there is a change in the composition of the non-stupid section with a relative decline of populations of areas I, H1 and B1 and a proportionate increase of populations H2 and B2.
This theoretical presumption is abundantly confirmed by an exhaustive analysis of historical cases. In fact the historical analysis allows us to reformulate the theoretical conclusions in a more factual way and with more realistic detail.
Whether one considers classical, or medieval, or modern, or contemporary times one is impressed by the fact that any country moving uphill has its unavoidable σ fraction of stupid people. However the country moving uphill also has an unusually high fraction of intelligent people who manage to keep the σ fraction at bay and at the same time produce enough gains for themselves and the other members of the community to make progress a certainty.
In a country which is moving downhill, the fraction of stupid people is still equal to σ; however in the remaining population one notices among those in power an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity (sub-area B2 of quadrant B in Figure 3) and among those not in power an equally alarming growth in the number of helpless individuals (area H in basic graph, Figure 1). Such change in the composition of the non-stupid population inevitably strengthens the destructive power of the σ fraction and makes decline a certainty. And the country goes to Hell.
There is genius at work in this thesis. It came round about by way of reader Sam Keen, who sent us a thin gray monograph printed in Bologna, Italy. The trail eventually led to Carlo M. Cipolla [1922-2000], the author, who is currently  Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley
=Kevin Kelly= Whole Earth Review, Spring 1987 p 2 – 7
Note: A different translation from Italian to English uses the term “pillagers” in place of “bandits” and “naïve” in place of “helpless.”
I’m looking at a ninety-two-year-old man right now. He is sitting across the room from me. He was born before the stock market crash of 1929, before the Great Depression. Before World War II. Calvin Coolidge was President when Dick Noyes drew his first breath. My wife of 46 years is his daughter.
In an early episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, which first aired on television in 1962, Jed Clampett comes into the kitchen — I think it was at the cabin in the Ozarks, but I could be wrong — and he tells Granny that Mr. Drysdale told him they’re going to pay him in some new kind of dollars. Grannie scoffs and says: “There ain’t no new kind of dollars.” Jed turns to Jethro and asks: “What’d he call them, Jethro?” Jethro replies: “Mill-ee-on dollars.”
What we have, compared with 1962, is a new kind of dollars, but the effect is quite the opposite of what it was for the Clampett family.
We have just passed the vernal equinox of 2021 and my father-in-law is still breathing. Herbert Hoover had not yet been inaugurated President when this old fellow was born. Automobiles were still being built with wooden wheels. Adolph Hitler had not yet been appointed Chancellor of Germany.
And I’m here looking at a person who was breathing the same air as New York’s newly-inaugurated governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Dick would be four years old before Roosevelt assumed his first of four terms as President.
GOLD IN OUR POCKETS
There are U.S. gold coins stamped with Dick’s year of birth. That’s how recently people still owned their own wealth, whether they stored it in a secret place at home or stored it in a commercial bank — effectively lending it to a bank at interest — it was their money, their wealth, their property.
If you had a few dollars back then, and a few dollars had a lot more purchasing power than today, and if a bank held any of it for you, you could accept gold certificates or silver certificates in exchange. At any time, though, you could demand — (“payable to the bearer on demand”) — the certificates’ stated value in gold coin. Or in silver — the bank was flexible.
This occurred during the lifetime of the man across the room who is still living. Breathing. In fact, in February 2021, he was skiing at Maine’s Sugarloaf Mountain. (He usually spends a couple months in winter at Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, but the pandemic this winter has curtailed his contact with other people.)
The bank that held your gold back when Dick Noyes was a child paid you interest, as I’ve said, for the privilege of using your gold while you didn’t need it. As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, until I was well into my teens, I had a passbook savings account at a local bank that paid 5¼% to 5½% interest. A bank recognized that it was still borrowing money from me.
A bank like that, back then, pooled the savings of little people like me and loaned it to borrowers at a higher interest rate, say 8%, for purposes a borrower might have such as a mortgage or automobile financing. The difference between the bank’s 8% lending rate and the 5% or so that it paid to borrow it from me was how the bank paid its expenses and still made a profit.
But I was a child then, and that was too much interest to allow banks to pay children and people like my parents, who were school teachers, in the opinion of big bankers and Congressmen, who openly coveted the money that little people were earning. If a bank was making enough profit to share that much with its lenders, including me, it should be those with power not passbooks cashing in.
It took a few years. It wasn’t until 1961 that a fixed-rate time certificate, a certificate if deposit as we now know it, was established, (although versions of the CD had been around for hundreds of years). Certificates of deposit were paying close to 20% in the late 1970s and early 1980s, earning more than passbook accounts because banks can loan only the money they have in assets. CDs entice customers to leave their money in the bank for reliably longer periods, making a baseline of assets more predictable. The interest paid is the bank’s cost for the money it lends to borrowers.
Banking is the one “industry” exempt from and expected to act contrary to anti-trust laws. Conspiring with competitors to fix rates across the industry, to assure profits for all the industry’s members, is something that every other industry would love to do — after all, who doesn’t want to run a company that can’t fail?
The people in power back in the 1960s and 1970s also realized that, if they could re-write regulations — and they did, then instead of letting banks pay you interest for lending them your money, as had been happening, banks could henceforth keep their loan profits and charge the small account-holders for the banks’ “services.” After all, they take the trouble of tabulating your money and keeping it “secure” from everyone (except the federal government’s option to seize it).
Today, we still receive a fraction of a percent in “interest” on the money we lend the banks when we keep it in savings accounts — an annual “yield” of one to two tenths of a percent, for instance. A savings account with a balance holding steady at around $20,000 throughout the year sees a dividend of about $2.50 a month — a veritable joke.
We also pay never-before-heard-of mystery fees. One hit with a fee generally exceeds the annual interest on tens of thousands of dollars in an account: account access fee, monthly service fee, hard copy statement fee, inactivity fee, account closing fee, maintenance fee, and wire transfer fee, to name a few. (Never mind the questions that this last one raises — how are wires used in transfers differently than the wires used to connect to the internet, for instance?)
The banking industry is driving us toward an all-plastic, all digital payment system. What do the banks stand to gain from this? When you pay cash, the seller gets every penny that you hand over. When you pay by card, the company that issued the card (loosely, a bank but also any of other bank-like entities) gets 1.3% to 3.4% of the transaction right off the top. The price of the item is the same either way. (More on that in this article.) Yes, but the seller pays that, you say. (See the article here called Invincible Ignorance and make sure that it doesn’t apply to you.) Yes, the seller pays that, but the price of everything in the seller’s store has been raised to include that credit/debit card fee. The price of everything in America must include all the costs that go into it, including the banks’ extortion in the exchange.
When the banks succeed in persuading Congress to impose a 100% digital payment system, so that the banks can skim a percentage from every transaction that occurs in the country, it will amount to a government mandate that we citizens purchase a service from a private company (the bank). This was already challenged under the “Affordable” [sic] Care Act. Initially that act required that an individual buy insurance or face a penalty. The Supreme Court ruled that the individual mandate was a “tax” and thus a constitutional use of Congress’s taxing power — a use which Congress had not specifically voted to do. Therefore the act was amended to read, in essence: “You must buy insurance, and if you don’t, you shall receive the punishment of a $0 penalty. That’ll teach you!”
The matter has not ended, though. At last reading, as this article from National Review explains, the case has been pushed back to a lower court and there are lawyers graduating from law school today who may be able to make a full career litigating this one matter. What’s the point of all this, you ask? Well, in part, it’s to point out that this is your government serving you as you have elected it to do. More to the point, though: It should be instructive for Congress when that body eventually decides that you must make all your purchases with a card. That will be tantamount to requiring that you buy a service from a private company, in this case a bank instead of an insurance company, and once again Congress will be using its taxing power if it requires you to buy a service from a private entity. Maybe this time, though, Congress will come up with a more slippery way to impose the tax — by declaring that banks aren’t entirely “private” entities, maybe? Stay tuned to this one; it will be sickening. With so much money at stake and with the Siamese-twin relationship between Congress and private banks, the banks will prevail, if the whole affair doesn’t result in fiscal collapse.
When I was nine and ten years old I delivered the weekend edition of the Toledo Blade on a small paper route in the western Ohio town of Gomer. It was Saturday afternoons when the papers reached me. In wintertime, with an early sunset, I would be out after dark to reach my scattered customers.
I earned a few cents a week. I recall that, at one point, I had four customers stretching from the southwest end of the village, near the turnoff for Ridge Road, to the east end of town, near Sugar Creek Local School and next to a stream called Pike Run. In a round trip I covered over a mile on foot, often in wind-whipped snow or rain. There were times when I would trudge home through what were probably minor snowdrifts, with frozen tears on my eyelids and with wet feet and frozen bare hands, which was my own fault for setting out inadequately dressed for the weather. It was during such blizzards that I learned the advantages of walking backwards into the wind — I recall it vividly.
Just after Christmas, 1960, we moved the ten miles or so to a house in Lima, where almost immediately I took on a Lima News paper route with around 80 customers. It was an afternoon daily paper with an enormous Sunday morning edition.
For the first three or four years, of the seven-year period that I ran that paper route, a subscription cost 35¢ a week. That included the Sunday edition and, of course, home delivery. I walked the route or rode my bicycle, and every Friday evening and Saturday morning I went around to collect, carrying a zippered canvas bag that slipped over my belt.
Each week I collected about $30 — customers often tipped me a little. Other customers who, I knew, were a week in arrears would sometimes argue that they were not behind in their payments, and so I’d settle for what I could get. So it averaged out. What I earned from each subscription slips me now — something around ten cents a week per customer, most likely. That’s around $400 a year.
THE WAYS IT WEIGHS
When Dick Noyes was a kid, the value ratio of gold to silver was 16:1 — a troy ounce of gold was worth 16 troy ounces of silver. With any new design of a coin the weight was sometimes changed as well, but generally the silver dollar contained at least .75 of a troy ounce of silver and a $20 gold piece at about an even one troy ounce.
A $20 bill or 20 silver dollars would buy you a $20 gold piece — 0.966 of an ounce of gold. Further back in history, the ratio of silver to gold for centuries averaged about 17:1. (Today, by the way, giving the market some freedom to set the relative value, the ratio is 69:1.)
