Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 12, 2016

Matriarchy and the Intelligence Paradox


“There are known knowns. These are things we know we know. There are known unknowns. That is, things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” — Donald Rumsfeld

I picked the Rumsfeld quote because it fit one of the topics of this blog post, but I now see that it’s even more appropriate than I’d thought.

Whatever his merits or demerits, Rumsfeld is a very smart guy, typical of the type. He’s accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room, or at least thinking he is. He knows a lot. He has unrealistic confidence in his own judgment, both on matters of fact and of morality.

He’s confident that if he thinks an idea will work, then it will. He bet American soldiers’ lives and a trillion taxpayer dollars on his belief that conquering Iraq would make it a Western-style democracy and a staunch American ally. Oops. No such luck. It was a catastrophe for everyone but Iran and ISIS.

Which brings us to another very smart guy who is also, thank goodness, a much better guy than Rumsfeld. Eric Kaplan is a blogger I read regularly. He’s probably best known as the author of the book Does Santa Exist?, which I found both entertaining and thought-provoking. His blog writings are similarly good, though often whimsical and obscure. Since he’s funny, I’m never sure if the obscure parts are meant as a joke, and whether I’m acting as his interlocutor or as his straight man.

One of his recent blog posts (“Crazy Males”) seems whimsical, but it raises some serious issues. Because he didn’t pursue the issues, I will. You’re welcome. I am, after all, the smartest guy in the room. Sure, I’m the only guy in the room at the moment, but I’m still the smartest.

Are men unfit for political office?

Eric argues as follows:

  • Traditionally, men have been fathers, husbands, providers, and protectors.
  • Those roles are now obsolete. Contraception lets women avoid pregnancy, while physically undemanding office jobs let them provide for themselves.
  • As a result, men suffer from “anxiety which in turn creates neurotic, anti-social behavior.”
  • Therefore, men should not hold positions of power until they adjust to the new situation.

What are we to make of this argument?

The first point to note is that in the aggregate, people do not need a special reason to engage in neurotic, anti-social behavior. A certain amount of it is baked into human DNA, though it varies from one person to another and from one group to another. Some exhibit high levels of neurosis and aggression, while others have less. Moreover, such behavior is not confined to a single sex. A man might shoot you or punch you in the face, while a woman similarly inclined might poison your tea or falsely accuse you of child abuse.

The second point is that by historical standards, men of European and Jewish ancestry are much less violent and more tolerant than their predecessors. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker devoted a whole book to the subject. Of particular interest are the dramatic declines in violence since the 1960s, when contraception became widely available and feminism began its long march from fringe ideology to social orthodoxy.


Men commit most homicides and rapes. If altered social roles were causing an increase in male misbehavior, we’d expect to see exactly the opposite of what Pinker’s graph shows. Indeed, many men in the West are now so thoroughly domesticated, passive and weak that they invite ridicule and contempt — not least from those heterosexual women who in theory approve of gelded metrosexuals but in practice prefer to hook up with “bad boys” who treat them like dirt, which might also explain their support for Islamic invasion of their own countries. Those are, by the way, some of the neuroses suffered by women as a result of social change.


Matriarchy, novelty, and smart-crazy ideas

Be that as it may, there’s no disputing the fact that most wars are started by men, and that men’s decisions in government are frequently awful. Maybe it’s time, as Eric suggests, for men to step aside and give women a chance to run things.

At the individual level, it wouldn’t be much of a change. My father told me that when he was growing up, my grandfather made all the major decisions for the family — but the decisions he made were always the ones my grandmother wanted him to make. “We men don’t care if we really run things,” my father explained, “as long as our wives let us think that we do.” Women have always exercised power, but less obviously and directly than men. Feminists are confused on that point, since they think that they’re not exercising power unless they’re barking orders like a Parris Island drill sergeant.

My maternal grandmother was an illuminating example of how women can exercise power — that is, power as the ability to identify goals and then get them done. She founded a successful national business in an era when feminists claim that women couldn’t do things like that. A family story describes one of her characteristic methods. She’d have a casual conversation with a business associate and then go on her way. An hour or so later, the associate would get a brilliant idea. He’d take the idea to my grandmother, who would say, “That’s great! Well done! Go do it!” Of course, she had subtly planted the idea in the person’s mind. She not only got the job done, but she also ensured that her associate was fully committed to the goal because it was “his” idea.

At the national level, on the other hand, major decisions usually have been and still are made by men. In the highest levels of government, “the patriarchy” actually exists. Should we dump the patriarchy in favor of a matriarchy?

