The Jefferson Test

Sometimes when another person’s lifestyle choices strike me as different from what I would choose, even markedly so, but don’t actually affect me, I’ll just shrug and say, “Well, it passes the Jefferson test.” Usually people have no idea what I’m talking about, so I thought I’d go ahead and explain it here so that I can conveniently refer people to it when the need arises.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” And that seems like an appropriately high standard to maintain before getting involved in someone else’s business. If someone has a particularly strange belief or activities, but it does me no injury, then it passes the Jefferson test, and I move on. Life is short, and goals are hard enough to reach as it is without being deterred by things that aren’t actually obstacles.

Now, I’m aware that Jefferson was a hypocrite when it came to individual liberty, that his enslavement of other people manifestly fails the Jefferson test, and his other writings confirm that he was not merely unaware of the problem because of the era in which he lived, but wrestled with it, referring to slavery as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot”. That’s why if you ask me who the figures from the American Revolution are who I respect I’ll say Thomas Paine and Roger Sherman, not Jefferson. However, those gentlemen didn’t come up with this particular pithy remark, Jefferson did, so there it is.

Social Democracy Isn’t Socialism

There’s a certain video called “The Biggest Myths About Socialism” that’s been making the rounds on social media. It’s by Francesca Fiorentini, who posts on the Al-Jazeera’s comedy webshow Newsbroke. It says something about how post-truth our era has become that there’s even such as thing as a comedy show being sponsored by what is supposedly a news media organization, but in this case, the inaccuracies are no laughing matter.

Fiorentini may be a glib presenter, but the one glaring error that dominates her piece is that she’s deliberately confusing social democracy and socialism in order to make the latter not seem like the terrible idea that it manifestly is. I’m referring to the difference between Scandinavian countries and countries like Venezuela and North Korea. They don’t have the same sort of systems, and they shouldn’t be lumped together.

Basically, social democracy is when a society has a market economy with a layer of social programs on top of it. We’ve seen around the world that this is a sustainable approach, because the prosperity that comes from a market system is enough to fund the social programs. This is what we see in places like Scandinavia and so forth.

Socialism, meanwhile, is when there’s not much of a market economy, where the government nationalises industry, or otherwise controls it so tightly that the market process is disrupted too severely to produce prosperity. We’ve also seen around the world that this is an unsustainable approach, and that, as in extreme examples like Venezuela and North Korea, it leads to poverty, starvation, and death.

It gets confusing sometimes because politicians on various sides often use the wrong word. For example, many U.S. conservatives complained that Obama’s health care legislation was “socialism”, which it wasn’t. On the other hand, Bernie Sanders has referred to his positions as “socialism”, which they aren’t. In fact, when he referred to Denmark as a socialist country, he was called out for it by the Prime Minister of Denmark.

Of course, he’s not the only one. Inspired by Sanders, a new wave of leftist American politicians have arisen to challenge the status quo of the Democratic Party, most famously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who wears the badge of “socialism” with pride. But is she really? As commentator Matthew Gagnon writes:

The reality is, she is — like so many people crying out for socialism today — responding to a form of trendy political hipsterism. The need to signal her own virtue as a radical, counter-culture, ahead of her time, rebelliously egalitarian icon is powerful, and adopting a once scorned label and trying to make it cool is a great way to do that.

She doesn’t have to actually understand socialism at all, she can just make up whatever she wants and call it socialism. Indeed, she can position herself as mainstream and her opposition as extremist by suggesting that any and all government action, tax collection or spending is an example of socialism. “What, do you hate road, highways and schools, you troglodyte?”

To Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and their ilk, positioning themselves in this way allows them to ridicule actual opponents of socialism as little more than anti-government anarchists who believe the government should never do anything, anywhere, for any reason. This is, perhaps, the king of all strawmen.

Which means, ultimately, that Ocasio-Cortez is not even a socialist, no matter how much she might want to call herself that. She is a big government statist who believes in little more than confiscatory taxes, bloated spending, and a government program for every problem in America.

Ironically, this makes her that which she least wants to be: a boring, fairly typical liberal, the likes of which we have seen in this country for a hundred years. Not new. Not trendy. Not fresh. She is essentially a 28 year old Walter Mondale.

As Socrates said, the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms. And by that standard, as by so many others, there is very little wisdom to be found when the term in question is “socialism”.