(One ounce avoirdupois, a “regular” ounce of something by weight, equals 28.3495231 grams. Sixteen ounces equal one pound avoirdupois or just under 454 grams. A troy ounce, used for measuring precious metals, equals 31.10347677 grams, just under ten percent more than a regular ounce. A troy pound, however, equals twelve troy ounces, not sixteen, so a troy pound is just over 373 grams. The origins of the troy system and the term used to describe it are lost to history.)
EXECUTIVE ORDER 6102
Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated President, March 4, 1933. One month later, April 5, 1933, he signed Executive Order 6102 under authority of the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 as amended by the Emergency Banking Act, which Congress passed five days after President Roosevelt took office. (That, sure as hell, was set up in advance!)
Under threat of a fine up to $10,000 (in 1933 dollars) or up to ten years in prison or both, E.O. 6102 created a new law, “forbidding the hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates within the continental United States” and required that all persons must deliver all such gold and gold certificates to the Federal Reserve by May 1, 1933. Did you get that? Everyone in the country had just three and a half weeks to fork over their gold! In exchange they would receive $20.67 per troy ounce in paper money: National Currency, Federal Reserve Notes, or Silver Certificates.
A person was allowed to keep only $100 in gold coin as well as certain specified coins of numismatic significance. (You’re thinking: OK, but some weeks after turning in all but $100, one guy might casually and quietly exchange something of value with his neighbors — sell them some hogs or loads of gravel or provide some musical entertainment — and presently he would accumulate another hundred dollars in gold coin. What then? Such is the nature of trying to regulate people who can outsmart the system.)
Silver was to disappear later, when I was a teenager, but more on that in a while.
The 1933 Emergency Banking Act with its provision to confiscate gold was hustled through Congress on the premise that it would stabilize the banks by preventing the hoarding of gold. It would prevent people who owned something of intrinsic value, however little their hoarded wealth, from saving it. It would prevent people from saving their money. It would prevent people in the United States from saving what was rightfully theirs.
Did that sink in?
WHAT IS MONEY, ANYWAY?
For at least 5,000 years, money and gold were one and the same. Money and silver were one and the same, but the difference in value was due to the perceived relative scarcity of one over the other. Units of gold and silver as well as a few other precious substances could buy just about anything.
Money today is a government’s representation of a medium of exchange. Currently no government permits anything of value to fill that role. Instead, every country uses a substitute, also called “fiat” money, meaning simply that a ruler has declared that the paper certificate fills a void. Fiat money does not have intrinsic value or inherent utility. (There are better materials for stuffing a mattress.)
A fiat is informally defined as a gap, a void, a crack. It is also a declaration by a ruler — a dictator, a king or queen, a president. Fiat money, by decree, creates a void by removing what works and replacing it with a substitute. Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino gives us the letters for the FIAT automobile — no relation to the declaration that confiscates the good and fills the space with the bad.
In the worst case, fiat money is not backed by a commodity with value, such as gold. That, in fact, is where most of the world stands today. Debt and unfunded promises far exceed any government’s resources in precious metals or other solid commodities to back its currency — and let us not forget that what a government actually does hold in precious metals has been confiscated from the people who, in a free world, would own the substance that serves as their medium of exchange. A government guarantees the constant value and stability of its money but mainly on the strength of that government’s assurances and reputation. The word, fiat, suggests something filling the gap by decree: “It is what I say it is because I am your ruler and I say so.”
WHAT IS A MEDIUM OF EXCHANGE, THEN?
A medium — a commodity, a substance, a quantity of items that serve as a symbol of agreed-upon value — is useful in conducting commerce or trade (exchange) between individuals or groups. Without it, a farmer would need to push a wheelbarrow full of wheat to town to buy a knife from the blacksmith, provided the blacksmith was in need of the wheat. A blacksmith would need to carry some iron implements around that he hoped he could exchange for shoes to fit his children or to obtain coal for his forge. A shoemaker would need to carry an assortment of boots everywhere to trade for furniture. A furniture-maker… well, let that be enough. If each one can carry a quantity of something else, something small — units representing value that also have intrinsic value, then their exchange of goods can be expedited.
When and how, in our pre-history, humans began using something besides their own handiwork as a medium of exchange, we can only guess. It was an early development in every culture.
WHAT IS INTRINSIC VALUE?
Most of what we look at and handle daily is common and ubiquitous — the air we inhale with gusto if we’re fortunate or choke on if we’re not, the water that pelts us from the clouds, the dirt or pavement beneath us, the perishable but renewable things we eat or wear. Anyone can readily obtain these things in some form or another with notable exceptions where water is scarce or where political lunacy has caused famines.
Possessing a quantity of air or water or a patch of plain dirt is not at all remarkable.
Apart from these are the more esoteric “things” we can possess such as knowledge, lineage, a sense of wonder, and let’s not overlook faith, hope, and love. Anyone can possess these in any measure. We can imbue a remark with knowledge or love, imparting information or hope, but even though these esoteric things have value, they cannot be instantly handed over to another person in exchange for goods or services, especially not in constant and visible measure. (I’ve had the pleasure of attending a church, however, which was grateful for donations of “time, talent, and treasure.” At least more than treasure was appreciated.)
Between these possessions lies a class of mostly material things any one of which people universally desire just for itself, for its own sake, for some utility that it has on its own. In some circumstances, knowledge of something important has intrinsic value, but this is not common and universal and timeless. In some circumstances, clean water (not to mention clean air) has intrinsic value, but it is a substance of fleeting presence, not easily carried about, and who can own it?
Among Earth’s less common resources are a few precious and semi-precious metals and stones. Nothing else has ever quite matched them for desirability. The ones that have remained most reliably coveted are both scarce and have at least some limited practical usefulness as well. Soft but durable gold, for instance, has long been shaped into goblets, pounded into foil for gilding, arranged artfully into jewelry, and in more recent times incorporated into electronic components due to its superior conductivity and corrosion resistance.
Among non-metals, diamonds are comparably desirable in both ways, for ornamental uses and for some limited practical applications. This is not to dismiss the value of quite a few other gemstones and several other scarce metals.
The origins of the use of materials with their own intrinsic value, such as these, as a medium of exchange, is lost to history. Humans, stolen from their homelands or captured in wars and subsequently pressed into slavery, have been treated as possessions with intrinsic value as well, although a human is not durable in the timeless sense of precious metals.
WHOSE MONEY IS IT?
To be more precise, whose property is it?
Money with intrinsic value is property. Fiat money represents property but lacks one key attribute: value. Wealth is a measure of property — a cumulative concept encompassing varied things of value. And since, in the United States, a government can hold property in trust for its citizens but cannot own property, the question of who owns the money is clear: Not your government.
When money was made of something that had intrinsic value it had eight key properties: 1. It was universally valuable in that everyone wanted it — never mind why they might want it — whether for its attractiveness or magical properties or special usefulness in ways other than as money, 2. it served as a medium of exchange that practically everyone could agree upon — people would never believe any ruler’s decree that gold was worth less than desert sand for instance, 3. it was sufficiently scarce to have steady value and its value didn’t change with whimsical disruptions such as the weather or a change of governing monarchs, 4. it was easy to transport discreetly (although vulnerable to thieves), 5. it was virtually indestructible where other precious commodities such as dried meat would rot and crystals or dried bread would turn to dust if transported roughly, 6. it was a convenient way to store your wealth where you could reach it when needed, 7. it actually belonged to the person who held it — no other individual and no group even backed by military force could claim any right to own it, and 8. it was private — it was no one else’s business how much you had nor could others, even backed by military force, discover how much you had unless they could threaten or trick you into revealing its amount or its whereabouts.
For at least 5,000 years and perhaps two or three times that long, gold has possessed all of these properties. Silver has as well, but it is more easily obtained and thus not as “precious.”
The federal government of the U.S., from its founding, has had the responsibility to coin money, not because the government owns the money, but because the federal government could achieve three things that could not be done reliably by amateurs: It could assure the consistency of the alloys used in coins, it could assure the content by weight of each coin, and it could produce the intricacy of design that could not readily be duplicated by amateurs.
The federal government did not mess around much with paper currency until the early part of the Civil War. Until then, citizens could accept any form of a promise-to-pay, of course, whether written by a friend on a scrap of paper or printed by special printing presses for a bank, with fancy script and engraving. Some cities and states dabbled in issuing their own currency as well. And so bank notes, cheques, and other scrip was around.
And it is entirely legal, if closely monitored, for entities other than the federal government to issue money of some sort, from mass-transit tokens to store coupons to IOUs.
Wealth, however, belongs to individuals, or to groups of individuals in portions they regulate among themselves. An example of the latter are stocks in private corporations. Before the computer age, certificates of stock ownership were works of art. (Some examples are provided at this site.) Like a gold certificate, a stock certificate represented a portion or measure of the property behind it, (a designated number of “shares”).
In 1933, in an act of singular and sudden impact on history, Franklin Roosevelt and the Congress of the United States swooped in and strangled the arteries of commerce until the lifeblood of private exchange flowed to a trickle, and that was only the trickle of privilege that will always exist for special people.
The lifeblood was the medium of exchange itself, the gold. When the United States suddenly confiscated what its rulers hoped would be almost all the nation’s gold, what did other countries do within their own borders? Since gold no longer flowed in the USA, it certainly would not be flowing from the USA either in the pockets of travelers or the strongboxes of traveling businessmen. What gold might be transferred from government to government would henceforth be neither known to nor under the control of any country’s citizens. And so, everywhere else, similar decrees became necessary, whether the people of any other country wanted to continue using gold as money or not.
Before the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 about 7,000 independently-owned banks were scattered around the country. Once the first Federal Reserve bank opened in 1914, a system began to take shape, ostensibly to create a network of central banks under a board of directors who would have sufficient power, benevolent only of course, to prevent the collapse of small banks in any kind of a crisis.
To get it started, the country was divided into eight to twelve regions, each having its own Federal Reserve city, i.e., San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, New York, and so on.
By 1927, the Federal Reserve bank of New York alone held 10% of the world’s entire store of monetary gold. Even before the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, many who were opposed to it were suspicious of granting that kind of authority to a “money trust” of super-rich and powerful men — at the time represented by just three names believed to be controlling Wall Street, (J.P. Morgan, George F. Baker, and James Stillman).