Leave aside the obvious problem of persuading people with power to relinquish it. Assume we can do that. Why not give it a try?

I don’t think there’s only one correct way to run a country, so if a majority voted for a matriarchy, it would be okay with me. I have my doubts about its viability, but to some extent a country is like a club: if you don’t like how it’s run, you can leave and join a different club. If I didn’t like it, I’d leave. As long as the majority doesn’t want violations of basic human rights, the majority should get what it wants — “good and hard,” as H.L. Mencken said.

However, the suggestion that we should abandon the normal practice of human societies — political patriarchy — is an example of what psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa calls “the intelligence paradox.” It’s the kind of idea advanced by very smart people who have unrealistic confidence in their own judgment and who pay scant attention to human history. They’re confident that if they think an idea will work, then it will. “This time, it’s different” is a refrain that’s heard often through the centuries, and it usually presages disaster.

Matriarchy is less implausible than a lot of smart ideas. Some of the ideas are so loopy, so utterly off-planet, that only extremely intelligent people could ever believe in them. One such idea recently surfaced in Britain: that schools should use pornography to teach five-year-olds about sex:

“Jenni Murray, BBC Radio 4 journalist, said children should analyse porn like a Jane Austen novel: ‘You put boys and girls together in a class and you show them a pornographic film and you analyse it in exactly the same way as you teach them to read all the other cultures around them.'”

The difference between matriarchy and porn-for-children is one of degree. Only very intelligent people advocate such ideas, because only very intelligent people can know enough to argue for them with even the slightest amount of credibility. The less intelligent cannot argue well but are more likely to have common sense that embodies both biological intuitions and the experience of the human race.

Bruce Charlton gives an excellent and more extensive analysis of smart-crazy ideas in his article “Clever sillies: Why high-IQ tend to be deficient in common sense.”

Intelligent or less so, male or female, human brains were not adapted by evolution to cope with the complexities of our modern technological society. Kanazawa calls it “the Savanna principle:”

”The human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. We are stuck with the stone-age brain which assumes that we are still hunter-gatherers on the African savanna, and responds to the environment as if it were the African savanna.”

That’s why pornography excites people and why they form emotional attachments to TV characters. Photos and video did not exist in the ancestral environment. Despite conscious awareness that what they see is “not real,” stone-age brains cannot distinguish between the images and real people. Their emotions react accordingly.

The point is not that hunter-gatherer societies would or wouldn’t endorse matriarchy. The point is that when we try to analyze complex technological, social, and political situations, we are intellectually out of our depth. Our thinking is error-prone. We must be very careful. Just because something seems in the abstract to be a terrific idea does not mean it won’t be a terrific disaster.

In 1999, it seemed like a terrific idea to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act and deregulate investment banks: the result was the worldwide economic catastrophe of 2008. After the invention of modern antibiotics, it seemed like a terrific idea to prescribe them for almost any minor illness: the result was the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria that kill people and are impervious to treatment.

The medical example is a good one, since it recalls a traditional principle of medicine:

“First, do no harm.”

The idea that a doctor’s first job is to do no harm is frustrating when we’re sick and there’s really nothing sensible to do about it. “Take aspirin, drink plenty of fluids, and you’ll feel better in a few days” isn’t what we want to hear. But there’s a lot of good sense behind that prescription.

Oddly enough, it has to do with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system, disorder (entropy) increases over time.

Disorder increases because there are many more ways for things to be chaotic than for them to be organized in useful ways. As a result, the probability of disorder is greater than the probability of order. Applied to human society, it means that there are more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right.

Thus, other things being equal, the overall result of any social change is more likely to be bad than to be good. If we want to make such changes, we should be very sure that we know what we’re doing — and we very rarely are. To minimize the risk of harm, we should make social changes slowly, in small increments, and then assess the results before going any further.

This goes to the very heart of political and moral conservatism. Conservatism is not mainly a set of doctrines, such as lower taxes or traditional marriage. It’s mainly an attitude of caution about social change. It’s the belief that if certain practices and institutions have worked well for thousands of years in many different kinds of societies, then we shouldn’t carelessly trade them for new ones that sound good but might be catastrophic. Political philosopher Michael Oakeshott explains:

”The man of conservative temperament believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better.”

Proposed social change should be evaluated carefully:

”Innovation entails certain loss and possible gain. Therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change will be on the whole beneficial, is with the would-be innovator. The conservative prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite. He favors a slow rather than a rapid pace, with pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments.”