Cryptocurrencies And The State

Dear progressive friends: I have the feeling a lot of you aren’t going to love this one. But if after reading this you want to find out why I don’t think that what’s in here is totally insane, please feel free to reach out, as I welcome conversation about “big picture” issues from people of good will, whether they agree with me or not. Fair enough? Okay, here goes!


Recently I was asked, “What are your thoughts on (attempting) or using cryptocurrencies to circumvent governmental dictates? Is it effective? What affect does it have on society?” The person asking included a link to an article on how Iran’s policymakers are using bitcoin to evade U.S.-led financial sanctions. My answer didn’t fit in the space provided, and I thought it might be of some general interest, so I’m posting it here. Also, I should make it clear that I’m responding in a personal capacity and not an institutional one, because as you’ll soon see, I can’t realistically go anywhere near this topic without my answer being steeped in my ideological views.

Government is like a pothole: go around it if you can, go through it if you must, but never let it stop you from reaching your destination. To that end, I’m less interested in high profile examples like whether the Ayatollahs can evade U.S.-led sanctions, and more interested in what lower profile individuals who want to maintain as much freedom as possible can do in a world where theirs is a decidedly minority opinion.

I want cryptocurrencies to be ideal for this, sure, but that desire leads to the danger of wishful thinking. Bitcoin itself clearly is not ideal or else none of us would ever have heard of Ross Ulbricht. As I’ve said elsewhere when people have suggested that Bitcoin is a haven for money laundering (which thankfully I’m seeing less and less often), I expect any system that uses a public ledger is a poor choice for such transactions, because even though accounts are not attached to names, sooner or later interfacing with the legacy banking system means some accounts have connections with real world identities, and from there the ledger is nothing more than a giant game of Sudoku that large law enforcement agencies are well positioned to solve.

That leaves privacy coins. While those might do a better job of protecting the financial privacy of those who remain within that self-contained system, there’s still the same problem of interfacing with the legacy financial system. This sort of thing has been an issue for a long time. Twenty years ago I was Director of Information Systems for e-gold, the original digital gold currency. We had the same dream of building a replacement financial system that would allow people to live more freely. Back then I referred to this as the “grocery store problem”: how does one with a balance in an alternative financial system use it for day to day needs, like buying things at the grocery store? Does that need render privacy coins less useful for their stated purpose?

I understand that if critical mass were reached in such a system that value wouldn’t have to leave it, and that if it were useful as a self-contained economy that this could change matters considerably. So perhaps the ultimate question here is how a privacy coin could reach that critical mass. I do know that the matter is trickier than it may seem, having heard for a quarter of a century now from crypto-anarchists and cypherpunks that encryption will “starve the beast” by facilitating consequence-free tax resistance. So… any suggestions? I’m all ears!

Raise Your Voice Against Censorship And Oppression

“When you have strict censorship of the internet, young students cannot receive a full education. Their view of the world is imbalanced. There can be no true discussion of the issues.” — Ai Weiwei

Today, 16th October 2015, is Blog Action Day, and this year’s theme is “Raise Your Voice”. That means this year we’re remembering bloggers whose mission is to bring critical information to the world, but have imprisoned and silenced by oppressive regimes.

To that end, I’d like to send a shout out to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and their new project, called Offline. As they explain:

Around the world, repressive governments have arrested, imprisoned, and tortured coders, technologists, and bloggers. EFF’s new project, Offline, raises awareness of these digital heroes to ensure that—even as they are locked away—their voices can be heard. The first five highlighted cases include free software developer Alla Abd El Fattah (Egypt), web developer Saeed Malekpoor (Iran), online columnist Eskinder Nega (Ethiopia), and the Zone 9 Bloggers (Ethiopia). Right now, we’re trying to raise as much awareness as possible about free culture advocate Bassel Khartabil, who has been transferred from a civil prison in Syria to an unknown location.

Many parts of our world are improving year by year. Progress is out there. But there is still oppression and censorship in many places. These people are trying to make it better. Don’t forget them.

No, Joseph Stiglitz, Corporatism Is Not Laissez Faire

This is a reaction to Inequality Is Not Inevitable by Joseph Stiglitz, who among other things has won the Nobel prize for economics.

The problem is that the power system we have today is a mixture of big business and big government. This leads to errors from critiques from conservatives and libertarians in that they see the problems caused by government, but are often ideologically blinded to those caused by business. But similarly, it leads to errors in leftist critiques like this one, in that they see the problems caused by business, but not government. Two things in particular highlight Stiglitz’s lack of understanding here. (And yes, I’m aware of his lofty credentials.)