Perhaps mistrust of such giants of finance was warranted, and changes in the final wording of the act may have been somewhat successful in thwarting their manipulations of affairs to their own benefit and their misuse of their own great financial influence. But perhaps, also, the law put too much faith in the honesty of the sort of people who would be chosen to govern the Federal Reserve, who already had the necessary experience to be appointed to such positions of trust. Ideally, a government entity needs to be managed not only by individuals who are cheerleaders for the bureau but also by some who are suspicious of the need for the agency’s existence in the first place. Such an ideal has not guided the selection of the Federal Reserve’s directors.
Better ways to prevent bank collapses may have been proposed following the financial crisis back in 1907 and again at the start of the Great Depression, ways to begin insuring the deposits of little people in little banks around the country, but no proposal stood a chance of objective consideration unless it assured that certain powerful people retained control and assured that banks and their owners would become wealthier in the end.
We will never know whether there is a better way, for, in October, 1929, the stock market collapsed, and Dick Noyes was just ten months old.
It’s all ancient history? Did I mention that my father-in-law, born in 1929, is still with us?
WE HAVE BARELY ENTERED A NEW ERA
With the seizure of gold in 1933 and with the expedient of electronic data processing less than a century later, money has now become imaginary. Wealth, however you might define it, exists at the suffrage of those running the federal banking system. Banks are no more protected from collapse than they were before 1913; the only protected wealth is that held by those who control everyone else’s.
Banks now have NO ASSETS. There is nothing of intrinsic value stacked in their vaults. If a bank even has a vault, it contains only bundles of fiat money — paper. Soon, even this will be eliminated. A bank today is only an arm of the federal government, a contractor of sorts, charged with assisting the government in keeping tabs on everyone’s shares in the country’s foggy nothingness called money. A bank’s assets these days are not stacks of real money but mountains of debt. They buy and sell debt. (It may be best not to even try to wrap your mind around that.)
Perhaps there is a better medium of exchange than precious metals which have the eight key properties listed earlier, properties that only precious metals have satisfied until now, though. Maybe there is a substance which the world has at its disposal but has never tried. We, the living, will never know that, for our world is currently under so much surveillance that nothing else can be tried. That is, if a few innovative people were to propose and attempt to use some commodity besides imaginary money — paper currency and cryptocurrency being entirely imaginary and intrinsically worthless — if a few innovative people were to begin using a new medium, or if barter became widespread as a substitute for fiat money, that activity would eventually be reported to or noticed by the Internal Revenue Service, and the activity would be stopped. (The IRS has already interfered with small-scale barter when it has popped up from time to time.)
Under the current definition of money, the numbers after the dollar signs in your on-line bank and credit union statements are as solid and as private as fog. Visible, yes. Moveable, yes, also as ephemeral; it can all vanish in an instant of data sabotage. The numbers attached to your name are public; federal inspectors and regulators (“the people” as prosecuting attorneys fondly refer to the government) can look at your account balance and activity on a pretext. And it is seizable; you can be locked out or wiped out at the whim of a bureaucrat or a judge. All eight of the key properties of real money are missing from the fiat money of the present, but, crucially, the last two: belonging to the person who holds it, and being private.
From 1933 until 1964 a dollar was essentially defined as three quarters of an ounce of silver — an ounce minus the government’s share. (The lower denominations are proportionally smaller: a half dollar contained just over three eighths of an ounce and so on.) From the time my parents moved us to Lima, when I was ten, right through the year 1964, I was going into the bank along my paper route, passing a $5 bill (not necessarily a silver certificate) or a few ones across the counter, and exchanging them for those large, round, silver dollars minted up until 1935. Even then the bank was dispensing them with dates going back to 1878. I still have many of the ones I obtained that way as well as a good deal of other small change from the period.
Silver dollars in circulation were well worn and not desirable to serious coin collectors. As a child, though, I collected coins of any condition in Whitman folders. I still have some of that small change, including the Lima News coin bag, still full of coins of the era.
Dimes, quarters, and half dollars had been struck in U.S. coin silver (0.900 fine) from the earliest mintage in the 1790s, (each one’s weight in silver proportional to its denomination). Production of silver dollars was suspended after 1935, until the Eisenhower dollar was minted from 1971 to 1978. This coin, still an inch and a half in diameter, was struck in silver for those who could afford them if they even knew about them, and in a nickel-clad copper version for circulation, but of course these were mostly hoarded until the Susan B. Anthony dollar was introduced in 1979 (and last made in 1999). The SBA dollar was, at last, a subtle nod to the devaluation of the dollar over the previous hundred years: It’s essentially the same size and made of the same metal as the United States one-cent piece up until 1857.
While dimes and quarters were made of silver until 1964, they were stamped from the different, cheap nickel-clad bronze planchets beginning in 1965. But from 1965 until 1970 the alloy for half dollars was reduced from 90% silver, or coin silver, to 40% silver, so they still looked silverish and didn’t have that brown ring around the middle that you see on modern quarters and dimes. A quarter today may contain about four cents worth of metal if treated as scrap.
THE VANISHED HALF DOLLAR
President Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963. I was 13 and sitting in Miss Whitling’s seventh grade math class when the announcement was made over the loudspeakers at the end of the school day. Here is that afternoon’s Lima News that I have saved ever since that day. For 1964, at the direction of Congress, the Bureau of the Mint replaced Ben Franklin on the silver half dollar coin with an image of Jack Kennedy. In 1964 the Mint issued 281,205,528 million Kennedy half dollars — still in coin silver as were the 1964 quarters and dimes.
When the half dollar was reduced to 40% silver in 1965 and the rest of our coinage went to the “clad” composition, people began to realize that the 1965 half dollars still had some intrinsic value while the rest of that year’s coinage did not. So a few people gradually began stockpiling their silver coins. Some Indian-head pennies were still in circulation as well as silver dimes, quarters, and halves of the Barber design, buffalo nickels, and other older varieties. I was young but I understood and had already been squirreling every strange coin I had found while making my rounds. I still remember showing my parents a strange piece of change now and then.
There were news stories in those days attempting to explain the difference — that the halves would still be made partly from silver until further notice, while the rest would not. Confused, everyone who acquired half dollars from that point on kept them. Lots of them, jars of them, coffee cans full of them.
Franklin and Walking Liberty halves disappeared from circulation as older designs are wont to do when a new piece is introduced. But people also kept all Kennedy halves released into circulation from year to year, right through the 1970s and 1980s and up to the present — if they even see one at all. More than two billion “clad” Kennedy halves have been minted. Most have been released by the Mint to the Federal Reserve banks. If your local bank doesn’t request any from the Fed, though, then you’re rather unlikely to get your hands on them that way. For the most part, banks have ceased bothering with them because they simply disappear once they go out the door.
And since people won’t spend them, suspecting that they’re rare or worth more than a few pennies apiece, they will never again show up in circulation.
A SIDE STORY
In 1972 the U.S. Army sent me to Deutschland (West Germany). Being a coin collector and also in touch with history, I took a roll of Eisenhower dollars with me along with a roll of Kennedy half dollars, both in the cheap copper-nickel version. On my second day in-country, as I rode the train from Frankfurt to Augsburg, I discreetly offered an Ike dollar to a German gentleman who had bought lunch for another G.I. and me on the train. (He had just given us each a cigar to smoke after lunch.) He became quite excited to see the coin, and his excitement reached a couple members of the train crew nearby. Within minutes I had swapped most of my coins for a quantity of German money, which at the time, at three Deutsche Marks to the dollar meant I reached Augsburg with something around DM100 in my pocket.
In 1996 I made a two-week solo trip through Ukraine and western Russia. Again I took a roll of Kennedy half dollars. On a couple of occasions in each country, after becoming acquainted with one of the natives, I again pulled out one of my coins. (I had been advised before going there that the people love little gifts.) In every instance, they declined it after little more than a glance. (That was OK. At that time, with Russian currency at an exchange rate of around 5,000 roubles to the dollar, they were accustomed to mostly paper money, although coins appeared occasionally. They didn’t recognized Kennedy’s profile on the coin and probably suspected that it was a cheap medal of the sort the Russian government was known for distributing on any excuse.)
As I was leaving Russia, though, I had to fill out a form at the airport declaring the amount of money I was taking out of the country. I had taken care not to carry any quantity of dollars while I was there. Instead, I would take withdrawals on my debit card in roubles only when I needed cash. I declared that I was leaving with about 100,000 roubles in paper money, worth about $20. I didn’t declare that I was taking any dollars out of the country.
What’s more, I had bought a pile of old Russian imperial coins from a vendor on the street (and had purchased a few in the Kremlin’s gift shop). These I had counted ahead of time and presumed to enter on the declaration as if the amount was in modern currency. And so the face value of a couple hundred imperial coins was perhaps 20 roubles — next to nothing, although back when the coins were issued, before 1917, a dollar and a rouble were both based on about the same amount of silver — and quite a bit of the imperial coinage I was carrying out of the country was in old Russian silver.
These old coins were strewn across the hard panel at the bottom of my duffel bag, under my clothes. When my bag went through the x-ray scanner, though, what should appear near the top of my clothes but a black metal cylinder! The airport security officer unzipped my bag, pulled out the light-ochre paper wrapper, and handed it to me. “Open it,” he ordered me in English. I did and pulled out the top half dollar, at the same time worrying that I had not remembered to declare that I was taking this roll of $20 out of the country — actually $19; a couple of them were gone by then. The security officer’s face brightened and he asked politely, again in English: “Can I buy one from you?” I told him he could have it! He pulled out a wallet, handed me an American dollar bill, and so I sold him two. Then he waved me through and, within a couple of days, I was literally “home free.” After leaving Russia it didn’t matter how much money I was carrying. I did away with the paper wrapper before boarding the flight, though, and let the remaining half dollars lie on the bottom of my carry-on — my only piece of luggage — for the rest of the return trip.
IS ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION?
Being clear on all the differences since my youth, I continued spending the newer cheap-metal half dollars. As I did, over time, I encountered store clerks who did not recognize them, who did not believe they were real, and who even rejected them sometimes. I did the same with Eisenhower (Ike) “silver” dollars — full-size dollar coins issued in copper-nickel during the 1970s and fully intended by Congress to be used as legal tender.