Ironically, Hillary Clinton was in one sense the conservative candidate in the 2016 presidential election. She opposed the change championed by Donald Trump. She wanted to conserve the current system, albeit a system aimed at the very un-conservative goal of remaking America into a third-world dystopia from which only the super-rich and their client groups would benefit. Trump, on the other hand, was a radical candidate who vowed to change the current system and replace it with one favorable to the American majority.

But what of matriarchy?

But what of matriarchy? I think that “Dilbert” writer-cartoonist Scott Adams got it right: Ms. Clinton won that battle, not for herself, but for a qualified and less unsavory female candidate in the future:

”Clinton deserves credit for breaking the glass ceiling for the highest office, at least in our minds, and that’s where it matters most. In 2016, no thinking person believes gender is a job requirement for president. That isn’t even a thing anymore. And Clinton did that for the country. You have to respect that.”

It’s a novelty but a reasonable risk. Disastrous female leaders such as Angela Merkel are balanced by disastrous male leaders such as Barack Obama, as well as by great female leaders such as Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher. Sexually, it’s a wash.

Women can run things. Men can run things. However, not all women or all men are qualified. We’ll have to assess the candidates on merit, not on the basis of their sex.

And if you think that is sexist, then you don’t know what “sexist” means.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 9, 2016

Working Together for a Better America

american-flag-009Donald Trump was always a roll of the dice. We rolled the dice because the only alternative was to accept our destruction as a country and as a people. Now, we must work together to rebuild America for all Americans, regardless of our disagreements.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Only federalism can unite a vast country like America in which large groups of people have irresolvable differences of opinion about morality, politics, and religion. Our Constitution left most decisions to states and localities, limiting the federal government to enumerated powers for specific national interests: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” (10th Amendment, in The Bill of Rights)

  • Equality under the law for everyone. Special privileges for no one.

  • Limited only by basic human rights, the good of the many outweighs the good of the few. Law and social policy should promote the interests of the majority while respecting the legitimate rights of minorities.

  • Immigration policy should protect Americans and American society.

  • Americans and Somalis (et al) are not interchangeable.

  • Men and women are not interchangeable.

  • There are only two sexes. Accept reality.

  • Corporations (including banks) are legal fictions chartered by the government. They should serve the public interest. The public is not here to serve them.

  • The mission of education is to educate, not to babysit, to humor the mentally ill, to foment social destruction, or to provide jobs for people with worthless victims-studies degrees.

  • The mission of the courts is to interpret and apply the law, not to create new law from the bench.

  • The American flag symbolizes our country, its people, and its history. If you feel like burning it, spitting on it, or stepping on it, then you may leave. Saudi Arabia would be happy to take you.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | October 12, 2016

“Mischievous Kiss” Comes to Netflix


One of my favorite romantic comedy television series has just come to Netflix: “Mischievous Kiss.”

Based on a Japanese graphic novel (manga),1 it’s the story of Kotoko Aihara, a girl who loves Naoki Irie, the smartest boy in her high school and probably the smartest in Japan. He doesn’t even know she exists, and when she tries to give him a love letter, he callously rejects her.

After her house is destroyed by a meteorite, Kotoko and her father move in with the family of her father’s best friend — a family that includes Naoki, the older son.

It’s not a mystery how the story will end, since the the opening credits show Naoki and Kotoko kissing. But there are a lot of twists and turns along the way.

Naoki is so smart that his life has been easy and predictable. Kotoko brings him a healthy dose of chaos. Though initially frustrated and confused by Kotoko, he starts to realize that life is much more interesting with her around.

Kotoko isn’t as smart as Naoki, but she has qualities of character that he lacks: she is determined, courageous, and passionate about everything. Each of them complements the other.


Naoki can’t quite admit that he loves Kotoko, but in the final episode he thinks he’s going to lose her. The moment when his reticence finally breaks is marked by a nice visual, and he declares his love for her.


Most Japanese TV shows have only one season of 10 to 15 episodes. “Mischievous Kiss” has two seasons of 16 episodes. The first season follows Naoki and Kotoko through their last year of high school and their first years of college. The second season begins with their honeymoon in Okinawa, after which Naoki becomes a physician and Kotoko a nurse who works with him.

I liked the series so much that I bought the DVD sets, which cost a pretty penny to order directly from Japan. It’s nice to see that the show will finally get a wider audience in America.

  1. Japan isn’t exactly Western civilization, but it embodies many of the qualities that once made Western countries great: honor, decency, hard work, and consideration for others. The Japanese respect themselves, each other, their culture, and their country. 
Posted by: N.S. Palmer | September 29, 2016

A Picture of the Problem


Posted by: N.S. Palmer | September 28, 2016

I Couldn’t Get Into Yale (in 1745)


If the year were 1745, I couldn’t get into Yale as a student.