The first is when he says, “Corporate interests argued for getting rid of regulations, even when those regulations had done so much to protect and improve our environment, our safety, our health and the economy itself.” All too often, larger businesses want regulation, because they know they can afford to absorb its costs, whereas smaller companies (especially entrepreneurs and their startups) cannot. By cooperating with government policymakers, executives of large businesses end up with a regulatory regime that shields them from competition at the expense of everyone else.

The second is the references to bankers as “among the strongest advocates of laissez-faire economics”. This is completely ridiculous, and while I realise that Stiglitz is an hardcore ideologue, he really ought to know better than to say something like this. Our system is nowhere close to being laissez faire. It’s solidly corporatist, with a powerful central government whose policymakers work to advance the interests of corporations large enough to participate in the system of collaboration. The financial system is at the very centre of this web of patronage, and its pulsing heart, the Federal Reserve, is the world’s most powerful public-private partnership. So the last thing bankers want is laissez faire.

The thing that frustrates me about critiques like this is that both sides actually perceive part of the problem, but neither sees all of it. And since conversations between left and right about the power system in our society are shouting matches rather than dialogues, people who should be working together against a common problem of corporatism instead are squabbling like children. Stiglitz refers to TARP, which is a prime example. The Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party movement both initially started as a reaction to bank bailouts. Obviously left and right do not agree on most things, but that sort of corporatism is one of them and it’s arguably the biggest problem of them all.

A final thought, this word “inequality” has become increasingly popular in this era of Bernie Sanders populism. The problem there is that most people talking about it are upset about inequality of outcome, when it’s much more important to care that everyone has a baseline equality of opportunity. Let the wealthy have their yachts — in a system without corporatism they’ll have earned them and saying otherwise is simply class envy. Let the ceiling be sky high, the higher the better! What matters is where the floor is.

Marco Rubio Is A Fool And A Hypocrite

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” — George Bernard Shaw

I’m not planning to comment much on the U.S. presidential election process that unfortunately has already started to be foisted upon us all. In fact, I really do plan to ignore it as much as humanly possible. But sometimes a politician says something that’s so asinine and hypocritical that it simply cannot pass unchallenged.

Given who has the longest and most inglorious track record of making such statements you may think I’m talking about The Donald, but surprisingly it’s one of the other ones who’s stumbled across the tripwire of absurdity, one about whom I really didn’t know very much before today. This fool is named Marco Rubio.

I refer specifically to Rubio’s recent comments about higher education. As Bloomberg reports:

Rubio, 44, said he’d “bust this cartel” by establishing a new accreditation process more welcoming to low-cost, innovative providers. “This would expose higher education to the market forces of choice and competition, which would prompt a revolution driven by the needs of students — just as the needs of consumers drive the progress of every other industry in our economy,” he said.

This is asinine because it shows that Mr. Rubio is not afraid to get up in front of large groups of people and show that he knows nothing about how innovation in higher education works. It’s true that the regional accreditors are a somewhat exclusive club, but considering that they let in any school that meets their stated criteria, including such controversial institutions as the University of Phoenix, one can hardly rightfully call them a cartel.

Moreover, there are alternative paths where organizations that don’t fit the normal pattern can be part of the higher education system. Alternative accreditors like the Distance Education Accrediting Commission exist for this very purpose, and while better known schools vary in their acceptance of schools accredited by DEAC and the like, that’s an individual decision on the part of each school, it’s not systematic exclusion. Moreover, there are not one but two organizations where even non-academic providers of education and training can have their non-academic credentials be evaluated as the equivalent to college credit and accepted in transfer: the American Council on Education and the National College Credit Recommendation Service. In other words, what Mr. Rubio is calling for so loudly has already existed for decades.

But his merely being poorly informed is hardly unique. Perhaps as a back bencher he simply cannot afford competent advisors. What is truly inexcusable is the hypocrisy and how it drives home how ill suited for leadership this man truly is. How so? He refers to market forces as part of his call for public interference in an accreditation system that is conducted voluntarily by private agencies! It may be unclear whether he has no idea what market forces are, or whether he’s just using the term as a buzzword to try to sound good to those who advocate for free markets, but either way all he succeeds in doing is demonstrating that he shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the reins of true power.

I realize that he’s far from the only Republican who praises free markets with one face while calling for big government with the other. But with this example coming so early and so brazenly, if no one calls him on it then it’s not a very good sign for things to come in the next fifteen interminable months.