But there is a herd mentality that dictates people’s responses to change, arising partly from indifference — they’re too busy with trivial matters to pay attention or care, and partly from ignorance — they suspect that there is no way they’ll ever know enough about a subject like this and so they submit to the ukase of their elected leaders. After a decade of confusion (which did leave some concerned people fuming), the country adapted to the new, worthless medium of exchange, and by the mid-1970s the transition from money of intrinsic value to 100% fiat currency was accomplished, just as the complete transition from fiat cash to 100% digital money is nearly accomplished, to the benefit of the ruling class who had foreseen the need, from the start, to relieve the people of their personal property — their wealth, however meager.
When a stage magician does this it’s called sleight of hand — he appears to give you an ace of hearts but when you turn the card up and look at it again, you discover that you have the three of clubs. With our money, most people haven’t bothered even to turn the card over. The magician in this case has said: “Wait, I’ll be right back,” and then he has disappeared forever. Our reaction, trusting and waiting, is the behavior that the instigators and elite beneficiaries of the changeover were counting on.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
And so, when I was a kid — until I was 14 years old, a dollar was still defined as, because it was equal to, one twentieth of an ounce of gold or three fourths of an ounce of silver. In 1974, President Ford signed an order permitting not just special citizens but ordinary citizens as well once more to own gold. Initially, following this opening, gold could be bought in bullion for $32 a troy ounce. I bought some coins.
Silver was still pretty quiet then. In fact, in 1975 or so, I took a bag of silver dimes, quarters, and half dollars — all common coins I had previously hoarded, of average wear and dates — to a coin shop. I intended to spend it at face value, along with some paper money, on another gold coin or two. The bag held $55; I had counted it. The coin shop owner looked at it disdainfully, then regarded me over his half-lensed reading glasses, and said: “I don’t have the time to count it. Bring me paper money.”
I kept the silver instead — the coins in my Lima News bag, and bought my gold, a little anyway, somewhere else.
Gold climbed quickly from $32 an ounce but was still as low as $113 in 1976. In January, 1980, it spiked to $737 but for the next 25 years it settled back into a range of $250 to $500 per troy ounce. By December, 2005, it crossed the $500 mark, and in September, 2009 it passed $1000 and hasn’t looked back.
The value ratio of gold to silver, as I write this sentence (25 March 2021), is now 69:1 and a troy ounce of silver is selling for $24.94 (call it $25) while gold is at $1725 an ounce.
BUT WHAT IS A DOLLAR NOW?
Your government is confusing matters greatly. Since the 1980s, you have had the option to buy, from the U.S. Mint, real silver dollars, newly minted, stamped with the year of issue (1986 and up) and the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and ONE DOLLAR. Each one declares itself to be one ounce of .999 fine silver. It’s a tenth of an inch larger in diameter than the silver dollars that were in circulation when I was young.
Similarly, coins in the 10¢, 25¢, and 50¢ denominations continue to be minted in coin silver. These are included in special mint sets and proof sets and are intended for collectors and as special gifts for dignitaries and so on.
Along with these, since the 1980s, your government has issued gold coins in one-ounce and fraction-of-an-ounce weights in nominal denominations of $50 (for one ounce) on down to $5 (for one tenth of an ounce). Coins in palladium and platinum are also sold by the U.S. Mint.
The denominations are not the prices of the coins, though. Prices are about double the market value of the metal at the time of sale.
When people could hold their wealth in cloth bags and wooden boxes, the wealth in the country was in the control of the people who owned it… Now a dollar is a “relationship,” a concept, a promise payable in nothing but more promises.
The government advises that these special coins are sold as investments and are not intended as currency (money). But, since their intrinsic value is intact, they are money to anyone who wants to use them as a medium of exchange. I have, in fact, used them that way a couple of times in the past decade. I bought a unique, $2,000 gun for about $100 face value in silver, and I bought a new MacBook Pro for under $100 face value in gold.
But these are not the coins of the realm. These are not the currency of our wages and salaries, our purchases and our bank accounts. They used to be. Now the Treasury mocks us by offering them as expensive portrayals of what, in my father-in-law’s lifetime and in mine, circulated as our medium of exchange.
When a dollar’s value was set by something “concrete” and when people, if they so chose, could hold their wealth in cloth bags and wooden boxes at home, the federal government was in a bind. The wealth in the country was in the control of the people who owned it. That frightens and frustrates politicians because, if we had wanted to, we could empty the banks and empty the treasury and possess it ourselves. This was the intent of the founders but is not in our modern big government’s dearest self-interest. (Even the founders counted upon people to keep most of it in banks where it earned interest and where the government could then borrow it and issue bonds to cover the debt.)
Now that it has no concrete foundation, a dollar is a “relationship” (against the fiat currencies of other countries), a concept (it ought to have value), a promise (payable to the bearer on demand — payable in nothing but more promises, that is).
The dollar’s current ambiguity is to the government’s advantage in many respects, but perhaps most significantly in its relationship to federal debt and inflation. For each dollar the federal government borrows it will repay later with a dollar that has far less purchasing power.
The one unit of our money that still has intrinsic value, in fact greater than its face value, is a penny minted before 1982 (and some that were struck in 1982 as well). There is a special absurdity in that.
If I had $100 in my coffee can at home in 1962-1964 — and there were times when I probably did — mainly in silver coins, that $100 would be worth close to $2,000 today just for the silver. (A dollar in silver money held 0.77 of an ounce of precious metal, so the price of a full troy ounce of silver up until 1964 was $1.30.) I was, though, encouraged to keep it in “the bank.” We used the Metropolitan Bank in Lima, so that’s where I had my passbook savings account.
In 1966, three months before my 16th birthday, I bought a car for $395 — a 1939 Chrysler New Yorker, the very one pictured here. It was in splendid original condition and I drove it from Ohio to Maine the following summer when the family moved to my father’s home town of Farmington.
Today I can use the price of an ounce of silver as an approximation of the rate of inflation from the time silver was taken out of our coinage: 0.77 of an ounce of silver, the amount of the metal in a silver dollar, defined $1 in 1964, therefore a full ounce was worth $1.30. Now a full ounce costs $25. That just tells me that a dollar was 19 times more valuable then. That’s a pretty good indication of the rise in prices since 1964. Some things can’t be compared outright, though. A pound of corn meal is the same substance as it was 60 years ago, yes. Cars in the early 1960s, though, were pretty bare-bones. Power steering, power brakes, air conditioning — these were options that used to cost extra. Now we pay that extra in the base price of every car. Seat belts came in the mid-1960s. Computers and electronic fuel ignition were unheard of in cars. Even so, the price of a new, well-equipped sedan 60 years ago was around $2,000. Now the price is close to $40,000. A loaf of bread that was 19¢ then can run you over $4 today. I don’t need to go on.
SO LET’S REFORMULATE OUR MONEY
In the 1790s the smallest denomination of U.S. coinage was the half cent. In the 1850s the half cent was phased out. If the dollar of the early 1960s was worth 19 time more than a dollar today, then a penny today is worth little more than one-twentieth of a cent of 60 years ago. And a penny was barely useful then. Why, oh why, are we still making them???
It’s no wonder that in 1982 the U.S. Mint began stamping pennies out of copper-plated zinc, a much cheaper metal than bronze (which is an alloy of copper, tin, and sometimes small amounts of other metals or metaloids). The one unit of our money that still has intrinsic value, in fact greater than its face value, is a penny minted before 1982. They’re still out there if you’re inclined to pluck them from your pocket change or stir the penny cup next to a cash register.
But a dollar today can barely buy what you could get for a penny when Dick Noyes was a child. Isn’t it time to eliminate the small change?
The smallest coin and smallest fraction of a dollar that can be justified any longer is the quarter. Twenty years ago I wrote my representative in Congress and recommended four coinage denominations, 25¢ – 50¢ – $1 – $2, and paper money starting at $5. (The cost of producing $1 coins, even the Sacajawea (Sacagawea) dollars that were then being promoted, which are durable enough to circulate for decades, is far less than the cost of keeping an equal number of $1 bills in circulation.) Half dollars that have been hoarded could return to circulation and would have value roughly comparable to the half cents of the early 1800s.
Of course, there was no interest in Congress in my idea, and so we’re still being oversupplied with zinc pennies.
A TOUR OF OUR RECENT COINAGE
Did you notice, by the way, that of the 24 coins pictured together above, nine depict men and fifteen depict women? Altogether we can put names to the images on thirteen of the coins if you count both heads on the Sacajawea dollar. (And yes, Lincoln appears twice among the thirteen.) Four depict American Indians, one man and three women. At least a couple other coin varieties of the early 20th c88entury, not included in this photo, also depict Indians. The Barber designs, (dime, quarter, and half dollar at the left of the middle three rows) in fact depict “Miss Liberty” although the result is quite masculine-looking. Miss Liberty adorns eleven of the 24 coins pictured. Of the eight men pictured, two did not serve as President.
The last two coins in the preceding photo, the Sacajawea dollar and the $10 gold piece, illustrate the supreme absurdity of our current currency. The Sacajawea dollar has a copper core and is clad in manganese brass (which is 77% copper). In other words, it is not only of the same size but has just about the same copper content as a penny of the early 1850s. And it presumes to imitate, in size, color, and subject, a half-ounce gold piece of 100 years earlier — and it calls itself a dollar, the same as the largest coin in the photo, the walking liberty silver dollar, which has been minted in the same years as poor Sacajawea. She would be better honored to adorn the larger coin.
A dollar is not quite as ephemeral as an evaporating puff of steam or a drifting wisp of fog, but there is little else to compare it to. And that’s how our rulers want to keep it. In each generation, Americans will have a new experience with money, a new scale for the value of a dollar, a new relationship with the then-current medium of exchange.
Old people, such as Dick Noyes, and I, now in my 71st year, will have our own perspectives, but we won’t be able to make you younger ones grasp it as we do. You can’t relate to it, and, really, you don’t want to hear it. I understand. You don’t have the time. It’s hard to appreciate what it was once like, anyway. And what’s the point of trying to see into the past? There’s no going back.