I’m fairly well educated for the 21st century. However, I lack the qualifications that 18th-century Yale expected of incoming students. The Yale regulations of 1745 list the requirements. They’re an illuminating read. I found them in The Annals of America, but they’re also on the web.

Concerning Admission Into College

First, students had to be able “extempore to read, construe, and parse Tully, Virgil, and the Greek Testament.”

I’ve read a little Virgil and Tully (Cicero) in English translation, but I know only a few words of Greek. I couldn’t even begin to read “the Greek Testament.”

Second, students had “to write true Latin prose.”

I took two years of Latin in middle school, but I’m not sure if I could have written “true Latin prose” even then.

Third, students had to know “common arithmetic.”

Finally, it’s something that I’ve got covered. As a mathematician, I know a lot more than common arithmetic.

Fourth, each student had to “bring sufficient testimony of his blameless and inoffensive life.”

Hmm. Not sure about that one. A few people might say that about me, but I wouldn’t say it about myself. My ex wouldn’t say it about me, either.

Of A Religious and Virtuous Life

“All scholars shall live religious, godly, and blameless lives according to the rules of God’s Word, diligently reading the Holy Scriptures, and constantly attend upon all the duties of religion, both in public and secret.”

Frankly, I think that anyone who claims to lead a “blameless” life is a saint, a liar, or deluded. I read the Bible, but I have a feeling that “the Holy Scriptures” here means the New Testament. As a Jew, I’m familiar with it but don’t regard it as binding. And I’m sure that Yale in 1745 didn’t admit any non-Christians.

“If any student shall profane the Sabbath by unnecessary business, diversion, walking abroad, or making any indecent noise or disorder on the said day, or on the evening before or after, or shall be guilty of any rude, profane, or indecent behavior … he shall be punished, admonished, or otherwise according to the nature and demerit of his crime.”

It’s a safe bet that the regulation covers driving on the Sabbath. Darn it! Oops. That’s rude.

Concerning Scholastical Exercises

“No student shall walk abroad, or be absent from his chamber, except half an hour after breakfast, and an hour and a half after dinner, and from prayers at night to nine o’clock without leave. To this end, the president or tutors shall visit students’ chambers after nine o’clock to see if they are at their chambers and apply themselves to their studies.”

And of course, “his” chamber refers exclusively to male students. Yale did not admit female students until 1969.

“In the first year, they shall study tongues [languages] and logic. In the second year, they shall recite rhetoric, geometry, and geography. In the third year, natural philosophy [physical science], astronomy, and other parts of mathematics.”

Sounds like a pretty strong curriculum. But no gender studies? No “politics of pop culture”?

“Every Saturday shall especially be allotted to the study of divinity, and the classes shall recite the Westminster Confession of Faith received and approved by the churches in this colony.”

Apparently, all the Muslims who Obama says have been part of America since its founding were nowhere in evidence. Maybe they showed up later when they all signed the Declaration of Independence. Hmm. I don’t see them in the picture. They were probably taking a break.


Of Penal Laws

“If any student shall be guilty of blasphemy, fornication, robbery, forgery, or any other such great and atrocious crime, he shall be expelled forthwith.”

There goes half of the football team.

“If any student shall deny the Holy Scriptures or any part of them to be the Word of God, he shall be expelled.”

Good luck with that now. Yale can’t even suggest that people chill out about Halloween costumes without causing hysteria among the special snowflakes.

“If any student shall be guilty of profane swearing, cursing, vowing, any petty or implicit oath, profane or irreverent use of the names, attributes, ordinances, or Word of God …”

Oh, and here’s a good part:

“… disobedient, contumacious, or refractory carriage toward his superiors, fighting, striking, quarreling, turbulent words or behavior …”

Someone call the speech police, because this is hateful transphobia:

“… wearing women’s apparel …”

And back to more mundane offenses:

“… defrauding, injustice, idleness, lying, defamation, or any suchlike immoralities, he shall be punished by fine, confession, admonition, or expulsion, as the nature and circumstances of the case may require.”

So let’s see: Students can get expelled for blasphemy, heresy, cursing; showing disrespect to professors (Nicholas Christakis, call your office); cross-dressing, and generally acting like the backside of a horse.

“That every freshman shall be obliged to go any reasonable and proper errand when he is sent by any student in any superior class.”