Liberty Through Entrepreneurship


Recently, the Institute for Humane Studies held a “Liberty Through Technology” contest for full and part time students to win a tablet. The selection process revolved around explaining why their giving the recipient a tablet would advance the cause of liberty by enabling academic research. Here were the questions they asked, and my responses. To be honest, if I had won a tablet I’d probably mainly use it for reading books on the john, but I didn’t think they would find that a particularly compelling reason, so instead I submitted the following, which conveniently, is also true. (While I didn’t win the tablet, they did call me a finalist and gave me a $25 credit for Amazon.com, which was very nice of them.)

What is your current research interest and what questions would you like to answer through your future research?

I am interested in the use of distance learning to deliver entrepreneurship education to students in low and middle income countries.

I would like to determine what mobile learning strategies are the best for attracting prospective students and for educating them once they’re enrolled. Relevant topics would include keeping students engaged in their learning despite not having a classroom environment, fostering cooperative relationships among students who may be spread across many countries, and on determining which mobile learning approaches are compatible with the uncertain Internet connectivity found in many lower income countries.

How does your research topic advance liberty?

I realize that it’s something of a rarity that someone keen on liberty is in a graduate school of education. Such schools have the reputation for being the “Whose Line Is It Anyway” of higher education: where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. That’s doubly so in that schools of education are known for being safe harbors for leftist ideologies that would ignite and turn to dust were they ever exposed to the harsh daylight of the real world.

I’ve long thought, however, that higher education can be a strong force for liberty. Many people who will never stop at an information table or visit a libertarian web site, and who if asked would express no interest in such things, will listen with rapt attention to a liberty-friendly curriculum if it’s delivered in a university classroom where they are earning credit towards a degree.

I’ve chosen entrepreneurship education as a specific focus for several reasons. Firstly, I believe that starting a business is an excellent way to run headlong into a myriad of ways that the state hinders one’s prosperity. I recognize that not all entrepreneurs become libertarian, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Secondly, I believe that starting a business has been underrated as a way to advance the cause of liberty. Think tanks and political action are all very well, but there’s something to be said for changing the system by selling people an alternative. If, as the saying goes, libertarians see the state as damage and route around it, then someone has to bring those alternative routes into existence.

Finally, every once in a while, an entrepreneur will succeed in a way that makes considerable amounts of money. For those who may become friendly to liberty to become wealthy can only be helpful in the long run in a world where money talks. I expect that’s even more the case in economically developing countries where money goes much further than it does in North America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim.

How can a tablet help you achieve your research goals?

With such a device handy, I would be in a better position to evaluate various approaches to mobile learning that would answer the questions I’ve outlined above. I indicated an Android device because such devices are more affordable and thus more common in economically developing countries.

Crazy Baldhead

This one is for Marcia Bright, Alula Raphael, and Scratchie Lloyd.

Don’t chase this crazy baldhead
Out of town

Me nah want your cabin
Me nah want your corn
Me nah want no slave
Me have respect, not scorn

Let’s build hospital, not penitentiary
Let’s use schools to make us free, not fools
Let’s have one love as our religion
Let’s leave God to one’s decision

There is always some conman
Coming with some con plan
But these words are not a bribe:
Let’s help each other stay alive.

Don’t chase this crazy baldhead
Out of town

Me, I not running

Political Persecution Of Indian Filmmaker Kamal Haasan

Note: A friend of mine in Tamil Nedu wanted to speak out about the censorship of Vishwaroopam, a film from Indian cinema legend Kamal Haasan, but he’s concerned about retaliation. The following are his remarks.

Well the dictator we have as Chief Minister Jayalalitha has used minority religious groups (Islamic groups) to stall the release of Vishwaroopam because Kamal Haasan once said the Congress minister P. Chidambaram is Prime Minister material. Now this has triggered a ban on the movie in its principal revenue making zone, Tamil Nadu, a 65 million populous state in India where there would be houseful shows shown so the film maker and actor Kamal can get back his money as he has pledged his property and assets all together in this film. The pyrotechnics in the film are of Hollywood standards and in his vision to take Indian cinema to global standards, has lavished money in production costs. Most Indian celebrities are trying placate and express their views but none of them stand against the state government.

Spoiler alert: Well it is a film about an Indian muslim spy who is an undercover Indian cop who sneaks as a mole into the Taliban camp in Afghanistan and turns a traitor and have the American forces gun them down eventually foiling the ploy to have bio and nuke bombs planted into doves and pigeons and sent all over the world by Afghan terrorists. There are a few instances of holy Quran verses chanted as soon as a killing scene. (Or probably that’s what the politicians have been using to instigate minority religious groups to stall the movie’s release).