That right there is the truth. There’s only the future, and your complete dependence on government — on the ruling class who sit on the real money and regulate the fiat money while permitting you to fondle a little of it — is being ever more and more assured. The motives of people who insist they must rule you for your own good, those who always want to help you, whether you want their help or not, and who are successfully forcing you to live under their smothering helpfulness, may be pure in original intent. We who elect them to office are mostly — and naïvely — motivated by the desire for happy outcomes. But those who are elected, wanting happy outcomes too, are motivated by the determination to impose happy outcomes. Those people, in every generation, in every government in every country, are the dangerous ones.
The old ways were not necessarily better. Nor were they demonstrably worse. But the new ways have not done away with the evils of the past — the inequities, the corruption, the hazards, the propensity of some to lord it over others. We still have scammers and thieves. In spite of the expensive, government-run “wars” on drugs and poverty we still have the addicted and the poor in the same measures as always. We still have the mentally ill, even though we now insist that they must try homelessness and suffer the universal unavailability of services. (The mentally ill were provided housing and services in the not-so-distant past. Conditions in mental institutions were often atrocious, but then again, so are year-’round conditions in a tent city beneath a railroad bridge on the edge of every city, large and small.)
We still have corruption among regulators and overseers. In both dominant parties we still have politicians owned by labor unions and corporations. We still have price-gouging purveyors of “services.” (Time-Warner/AT&T, I’m talking about you.) Corporations create demand for their products by persuading Congress that such “innovations” as electric cars and windmills are holy, never mind the toll each takes on the environment both in manufacturing and in junk left behind when their brief period of usefulness has ended.
So forgive us oldsters for our skepticism. We have been through a few cycles of popular enthusiasm over the same old tricks trotted out in new costumes. We are holding the three of clubs, while you youngsters and idealists and collectivists believe your card is the ace of hearts.
In my novel, Cold Morning Shadow, after remarking on the extermination of real money as discussed here, Henry Clay Comosh poses the question: “Who else gets to see something happen for the first time in five thousand years?”
I realize the era has come to an end when humans used a medium of exchange that has intrinsic value. Ending it, though, was so unnecessary. And the replacement for it is so very inadequate.
First there was this meme, challenging me to explain to my supposedly oppressed friends why I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton for President in 2016. A meme is that “unit of communication” invented in 1976 by the unregenerate Richard Dawkins.
Now comes another one, this time asking: “Why, when Jesus talks about feeding the poor, it’s Christianity but when a politician does it, it’s Socialism?” (Never mind that, as with almost all memes, this one too stumbles over grammar. Neither the word nor the concept of socialism is a proper name. It does not need to be capitalized. Or, to paraphrase Falkland’s maxim, which applies to the crafting of legislation but can be widely adapted: When it is not necessary to do it [capitalize], it is necessary not to do it.)
I have been challenged by variations of this meme, usually in phrasing like: “You want to separate children and parents at the border and you call yourself a Christian?” “You want to deny medical care to children and you call yourself a Christian?” “You object to feeding the hungry and yet you call yourself a Christian?”
Along the way it becomes obvious that the do-gooders in one particular political party in the U.S. have shrink-wrapped each of the party’s top issues into meme-ready non-sequiturs.
No, and No
Taking the last example above — a corollary to the first, and granting for the moment that it even deserves a response, my answers are No, and No.
No, I don’t object to feeding the hungry. And No, I don’t call myself a Christian. Christian is your word — which is essentially what Jesus answered when Pilate asked whether he was king of the Jews: “King is your word.”
“Christian” falls within the language of collectivism — grouping people according to some contrived characteristic or one vaguely held in common. (See Groupthink and Eric Hoffer.) This expedites the mission of social do-gooders: They can elevate, exonerate, or vilify all members of the group, the better to apply group solutions to problems not all members share or apply pressure and enforce restrictions that not all members deserve. It forces individuals, who do not perceive themselves as poor or distinguishable by skin color or harmed by derogatory epithets to line up like first-graders in the 1940s to be sprayed with the DDT of government protection.
I am a disciple of Jesus, the Christ — the Messiah presaged in the Old Covenant. And I am a creature — an individual creation, of El-Elyon, in awe of my God. I’ll confess straight up that Jesus deserves better disciples than I am. I don’t, however, fit your catch-all category under the heading of “Christian.”
So, No to calling myself a Christian. And No, I don’t think “we” should stop feeding the hungry or stop helping the poor or stop providing medical care to children. (It’s already illegal to deny medical care to children or emergency care to anyone of any age.)
What’s this “we” bullshit, anyway?
Here is where your memes disintegrate under inspection. There are two errors in the “we” part of your challenge. “We” is where you bring in coercion. And your “we” cannot answer Jesus’s challenge to me. I cannot participate in covering for you and whatever you and your friends do can’t fulfill the call issued to me, for Jesus challenged us as individuals.
I especially can’t fulfill the call issued to me by joining a mob that is extorting money from people you and your friends are jealous of and by giving that money to a gang of lawyers who will sprinkle a trickle of that cash over the heads of a few recipients who fit the mob’s profile of a deserving group. (As we already know, according to the accusers behind the meme, Christians do not deserve assistance of any kind, only exclusion and ridicule.) Jesus didn’t tell me to join a mob, then steal from one vilified group (rich people) and give it to a gang purporting to represent another group.
When Jesus talks about feeding the poor, he’s talking to me. He is watching what I do — with my money and my other resources — for someone I can reach out to. Jesus doesn’t care whether I funnel my charity through Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Jesus doesn’t call on me to first coerce someone else to open his purse so that I and my friends can redistribute the other man’s wealth. And Jesus especially doesn’t call on me to form or join some overwhelming mob/army/party/coalition and demand that others give to the poor at my mob’s behest.
So, yes, when a politician talks about feeding the poor, it’s socialism. It is grandstanding. It’s telling you that, if you vote for the right politicians, who will force the rich to fork over bigger “voluntary” income taxes to the lawyers in government — if you just agree with that tactic, you, who do not have the big bucks won’t have to contribute a dime but the poor will be fed and you will have met your Christian duty — if you call yourself a Christian.
But what if “we” don’t compel the rich to contribute more? What if we little people, collectively, can’t feed the poor just on the strength of our taxes and the taxes already seized from the rich?
In this country, the United States, the top half of taxpayers pay 97% of all federal income tax. And the top one percent account for 37.3% of total income tax revenues.* This isn’t their fair share? And, yes, we continually hear that this or that billionaire didn’t pay a penny in taxes last year. Really? And they aren’t in jail? Your trusted, innocent-eyed politicians have created the tax code. Crucify them, not the rich guys who used the loopholes the politicians created and kept their own money.
Jesus didn’t forbid us to contribute to organizations that we know are effectively helping people in need — a rare disease research foundation, the Soupman, the Red Cross — you can name several of your own. Jesus didn’t forbid us to work together to express our love for our neighbors, through a church, a local American Legion post, Habitat for Humanity, an ad hoc local committee to help a family who lost their home to a fire. For some generous people, a group effort is the most effective way to use their time, talent, and treasure. There is a chasm of difference between banding together voluntarily to help someone in need, and banding together to coerce others to pay for what you don’t want to pay for yourself.
Poverty in America
It seems to me that, before the welfare state was conceived and implemented in its modern form, there were the rich, there were the average folk, and there were the poor. It seems to me, also, that in the ninety or so years of continuous and lavishly-funded welfare in the western world, there are still the rich, the average folk, and the poor — in about the same proportions.
In the first 50 years of the federal War on Poverty, 1964 to 2013, taxpayers provided $22 trillion to be redistributed to poor people, adjusted for 2012 dollars.** (When the program began, a dollar was defined as 0.925 of an ounce of silver. That definition was rescinded with the coinage of 1965.) You can do the math on how much that $22 trillion amounts to per poor person who has lived during that period.
The big difference is the general state of poverty. What is now called poverty would have been pretty comfortable living conditions in this country a century ago. What was “middle class” (another collectivist term) when I was a kid is abject poverty today. It’s a matter of perspective. It’s not that the poor today lack food, although the truly poor do, and it’s not so much that those under today’s definition of poverty can’t meet the cost of rent plus other necessities, although the truly poor can’t. The state of poverty today in the United States is hugely a matter of community living conditions.
People who have been herded into victim groups and corralled in ghettos by the political system, and cheated of learning by the education system, are culturally, more than financially, deprived. The “solutions” arising from the instinct for collectivist intervention have solved nothing.
Public education suppresses individual inquiry. Labor law suppressed individual enterprise. Government funding of government-approved “arts” suppresses individual expression. And you wonder why people have not escaped the ghettos.
Before I listen to your argument that there isn’t enough money among us average folk to feed the poor in our individual, non-governmental efforts, I’ll wait for you to look into where all the money the rich are already contributing in taxes is going. I’ll wait for you to explain how nearly $42,000 per year per poor household of three, in food and subsidies and extra government services, did not make a dent in poverty in 50 years.***
In the novel, Cold Morning Shadow, one character points out that governments nowadays expend great sums to extract gold from the ground only to bury it back underground. It may as well not exist, he argues. It certainly does not exist for those of us who are supposedly in charge of our own government but can neither touch our gold or know where it is hidden.
Maybe we need to take the same attitude toward the ridiculously rich. Ninety-seven percent of our tax revenue comes from the richest half of the population. Maybe we just have to regard the rest of their money as we do our national hoard of gold — it’s beyond our reach. Treat it as if it doesn’t exist. Let them have it. (Never mind, for the moment, that it is actually what sustains our economy by sustaining the industries and jobs which provide further tax revenue; that’s Economics 101 and is evidently beyond the comprehension of most Americans, thanks to public education.)
I am a child of God and a disciple of Christ. I’ve been challenged by Jesus to look after others in need. I’m not called to tell other people what to do. I’m not called to join with dozens or thousands or millions of my friends to make other people do something I think they ought to do. I’m not in a position to judge that the rich aren’t doing enough. Jesus can judge them if he wants to, and I won’t criticize him if he doesn’t.
I don’t know what any particular rich person is doing beyond the lens of public scrutiny. I don’t expect the government (id est, you or me and millions of friends), under the leadership of self-righteous do-gooders, to steal from other people and do my duty for me. I have no influence in the world anyway except in two small ways: I may, on my own, relieve someone else’s pressing need from day to day, and I may, just may, improve the world by improving the one human unit over which I have control: myself.