Uncompensated and involuntary? I don’t expect the snowflakes to like that very much. And please, nobody tell them that Elihu Yale made a lot of money in the slave trade.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 31, 2016

When Smart People Say Stupid Things


“It isn’t possible to get to the moon.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein, September 1950 (On Certainty #286)

“It isn’t possible to get to the moon without a rocket.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein, July 1969 (probably apocryphal)

Sometimes, people who I respect say things that seem stupid. It’s disquieting but it’s actually helpful.

If stupid people say stupid things, it’s expected. That’s their job. However, if smart people say “stupid things,” it forces us to re-examine the issues. That applies especially when the people are every bit as smart as we are, and then some.

Are their ideas really as stupid as we thought? What’s the evidence?

When the evidence is open to multiple interpretations, what “judgment calls” do they make differently from us, and why?

What’s the role of life experience? Of emotional sympathy? Of their intellectual environment?

No two thinking people always agree, and if they did, it would be intolerably boring. I hate being bored.

In the current case, I think I understand the disagreement. It’s mainly a matter of life experience, generosity of spirit, moral courage, and judgment calls that reasonable people can make differently. We are the people we are — virtues, flaws, blind spots, and all.

Understanding the reasons for disagreement doesn’t eliminate it, but it helps us see the issues in a wider and more tolerant perspective. It helps me, at least.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 18, 2016

Why Are People So Mean on the Internet?


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Why are people so mean on the Internet?

Political polarization is sad, but it’s not the problem. Every day, we encounter people who disagree with us, but we do it without histrionics or name-calling. We probably even count some of them as friends and family.

Nasty people are also not the cause. They exist, but there aren’t enough of them to poison the Internet. And even they restrain themselves most of the time.

However, the Internet is a different environment. We don’t interact with people face to face. We don’t see them. Sometimes, we don’t even know their names, nor they ours. That’s important in a couple of ways.

First, the people we encounter on the Internet seem less real to us than those we meet in person. As a result, we tend to take them less seriously as human beings. We are less inclined to worry about hurting their feelings or treating them unjustly. Quite realistically, we are also less likely to worry about arguments leading to physical confrontation or retribution.

Second, the Internet feels anonymous even if it really isn’t. We are sitting in our homes where nobody can see us. We are less inclined to feel shame if we do something hurtful.

Those two factors combine to bring out the nastiness in many people who are otherwise perfectly normal.

All of us suffer from occasional anger and frustration, but in real life, we might not be able to do anything about them. Our boss might unjustly criticize our work, but we don’t want to get fired so we say nothing. A friend might disappoint us, but we have no recourse. A spouse might infuriate us, but we don’t want to prolong the argument. So we bottle up our rage, until we get on the computer. Then, some of us have a rage-fest.

On the Internet, people often vent their anger at whatever targets are available. Someone who has a different political opinion. A celebrity who did something that made the news. A person who we think made too much money and didn’t deserve it. Someone we just don’t like for no particular reason.

A psychological principle applies both on and off the Internet: If people’s anger is wildly out of proportion to what they say they’re angry about, then they’re really angry about something else.

If someone on the Internet calls you vile names or makes horrible accusations because you support candidate X or you’re a member of religion Y, then it’s not about X or Y at all. It’s about something in the person’s own life that he or she can’t handle, so the anger gets targeted at you instead. The drama is playing inside the person’s head, and you got cast as the villain.

The same thing is true off the Internet. If your spouse is enraged because of something trivial, it’s not really about the trivial thing. It’s about what happened yesterday, or last week.

Knowing the causes of Internet nastiness doesn’t solve the problem. Sometimes, the results are tragic. Children, especially, are vulnerable to Internet bullying – even to the point of suicide. Adults can suffer depression or job loss because of Internet harassment.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to offer a reassuring solution. Unfortunately, I don’t have one. The best I can suggest is this:

  • Don’t take Internet insults seriously. People who resort to insults, name-calling, and other kinds of online vitriol are either venting anger that has nothing to do with you, or they are deliberately trying to goad you into a screaming match. Ignore them. A long-standing bit of Internet wisdom applies: “Please do not feed the trolls.”
  • Remember that even well-meaning comments sometimes don’t come across as the writer intended. In real life, we rely on vocal intonations, facial expressions, and body language to provide context that is completely absent on the Internet. If something can be interpreted in an innocuous way or as an insult, then you should interpret it in the innocuous way.
  • When you write things to other people on the Internet, remember that even if you don’t see them, they are still real people. Don’t treat them in ways that you wouldn’t treat them if they were standing in front of you. And be careful to avoid saying things that might be misinterpreted.