Now the irony is they have shown such themes in many such movies however this has been picked by the government because our Chief Minister Jayalalitha is against the central government and since Kamal once said in a function openly that central minister P. Chidambaram is Prime Minister material and also to the fact that the satellite right went into the hands of he opposition parties owing to their higher bid, she wants blood and has create a needless controversy by provoking the minority Muslim groups.

Now the film has been made at a budget of a billion Indian rupees. Thats two times the assets owned by he producer and actor and superstar Kamal Haasan who has been a huge contributor to Indian cinema industry. He is an ant, if you understand my analogy, who does not stop working and has an amazing filmography and is worshipped in these parts of he world. But sadly is fragile as the government is playing spoil sport.

Vishwaroopam’s piracy hunt has been in huge proportions lately as millions of Facebook fans have been reporting torrents and download sites 24/7/365 and have been standing guard. Each one of his fan has taken an oath that until he gets out of debts through the good box office show of his movie released world wide we would not indulge in piracy and would only watch films in theaters. And we have travelled far and wide just to watch the movie in our neighboring states. But still those are worth peanuts and only Tamil Nadu release can see through his debts.

The NRA’s Response To Newtown Misses The Mark

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” — Benjamin Franklin

Police at riot
I have to admit to being disappointed. After Newtown, when those who run the NRA had no public statement, I was unsure of the reason. Was it that they believed that it would be politically disadvantageous for them to say anything for a while? Did they believe that it would be in their interest to wait to get a better sense of any change in public opinion in the wake of the massacre? Did they (unlike gun control advocates) actually have sufficient decorum to wait until after all of the funerals to politicize the tragedy?

But now we’ve learned that the real reason was none of these things. Instead, their response was delayed so long because, apparently, they have been working around the clock to come up with the most stupid and short-sighted possible response to the shootings. Put simply, for them to suggest that it’s actually necessary or wise to have an armed policeman in every school in America is so ridiculous if I hadn’t read it on their own web site I wouldn’t have believed they could say something that obtuse.

Now I understand the basic idea behind their proposal, that places where good guys don’t have guns, only bad guys will have them. And with that much I can agree. But as I see it, there are three really glaring flaws in any plan to station armed police in every public school in America.

First, it accepts at face value the hysterical notion that children are in unreasonable danger when they go to school. Events like Newtown and Columbine are horrific, but they’re also incredibly rare. I have four kids in public schools in the U.S., and I am no more concerned that they’ll be killed at school than I am if they go to the mall, or a museum, or any other public place. I realize that there is always a chance that something terrible could happen, and I don’t mean to minimize the sorrow of parents who have lost children to violence. But there is no way to keep kids completely safe, and there comes a point when one has already taken all reasonable precautions.

Second, this is the sort of proposal that addresses the symptom of the disease rather than the root cause. By the time someone gets to the point where they’re shooting innocent kids in a school, to blame the gun is like blaming a pencil because the one holding it never learned how to spell properly. American culture doesn’t take mental illness seriously enough, in particular when it focuses on liberally dispensing psychotropic drugs that destabilize people as often as help them. Americans’ lazy relationship with news media isn’t helpful either, because the sort of attention these incidents get serves only to glorify those who commit these atrocities.

Finally, the NRA’s plan shows that their leaders may care about private gun ownership, but have no concern for what it will take to slow the continuing decline of American freedom. The key to having kids grow up thinking of themselves as the heirs to a free society is not to have them spend the majority of their waking hours in the company of armed police. The history of liberty’s decline is the history of the use of crises as an excuse to increase government control over people’s lives, so the suggestion that we acclimate future generations to the constant presence of armed government officials is one that might be better expected from an organization that promotes tyranny than liberty.

It’s important to remember that no matter what its detractors say, the NRA doesn’t speak for all gun owners nor for those like me who don’t own a gun but believe the government has no legitimate role to play in an individual’s right to choose whether or not to do so. With this poorly considered proposal, that’s certainly the case. There’s no way to ensure perfect safety for kids, and armed cops in schools is no exception. But even on an individual basis we can renew our commitment to valuing life, accentuate positivity in ourselves, and promote an environment of concern for one another. Passing on those sorts of cultural changes on to future generations, not gun control or armed cops in schools, is the best way to respond to this tragedy.