Examine your sanctimonious memes before you wave them in front of me. I’m through responding to them.
***Using 1989 figures from https://usafacts.org as the mean between 1964 and 2014: Mean U.S. population – 246,819,230, percentage in poverty – 12.8% (31,592,862), mean War on Poverty spending per year – $440,000,000,000.
“A government ought to know how to levy taxes. But if it doesn’t know how to collect them, then a man is a fool to pay them.”
J. P. Morgan in what has been termed the indiscretion of a lifetime
“People who love sausage and respect the law should never watch either being made.”
attributed to Mark Twain
Morgan’s boast and Twain’s warning trigger this reaction in me: A law that cannot be comprehended deserves to be ignored or, at the very least, ridiculed.
This is not anarchy. This is a practical response to gibberish. A government ought to know how and when to make law, but more especially when not to. This was the message of Viscount Falkland early in the 17th Century, who declared before the British Parliament: “Mr. Speaker, when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” Our state and federal governments each apparently operate under an assumed production quota that has not been met. The crafting of legislation has given way to the crafting of coalitions between factions with opposite views of a proposed law.
From these coalitions, this “reaching across the aisle,” this “bi-partisanship” — What an insincere word! — we are treated to the vision of our representatives cooperting to turn cow chips into decorated cakes. They don’t craft law, even though they’re all lawyers. They toss up a rickety shell of “enabling legislation” and assign the writing of law to a process called “agency rule-making,” so that Congress can return to posturing and stuffing omnibus bills with all the odious proposals that wouldn’t stand a chance under the scrutiny of honest deliberation.
They believe, first of all, that they were sent to their state’s or nation’s capital to make law. They’re under the misapprehension that something must be done. Therefore they must find subjects — issues — begging to be bound in the concertina wire of newly-spun law.
A legislature convenes, ready to go to work. Every member, eager to be effective, casts about for an issue. The first, usually erroneous, assumption is that there is even a problem to be solved in the first place. When the culture of the country or of a state refuses to change swiftly enough to satisfy the social engineers in our midst, mobs of shrill and indignant activists cry for more laws. This is usually the most ready source of urgent issues.
The legislature’s second assumption is that the shrill and indignant deserve to be heard — that every “problem” raised by the perpetually loud and self-righteous can be resolved and therefore must be resolved.
The third assumption is that what the hoarse, vocal mobs demand cannot be resolved without government intervention.
Real problems do exist, of course. But most are not properly the government’s business.
The fourth assumption is that the appropriate intervention is a law, when, in truth, a few noisy, nosey people of one persuasion simply need to adjust to the quieter people of another persuasion.
Because we (voters) are smart and have learned how to solve problems, we assume that our legislators are like us in those skills. And everyone who has raised a child knows that not all problems have solutions. Often the problem exists nowhere but in the mind of the immature, impatient, offended, screaming child. Sometimes the problem is real, like an abrasion or a broken toy, and we adapt to it. Isn’t that what we teach our kids?
In rare instances, though, all of the first four assumptions are correct, right up to the need for a new law. Sadly, real problems deserving of government attention are trampled in the legislators’ — in Congress’s — stampede to assuage the selfish, the greedy, and the legions perpetually offended on behalf of others.
This latter clatter is comprised of individuals insidiously motivated to watch your language and your behavior and to upbraid you on behalf of groups they have defined as needing a perimeter of defense. Think of post-Europeans — whom some call “white” people — who have assumed the role of activists on behalf of others who don’t include them as members, Americans of indigenous heritage, for instance. And so, we have whitish people, native to America, insisting that other whitish people use the term “native America” to apply not to native Americans but to people who still refer to themselves as American Indians.
The fifth assumption of a legislature eager to solve every problem, real and imagined, is that a decisive, effective law is to be avoided and substituted with a compromise that creates a new program or bureau, new and complicated regulations, a new entitlement and, with it, new generations of people dependent on the government for their financial survival and personal comfort. (That would be lawyers. Silly you, you thought I meant the poor.)
Even if the first four assumptions are correct, the fifth should be viewed with the greatest suspicion. Our legislators should first be assuring that requirements and constraints already written into law are being enforced. If a new law is still needed, a simple directive or prohibition should be the preferred response.
The sixth assumption is that the legislators are exempt from writing the law themselves but must hand that task to bureaucrats through enabling legislation.
Legislation now commonly turns all power over to a fourth branch of government not described in the Constitution. A legislative act nowadays typically creates a new agency empowered to write the code, enforce the new rules, investigate compliance, judge offenders, and impose penalties — all of which properly belong to the original three branches of government.
Pause and Read Those Assumptions Again
If the first four assumptions were challenged honestly, there would be a lot of idle time, and a lot fewer government employees, in Washington, D.C. and in state capitals.
When a legislature swallows the entire package of assumptions, we get what we voted for: the enthusiastic, one-size-fits-all application of good intentions backed up by the force of law.
There are always two factions in a legislature, sometimes more. One faction generally represents the money pushing for one solution to a non-problem, the other faction represents the current state of affairs and the money behind it, or is backed by or another group of donors with another agenda. When necessary, one side’s bill is blended, in committee, with the other side’s version until the bristly points of each have been trimmed to stubble. A typical result is the Pigrolet.
Politics necessitates compromise to assure that nothing so extreme as to be effective becomes law.
Instead of this institutionalized ineffectiveness, one side’s bill or the other’s should simply be passed in its entirety. If it’s good, it will quickly accomplish what it set out to do. If it’s bad, it will flop, be repealed, and the sponsors will go away in shame. The sponsors of legislation should agree to accept humiliation as a consequence of bad law in exchange for getting their agendas passed.
We could add a corollary assumption, I suppose — that bureaucrats will achieve through rules what the legislation might have achieved in simple language. Piggy-backed on that you can add the assumption that regulators will certainly not tailor the language of the rules to favor a certain set of political beliefs or an agency’s sense of self-preservation. Neither of these assumptions is valid — they are merely the assumptions of the legislators who consign lawmaking to the bureaucrats.
A Better Idea
Having continually failed to live by Falkland’s maxim on the necessity of legislation, the chief responsibility of all legislatures, state and federal, for the next hundred years, ought to be to observe a moratorium on passing new bills and, instead, the careful review of all laws and acts now in force and the dismantling of most. A new law should be permitted only insofar as it replaces an existing act with one that demonstrably can be understood by a majority of high school graduates, since compliance and enforcement are chiefly in the hands of just such individuals.
According to figures compiled in 2001, over 150,000 new federal, state, and local laws are passed every year in the USA and over 3,000,000 new pages of regulation are published. Ignorance is no excuse if you are charged with a violation. (Unless you’re Congressman Diggs, q.v.)
The Sausage Connection
Once a squishy non-solution to a non-problem has been crafted it is time to give the bill a name and amend it with unrelated provisions. The Covid relief bill of 2021, also known as the “American Rescue Plan Act — (ARPA),” is the newest and rottenest example. It’s an “omnibus” bill, meaning that it includes a lot of stuff retrieved from wastebaskets in the legislative office building — stuff that was almost abandoned and discarded during the previous President’s administration.
To fund it, the federal government is borrowing more than $14,000 from every taxpayer in order to return $1,400 in “rescue” money. The rest of the money confiscated to pay for the bill goes to the unrelated riders attached to it — solutions to problems you didn’t know you had and that you didn’t know were related to the virus: bail-outs for states and cities with poor spending habits, foreign aid for non-pandemic projects such as abortions of undesirables in other countries, money for farmers, and funding for cash-strapped Amtrak, just to give a few examples. If Congress were behaving as its charter intended, each of these wonderful (to some) provisions would be handled as a separate issue, voted upon as individual bills, and funded without borrowing at all.
ARPA, of course, includes rules intended to restrict peaceful citizens’ access to firearms — another issue obviously related to the effects of the virus on American households. And we will eventually learn of other rules and restrictions that even the members of Congress don’t know are in the bill — the bureaucrats haven’t written the rules yet! And that’s part of the message here. It’s probably not the scant few provisions passed by Congress and signed by the President that you will unwittingly violate.
They’re only “acts” anyway, with grandiose titles, as if “The Children’s and Young People’s Internet Safety Act – (CAYPISA),” by its very name, accomplishes its pretenses. (That’s an illustration. I made it up.)
An act such as that is merely “enabling” legislation, which enables the cadre of un-elected zealots to “craft” the body of regulation calculated to assure that children using the internet remain safe — whatever that means. Congress assigns the writing of legislation to the bureaucrats engaged in agency rule-making, the permanent denizens of the Washington swamp — bureaux, to use the French plural, which, as described above, are granted the unconstitutional authority to craft regulations having the power of law.
Wherever you are, U.S. citizen, at any given moment, you are subject to hundreds of thousands of inscrutable, inaccessible laws. Do you need to tutor you child at home? Do you pay someone to mow your lawn? Are you pumping self-serve gas in Massachusetts? Did you just click “check out” on a web site? Did you just sign for a package from your grandmother in Estonia who has sent you some family heirlooms? Did you just shoot a skunk out behind the shed? I would wager (illegally of course) that what you just did, or what you will do about it in your very next move, not only is regulated but cannot be done legally.
The Internal Revenue Code has deified regulatory insanity and has set the standard for it. Now any other government regulation can be just as incomprehensible and get away with it. (Why is the Internal Revenue Code impenetrable? Because Congress passes a bunch of little tweaks every year that must be shoe-horned into it somewhere.)
It’s not that any enforcement agency will ever catch up with you by scrutinizing your daily actions. The conventional enforcers, that is, police at all levels of authority, are oblivious to most of this morass of regulation. They go home after work and break all the same laws that you do.
What Really Happens
You’ll be caught once someone jealous of your presumption of freedom, (a nosy neighbor, your ex-husband’s girlfriend’s daughter, an innocent-sounding question on an IRS form, a postal clerk), notices that you did it. Did you write a check to pay the kid mowing your lawn? Did you tell your buddy that you tossed the dead skunk into the woods for the coyotes? Did you compel your daughter to replant the neighbor’s flowers that she uprooted on a lark the night before?