American founder Benjamin Franklin had a helpful motto: “I will speak ill of no one, and say all the good I can of everyone.”

It works just as well on the Internet.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | July 23, 2016

The Trouble with Libertarianism


“Libertarianism can and does work.”

That’s the conclusion of a guest post on the “Ex-Army” blog site. For reasons unknown, the site (hosted by Google-owned Blogspot) has been deleted.

I agree that libertarianism can and does work. It works (at least somewhat and for a while) with groups of people who have:

  • Above-average intelligence,1
  • Adequate impulse control,
  • A common language,
  • A good education, and
  • Shared history, values, and traditions.
  • Shared ethnicity helps but is not essential.

Those things provide the respect for personal autonomy, tolerance of disagreement, and commitment to the common good (!) that make libertarianism possible.

Libertarians usually have those qualities at least to some degree. So do all their friends and associates.

As a result, like fish who are unable to see the water in which they swim, libertarians take those qualities for granted. They assume that libertarianism will work with any group of people, no matter how diverse and bitterly divided the group might be, or how lacking its people might be in the essential qualities that would make a libertarian society possible. Political philosopher Edmund Burke zeroed in on the main problem:

”Men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”2


Even among libertarians, libertarianism is a utopian idea because libertarians themselves vary in the qualities that make libertarianism possible.

When I worked on Capitol Hill (for the honest and decent Ron Paul, among other people), I worked with some libertarians who were committed idealists. I worked with others who were simply careerists or who used libertarianism primarily as a means to power, wealth, and personal aggrandizement. They would have been just as happy spouting socialist arguments or selling used cars, but they apparently thought that libertarianism would pay better.

By the nature of human groups, power sooner or later tends to come into the hands of those who want it and seek to acquire it. The idealists, who don’t care about power, end up taking orders from the people who do care about it.

Ironically, libertarians commit the same mistake as liberals and Marxists: They assume that human beings and human society are perfectible. That error stems from a deeper one: Libertarians base their beliefs on abstract ideology instead of looking at real people and real societies.

They start with a definition: “Man is a rational animal.” Then they might throw in a little Randian mumbo-jumbo about how “A is A” implies free-market economics.

From that, they deduce how they think things ought to work. They assume that how things ought to work is how they in fact do work. They see no need to check their conclusions against reality because their premises seemed sound and their reasoning seemed logical. As a result, it escapes them that there has never been a libertarian society that lasted for any significant length of time.3

Which brings to mind a joke about economists: If you show an economist that an idea works in practice, he objects: “Yes, but does it work in theory?”

The biggest problem with libertarianism is not that it’s mistaken, historically oblivious, or based on wildly inaccurate notions of human nature and human society. The biggest problem is that it leads intelligent, educated, well-meaning people on a political wild goose chase. It causes them to waste their time and effort pursuing an unattainable utopian ideal instead of working for attainable goods that would benefit real people. The French philosopher Voltaire diagnosed the problem:

”The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

The more complete quote from Edmund Burke alludes to the good that libertarianism spurns in favor of unattainable perfection:

“Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”4

Works Cited

Burke, E. (2014), The Complete Works of Edmund Burke. Hastings: Delphi Classics. Kindle edition.


  1. As measured by any of the standard IQ tests, some of which are designed to eliminate cultural bias. Various human groups have different mean IQs, but an IQ of 100 is a reasonable minimum for a viable libertarian society. 
  2. Burke, E. (2014), loc. 69542. 
  3. Dr. Rinth de Shadley gave an excellent analysis of libertarianism. Sadly, she is a liberal, but she is still a nice person and is quite brilliant. 
  4. Ibid, loc. 69542. 
Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 30, 2016

A Friend in Politics


”If you want a friend in politics, buy a dog.”

That adage is sometimes attributed to Everett Dirksen (1896-1969), who represented the State of Illinois from 1933-1969 in the U.S. House of Representatives and then in the Senate. Dirksen is best known for helping write the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and for staunchly supporting the Vietnam War.

Decades after Dirksen passed away, I arrived on Capitol Hill as a freshly-minted college graduate who wanted to make a better world — and thought he could. I’d done well in school, had read lots of books, and believed that I knew how the world worked. I was chock-full of moral and political principles, suffering from what the humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz jokingly called “principle-itis.”

I thought that the problem with Washington was that politicians didn’t understand economics, history, or the Constitution. They needed to be educated by someone who’d read a lot of books. And I was just the person to do it.

Do I need to point out that being well-read is compatible with being incredibly naive?

I knew what books said about how American government worked, but I was unprepared for the reality. Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), who was Chancellor of Germany, put it best:

”Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”1

My first job interviews should have given me a clue. Because I was a libertarian, most of the interviews were with Republican politicians’ staff or Republican-leaning political groups. I wanted to tell them about freedom, economics, and the Constitution.

They only wanted the answer to one question: Was I a loyal Republican?

I always had trouble with that one.

Washington’s Moral Inversion

I eventually realized that it was how Washington worked. It worked that way because it was a winning strategy. Minor parties that wouldn’t compromise their principles stayed morally pure but couldn’t get anything done, at least in the short run. The major parties couldn’t remember their principles, if indeed they’d ever had any.

The situation causes a strange moral inversion that you wouldn’t think of unless you had seen it at your job every day. It’s this: In politics, morally serious people are considered untrustworthy, while amoral careerists are trusted.

Suppose that you’re a U.S. Senator who supports policy X. It doesn’t matter what X is: for example, war, abortion, or religious freedom. And you have two staff members:

  • One sincerely and enthusiastically believes in X. It’s why he wanted to work for you.
  • The other doesn’t care at all about X. He cares only about money, power, and career advancement. (This type is much, much more common than the sincere believer.)

Both of your staff members support X. Then, for some reason, you decide to stop supporting X and throw your support to the other side. What happens then?

The staff member who sincerely believes in X becomes unreliable. His commitment is not to you, but to X. You don’t trust him anymore.

On the other hand, the staff member whose only interest is in money, power, and personal advancement will support you as long as (a) you provide those things and (b) nobody else makes him a better offer. You can trust him, at least as much as you can ever trust anyone like that. Your flip-flop on policy X won’t make any difference to him. He’ll support your new policy position just as vigorously as the old one.

In Washington, loyalty to your boss and your party is almost everything. On one occasion, I was working for a libertarian political group and discovered that it was using pirated copies of software. For better or worse, I was enough of a team player that I didn’t report it to anyone except my boss. That, however, put me under suspicion because I was considered an honest person who might call the software company. The situation got uncomfortable enough that I shortly thereafter took another job. I was better off than a friend of mine, who reported embezzlement at a government agency and then was himself framed for the crime. (I have no first-hand knowledge of it, but I believe my friend.)

Books, Speeches, and Degrees

Most of the books “authored” by politicians are not written by them. Instead, they’re written by professional ghostwriters, and occasionally by the politician’s staff. The same applies to politicians’ speeches, though I think most people know that already.

And at least some of the advanced academic degrees held by political players are based on work that other people did for them. I know first-hand of one case and second-hand of another. Beyond that, it’s all rumor because nobody involved in academic fraud wants to admit to it.

First and Second Bananas

Presidents and vice-presidents of political groups were another oddity. I can’t explain it, but I saw it often enough to recognize a pattern.

The presidents of political groups were sometimes awful human beings who were only in it for themselves. They didn’t believe in what their groups were doing and they treated their staffs badly. But if big-money donors walked into the room, the very same sociopathic tyrants suddenly turned into the most likeable and idealistic people you ever saw. I witnessed that transformation several times.

The vice presidents of political groups were another story. They were often idealists, truly decent people who believed in what their groups were doing. They were the ones who did the work and got good-faith cooperation from others. They kept the staffs from quitting. Very strange.

And the U.S. Postal Service …

After a few years, I’d had enough of Washington politics and switched to a job as a news reporter. I covered several federal agencies, including the FBI, NASA, and the U.S. Postal Service. Some things would surprise you, and others wouldn’t.

At the FBI, all of my experience was positive. They seemed like an honorable bunch of people. There were certain things that they wouldn’t tell you, and certain things they wouldn’t do for you, but it wasn’t arbitrary. You were not allowed to go anywhere in FBI headquarters without an escort, and you weren’t going to interview any FBI officials without a public-affairs person being present. They knew I had a job to do, and I knew the same about them. I’m sure that there were and are bad apples, black ops, and all that, but the FBI people who I knew were aces.

The NASA people: What can I say? As you would expect, they were wicked smart. For what we think of as a “space agency,” they devoted a surprising amount of attention to climate change. One of them, James Hansen, had been a climate-change skeptic before I met him. He ended up becoming a climate-change activist and quitting NASA. That made an impression on me.

And the U.S. Postal Service? As you might not expect, there were a lot of very smart people at the USPS. Most of the people I interviewed worked on artificial-intelligence projects to automate mail management. Their technical ideas were very impressive; it’s just too bad that they never had the money to implement most of them.