Once you are caught, an attorney acting on behalf of the party offended by your action — a prosecutor, a tort lawyer perhaps, will magically locate the regulation that you violated and will file the papers to charge you with the crime.
Once it reaches this level, there is no use resisting. You’ll be named in the court news (even though you’ll not actually have your day in court). Pay the fine and, if you can, undo the “damage” wrought by your good intentions. Make a show of self-flagellation; write a letter to the editor not to proclaim your innocence or protest your ignorance, but to profess your chagrin and regret. Don’t whine. Argue that you make a point of reading at least a summary of the 150,000 new laws every year and this one just slipped by you somehow.
Once you’ve joined the ranks of those bruised but not destroyed by our country’s freefall into the pit of tort, go underground. Never let it happen again. In your own existence, at any rate, make the lawyers irrelevant. Make the law irrelevant. Make the lawmakers themselves irrelevant.
Don’t be taken in by persistent activists and their agendas, the clamoring newscasters, the glitz of the self-worshipping entertainment world. Don’t write to your representative or senator and complain about the complexity of the system. Chances are, the one maverick in every legislature, who might sympathize with you, is not from your district anyway, and that maverick will not be re-elected. Chances are your own legislator will quietly turn your letter over to an office charged with investigating kooks like you.
If you haven’t yet ended up with a criminal record over something petty, take these same steps pre-emptively to distance yourself anyway.
I am advocating passive, not overt, resistance. Where possible, practice malicious obedience – paying your property taxes in pennies is the classic example, even though only the town clerk suffers, not the buffoons who write law. I also advocate responsible citizenship, the kind of community-minded, family-centered citizenship that was envisioned and practiced by most of our forebears — simple, humble, civilized people who, a century before I was born anyway, never could have believed that legislators, regulators, and attorneys would be unleashed to create the runaway cancer that is our current body of law.
This is the cancer that will consume us. This is the decay that, absent a natural disaster of global proportions or international political catastrophe, will destroy us. You will not stop it. You may survive it, and not by stockpiling water and bullets, but by staying out of its way. You will not be irresponsible if you look out for yourself. Earn your paycheck — (errr, direct deposit). Raise your family. Save something of value to use as a medium of exchange when the digital money system collapses and to pass on if that collapse doesn’t come in your lifetime. Practice local charity by giving to someone in need. (Surely you know someone who deserves an anonymous handout.) Serve on the parade committee. Teach Sunday school. Read. Be a scout leader. Learn another language. Travel. Support the French club’s trip to Europe. File a short form. Plan for retirement and nurture a couple of innocent hobbies to pursue when you’re old.
Your Mission: Survive
Life on Earth is fleeting. Survive this chapter and turn the page. There is an eternity beyond time and space, waiting to receive you.
Unless… Unless you’re that one person in ten thousand who may be able to make inroads into the system and jam its gears. If you’re near retirement age, consider going to law school, if only so you can become a member of the bar and needle it from the inside. Do that, and you just may enjoy ten or twenty years of malicious fun in retirement.
The time is approaching when we will be compelled by an act of Congress to register our firearms.
We are continually reminded that “the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” That part is clear to everyone except those promulgating law in Washington, D.C. Few people, though, understand what is meant by the first part of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Let’s begin with an account of a genuine muster of the well-regulated militia:
The four pages of text in these images (following the title page of the book from which they are copied) give a brief illustration of the reason for the much-misunderstood Second Amendment. Ezekiel Porter, mentioned on the second page, was my fourth-great-grandfather, by the way.
This excerpt describes the forming of the militia in Farmington, Franklin County, Maine, which at the time was in Kennebec County, Massachusetts. They had good reason to become “well-regulated” and they were expected to use their privately-owned guns. Yes, those guns were simple black-powder muskets, long rifles, and pistols and, in the event of an invasion, those citizens would come up against the same sorts of weapons they themselves owned plus a few cannons that the invaders could drag with them. There was no standing army in the USA of 1790. And this militia, described in the History of Farmington and comprised of capable men of the area towns, was smart to train for battle, because the British surely did come back and invade the United States in the war of 1812.
The Constitution provides for a navy, but it specifically prohibits a standing army for a period of longer than two years. That provision has never been rescinded by any amendment. However, we have supported a standing army (and more) ever since the last time Congress made a declaration of war on June 5, 1942, now 75 years longer than authorized by the Constitution since we’ve had no threat of invasion of this country in that time.
Among the powers granted to Congress in Article I, Section 8, are these: To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years; To provide and maintain a Navy; To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.
Then the Second Amendment clarifies: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Now compare this language from the Constitution to the truncated excerpt from the History of Farmington, above.
Should the United States be policing the world? Or instead, should we citizens throughout the country be training ourselves regularly in order to repel invaders? I’m not sure, but I am sure that I am not proud of the politics since 1945 that have been driving us into a permanent worldwide policing role and military presence. We have been in Korea, for instance, since 1950. Could we not have trained the South Korean military in self-defense in a little over two years from the cessation of gunfire in 1953? Could we not have withdrawn our forces from that country by, say, 1955? (See A Parting Tribute to my Uncle Woody.)
The constitutional prohibition against a standing army and the provision for a well-regulated militia, together, are what make the debate about the right to bear arms so complicated. Perhaps the original threat giving rise to the Second Amendment, defending ourselves from an invading foreign army, has evaporated, but perhaps a new basis has cemented itself just as firmly. Perhaps the invaders we must defend against are hidden within our midst.
The National Guard, a term in use since 1824, now fills the role of the constitutional militia. The Militia Act of 1903 redefined and recreated the traditional state militias as the “organized militia,” that is, the National Guard.
So how is it that we also maintain a standing army dispersed to permanent undeclared wars and other assignments around the world? Please comment if you have the answer to that.
In spite of these developments, it remains indisputable that the Constitution provides for the citizenry of the country, not the professional army of the federal government, to keep and bear arms.
It was clear to the founders of the United States that an armed population is comprised of citizens, an unarmed population is comprised of subjects. George Washington is credited with the statement: “A free people ought not only to be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.”
The Second Amendment, then and now, is about defending the United States of America from forces that would destroy it, from outside or from within. Originally, every home was equipped with one or more firearms anyway — standard equipment for hunting and personal defense, and readily diverted to the purpose of defending the country. It can certainly be argued that a citizen might properly own a weapon in any class of arms that could be deployed against the United States, the better to emloy such a weapon in the service of the militia.
In the centuries that have passed since the adoption of the Second Amendment in 1791, the National Guard, better trained and better equipped, has taken over for the militia described in the History of Farmington. I accept that, and while I have no desire to own my own fleet of Phantom jets, I also do not intend to jeopardize my permanent right to own the firearms that I consider important to my own safety as well as my country’s defense.
A Recent Historical Perspective
I suppose I am more in tune with the America of the 70 years preceding my birth than the America of the 70 years since I was born. While I have mastered the skills for “survival” — better to say participation — in the ever-changing society of the past few decades, I have also mastered the skills needed for survival in the ages familiar to my grandparents.
I’ve seen it from both perspectives. I don’t trust the present — the technology, the world order, the federal government, the culture of the masses, the distribution systems for food and other perishables, or America’s single source for all manufactured goods (China).
That something has changed in the character of our population is obvious to an older American. When I was born (1950) a home typically had one wage-earner. There was a mindset that approved of locking up the mentally ill, and more were locked up than perhaps was right. But some were confined that should have been. Courts did not coddle violent criminals. Children conformed to certain social standards called “manners” and did not dictate the tone of a household or the spending habits of a family. Only a narrow band of entertainment and advertising were aimed at children, not the entire entertainment industry. Education was designed to impart information and promote critical thinking, not to indoctrinate compliant minions of a ruling oligarchy.
When I was five years old the Meadow Gold milkman in Lima, Ohio, still drove a horse-drawn ice-chilled wagon drawn by the mare, Buttermilk. The man who repaired pots and pans also appeared from time to time on a horse-drawn cart. Many of the country’s railroad trains were still pulled by steam locomotives. Our home didn’t have a television or telephone, and my parents survived for months at a time without an automobile. A long gun in a closet or on the wall was no more unusual than an umbrella in a stand beside the front door. The elevator at the Montgomery Ward store had a full-time operator who delivered customers to their chosen floors. It took a nickel to get a six-ounce bottle of pop from a machine and there was a two-cent deposit on a glass bottle. My grandmother was still mourning my uncle’s death in Korea.
It wasn’t until I was ten years old that I owned my first firearm, a Marlin .22-caliber single shot rifle which I earned by selling Christmas cards in Gomer, Ohio. I told my customers what I was working toward, and they supported my objective. I still have the Boys Life magazine with the ad for Junior Sales Club of America, which provided the Christmas cards and the gun. It was shipped to a local hardware store in my name, and my father had to go with me and sign for it to pick it up. I haven’t shot anyone with it yet.
I am not nostalgic for the living conditions of those times. Perhaps, though, I miss the gentle sense of peace, security, and opportunity. Perhaps I am nostalgic for the freedom to engage in any enterprise as a teenager, from street musician to seller of homemade potholders, from apprentice gardener to newspaper carrier. I miss coins made from silver, photo albums, and a news media that barely paid attention to politicians and celebrities.
I miss heroes who were actually honored, Sunday school, and shelves full of National Geographic magazines. I miss holidays that were sincerely celebrated with town ceremonies on the appropriate dates before it became de rigueur to shift them to the nearest Monday for people whose incomes were derived from taxes (and, yes, bank fees have become a new form of taxation with the complicity of Congress, so banks now close on those Monday holidays).
And I miss the respect that Congress once held for the American people. I am not volunteering to register my firearms, but I do think that we are, at last, a conquered people.
I encountered Eric Hoffer’s work at the same time and in the same circumstances that brought me to Nock. I was about 20 years old and exploring used-book stores in San Francisco. It was there where I espied a book titled Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. Attracted to the nondescript black book by the title, I pulled it from the shelf.
Closely in time and place I also purchased a gray-covered hardbound copy of The True Believer. There is no reason to believe that Hoffer, who succeeded Nock by three or so decades, ever paid much attention to the older man. But Hoffer’s works, especially the 1951 masterpiece, The True Believer, complement Nock’s ideas.
In the summer of 1971, while I still lived in Monterey, California, as a student at the Defense Language Institute, I obtained an address for Eric Hoffer and, on a trip into San Francisco ostensibly to prowl more bookstores, I spent the day finding the humble apartment building bearing the address I’d been provided. It was late on a Saturday when I finally stood before the façade in the evening shadows and contemplated knocking or ringing a doorbell.
I couldn’t make myself do it. What would I say? What, indeed, did I really know? I realized that, even if Eric Hoffer came to the door or if someone admitted me to meet him, I would appear a fool, a fan of his books, a gadfly, a mere youth. But I came that close.
Amazon.com still sells a paperback edition of The True Believer for an exorbitant price. (Is it so long out of print that copies have become scarce?) An excellent summary of its main points can be found at the Farnam Street blog. I recommend spending a few minutes there if not curled up with the slim volume itself.
As he explained that the State is a different beast from government, so also Albert Jay Nock argued that education and job training are pursued by following different paths of learning with different compass headings; that, what’s more, an educated person may be entirely unemployable, incapable of self-sufficiency, and of no practical use to society while a well-trained person may evince no signs of being educated. Someone who wants to be both educated and self-supporting may do best to pursue, by turns, both knowledge for the sake of enlightenment and training for the sake of employment. An educated person, moreover, understands that learning is lifelong and encompasses no end of diverse subjects.
An educated person is one who pursues a college degree, for instance, chiefly for edification, to study the world, to better appreciate why life is worth living. Nock himself was a college student in a period when colleges concentrated on offering a classical education in the arts and sciences, leaving job training to the job creators. In the Twentieth Century, as employers came to require college degrees in more and more job positions, to the point, as we know, where it came to matter not what course of study the degree represents but merely that the job candidate has one, colleges hurried to tailor their programs around job training instead of erudition. Now a person studying at the college level for his own edification is an anachronism. That, in fact, is exactly the word that my academic adisor at the University of Maine used to describe me, right around 1975, when I told him I was studying wildlife ecology (the science, not the politics of ecology) for my own edification and not just to meet the job requirements to become a game warden or wildlife biologist.
I had started college in the 1960s as a music performance major (piano) and had switched to languages after interrupting college to serve in the Army, but had come around to the fundamental sciences in the end. My University of Maine advisor told me that I should not have been taking up space in the wildlife and forestry program if I didn’t intend to seek employment in the field, because there were people who wanted to work in those careers who had been turned away from the program.
As it turned out, when I graduated, there were six or seven job openings across New England and, of those earning degrees when I did, six or seven were women. They were offered the jobs, and I had to pursue a career in something else — which was fine with me; that had been my intent from the start.
With more of a classical education in the arts and sciences than was common even in the mid-Twentieth Century, spanning several languages, the best of the world’s literature, music composition and performance, mechanical engineering and mathematics, and the sciences related to biology, I do sometimes find myself starved for intellectual company in a remote enclave where almost no one has any concept of those subjects.
Nock laid out his thesis in the essay, “The Disadvantages of Being Educated,” which is included in a book of that title (containing 16 other essays), arranged and introduced by Robert M. Thornton. The book is available at Amazon.
In case of difficulties with the direct link above, here is the text of Marcus Goncalves’s article.
The Disadvantages of Being Educated
6 December 2011, Marcus Goncalves for Benzinga
Never had it occurred to me, as Nock would put it, that there might be disadvantages to being educated. I had always looked at it from an educator’s point of view, where education provided so much gain, rather than from the standpoint of today’s typical college student, eager to enter the workplace. At some point there must have been a cultural shift in many of our colleges and universities, causing what Bloom called the “closing of the American minds.”
Since the 1960s, there has been a decay of the study of humanities that has turned into a refugee camp of sorts, where intellects that are driven out of their jobs, or into retirements, tend to idle. Learning has been made much of, while forgetting has been deprecated, causing pedantry to become well established throughout the civilized world at the expense of culture. What has changed?
Historically, the goal of education was to prepare individuals for life, shaping intellect and character, and instilling ethical and moral values. Today’s version appears more focused on proficiency, and has transformed into training. It incorrectly assumes that training and education are synonymous. The distinction between the two has practically been eradicated. Nowadays, students take a very vocational approach to their studies, with the attitude that if the subject matter cannot be directly applied to their jobs or to revenue stream, then it is not worth studying.
But can proficient individuals, successful in their fields, be regarded as educated? Well-trained professionals welcome the accolades for possessing proficiency in their field. Their education, however, if they had any, is another matter, as it lies behind their proficiency, and should not be confused with it. This proficiency is a result of excellent training, enabling them to do and get what they want, while the education does not help with either, as it determines who and what they can become and be.
Stacked against such vocational, training-oriented programs, a true education does have its disadvantages. First, education deprives students of one of the most precious possessions: a sense of cooperation with one another. In this fast-paced world of compressed degrees, online learning, and expensive tuitions, students can only afford to be trained and are focusing their energies on a single narrow discipline. They have set their sights in one direction: to become a professional… Education discourages against such precise actions, while training embodies it.
Second, training tends to put students in step with their peers, while education causes them to reflect, disclosing other channels of interest, making many look inviting. Education may give rise to views that the interests students have in a multitude of disciplines may not be worth the time spent laboring on them, when they could rather spend it becoming proficient in something.
Third, education inevitably shows students what types of people their peers eventually become as they focus all their energy on one interest or “concentration,” making it harder to reconcile the thought of becoming like them, the “trained ones.” Conversely, training does not cause such disturbances of thought, allowing students to continue with one focused study, without any uncertainty or loss of confidence. They are part of a crowd.
Fourth, education is divisive and separatist. Training, to the contrary, induces an exhilarating sense of a cohort; one is doing with others what others do, and thinking the thoughts that others think. Training promotes cohesive thought, to the point of discerning from which school a student hails.
Education leads people to ask a great deal more from life than just life in its current form. This begets dissatisfaction with the rewards that life in a trained world offers. Training, however, tends to satisfy people with very moderate and simple returns, such as a salary, and the usual run of comforts and conveniences. Training not only allows people to acquire these rewards quickly, but also provides for an inert and comfortable contentment. After all, these are all that a trained society can offer. Politicians understand this concept well, wielding the dream of food on the table and two cars in the garage as symbols of aspiring social ideals and accomplishment.
Reading skills? For what if you are a mathematician? Math skills? For what if you are a writer? Science skills? For what if all you need is on Wikipedia? Not surprisingly, among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the U.S. now scores 14th in reading, 25th in math, and 17th in science, losing by a wide margin from the top five ranking countries; South Korea, Finland, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan respectively.
In time, things may improve. Some schools are already making progress, upping their game. The joy and satisfaction of an education for education’s sake should still be what commencement speakers say it is. Something must be done to mature the national resources of intellect and character, as well as proficiency. Respect for education needs to be rehabilitated as a social asset; otherwise, we will become a country unable to compete in the global marketplace. Worse, we may become a society that truly, and mistakenly, believes in the disadvantages of being educated.
Mr. Silia, a member of The Nockian Society, is a free-lance writer and poet.
Occasionally the smoke-screen generated by public opinion polls, manipulated news media, and other socio-political forms of gamesmanship tends to daunt even the most ardent proponent of liberty. For we are all human, and yield at times to discouragement.
However, it is during such times that we should try to marshall our inner strength and re-examine our outer goals, for things are not always what they seem. It is, therefore, in our own best interest, as well as the interest of liberty, not to judge by appearances, but in terms of the realities involved.
But how to distinguish one from the other, you ask? Perhaps Albert Jay Nock, founder and editor of the old Freeman, has the best solution.
For example, in his classic essay, “Isaiah’s Job,” Nock made it abundantly clear that his goal was not to convert the masses to any particular philosophy.
“The mass-man,” wrote Nock, “is one who has neither the force of intellect to apprehend the principles issuing in what we know as the humane life, nor the force of character to adhere to these principles steadily and strictly as laws of conduct; and because such people make up the great, the overwhelming majority of mankind, they are called collectively the masses.”
So, Nock’s duty as he saw it was to tend the Remnant, those unique individuals who had, or were willing to develop, the necessary insight and ability to understand and employ ideas on liberty. In distinguishing them from the masses Nock noted: “The line of differentiation between the masses and the Remnant is set invariably by quality, not by circumstance. The Remnant are those who by force of intellect are able to apprehend these principles, and by force of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them. The masses are those who are unable to do either.”
So Nock’s primary purpose, then, was not to alter public opinion, manipulate news, or convert others to his way of thinking. He merely sought to improve himself and thereby become ever more capable of furnishing other seekers with the inspiration and insight which might further their own personal unfoldment. His job, in short, was to be a sort of catalytic agent for the Remnant.
Knowing beforehand that the masses were not to be transformed or converted, Nock did not become discouraged in his task of servicing the Remnant. And once you clearly see his point you will understand its soundness.
In other words, if your goal is to reform the world to your liking, you are slated for failure from the outset. For that task is impossible — as well as unnecessary. But if your goal is to reform yourself, and incidentally present the truth as you know it to others, then you cannot fail.
Whether anyone accepts the ideas you present is immaterial to your goal. Even though you may convert no one, you still improve society by improving one of its units — yourself.
Nevertheless, you can be sure that your self-improvement will attract the Remnant’s attention, although you may not be aware of it. Or as Nock said, “… in any given society the Remnant are always so largely an unknown quantity. You do not know, and will never know, more than two things about them: first, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness.”
This, then, was Nock’s job. It is likewise the job of all those who are interested in promoting the cause of liberty. And to them, Nock offers this bit of encouragement: “If, for example, you are a writer or a speaker or a preacher, you put forth an idea which lodges in the Unbewusstsein of a casual member of the Remnant and sticks fast there. For some time it is inert; then it begins to fret and fester until presently it invades the man’s conscious mind and, as one might say, corrupts it. Meanwhile, he has quite forgotten how he came by the idea in the first instance, and even perhaps thinks he has invented it; and in those circumstances, the most interesting thing of all is that you never know what the pressure of that idea will make him do.”
This endeavor will, of course, strike a responsive chord only in those rare individuals who are ready to work for the Remnant.