  1. There is some doubt about whether Bismarck actually said it. According to Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, it more likely originated with 19th-century lawyer John Godfrey Saxe and was attributed to Bismarck because he was famous. 
Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 22, 2016

What’s Changed Since 1916


Some things change, and some don’t.

That was the central argument between the Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides (both ca. 500 BCE). Heraclitus thought that the only constant was change. He argued that you can’t step into the same river twice, because by the time you step into it a second time, it’s already changed. Parmenides, on the other hand, believed that change was only apparent and that real things did not change. We’re still having the same argument over two millennia later.

The fairest judgment is that both Heraclitus and Parmenides were right, but that they emphasized different things. Looking back 100 years at how America was in 1916, we find that some things have changed and others have stayed the same.

My bookshelf provides many such windows into the past. One item on the shelf is a tattered copy of The American Review of Reviews from January 1916. Founded by Albert Shaw, who had been a classmate of future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the Review published from 1890 to 1937. Its January 1916 issue shows much of what has changed and what hasn’t changed since then.

Front Cover

The front cover (above) shows an issue price of 25 cents, or $3 for a year’s subscription. It lists articles by various luminaries. Notable is the now-forgotten Lothrop Stoddard, who was a popular public intellectual at the time — so much so that a character in The Great Gatsby (1925) refers to one of his books.1

The School Advertisements


One section has school advertisements grouped by geographic region. The schools are mostly single-sex, and all the boarding schools are single-sex. A page of text introduces the section and extols the virtues of private boarding schools:

”LOYALTY. There is a feeling we have for our native land: It is called patriotism. We have a similar feeling toward our friends and the institutions we hold dear … If as school boys and girls we are not heart and soul loyal to some one particular school, then we have lost a great opportunity to develop a true spirit of loyalty and appreciation not only of the individual but of groups of people and of communities — that big side of our character upon which in later life is built our ideals and our ambitions.”

The girls’ school ads emphasize languages, arts, household science (home economics), “special finishing courses” (i.e., how to act like a lady), and graduation certificates that provide a fast track to Vassar and other women’s colleges.

The boys’ school ads are often for military schools, since that was still considered a respectable upper-class career. They emphasize business, science, character-building, athletics, and college preparation. I was surprised not to find an ad for the school I attended, since it existed at the time and the magazine lists two of its rival schools.

Advertisement for History Books


The Great American Crisis was a 20-volume history of the American Civil War, “without bias or prejudice” and promising “justice to both North and South.”

It’s worth remembering that in 1916, plenty of Civil War veterans were aged but still alive. They probably occupied a place of honor in America similar to that of World War II veterans today. Each volume in the series is written by a different author, including Booker T. Washington, who was the pre-eminent black intellectual of his time and advised several American presidents.

The whole set cost $25. Purchasers sent in $1 up front and then paid $2 a month for a year.

Advertisement for Diet Books


One thing that hasn’t changed is the market for diet books. Do you want to know “what foods cause constipation, indigestion, fermentation, and rheumatism?” For only $3, you can get a little set of diet books by Eugene Christian, “recognized as the world’s greatest authority on food and its relation to the human system.” The ad doesn’t say if he’s recognized as an authority by anyone other than himself. But send no money: “Either return the books within five days or send $3.” That’s called the honor system, folks. It hasn’t been seen in America for a long time.

Better known than Eugene Christian was Horace Fletcher (1849-1919), who advocated chewing food 32 times before swallowing it: called “Fletcherizing” the food. His nickname was “The Great Masticator.” To this day, nobody knows if the nickname was intended to make fun of him. Ruminate on that, if you cud.

Progress of the World


The news analysis section discusses the Great War, of course: It had started in July 1914 and didn’t become “World War I” until there was a “World War II.” The article refers to it as “the European war,” as Americans often called it before the United States entered the war.

It’s true that when the Great War started, a lot of people thought it would be short: “German troops were assured that they would be home in time for Christmas.” Nobody expected it to turn into the continent-wide slaughterhouse that was arguably the beginning of the end for Western civilization. So many of our best men were killed that the name people applied to the generation of the 1920s — “the lost generation” — might more aptly have been given to the ones who died.

Even worse, the draconian surrender terms that the allies imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles (1919) made World War II almost inevitable, as John Maynard Keynes warned in The Economic Consequences of the Peace. The article quotes the German Chancellor addressing the Reichstag (the German parliament) in 1915:

”If our enemies make peace proposals compatible with Germany’s dignity and safety, then we shall always be ready to discuss them.”

The entry of America into the conflict tilted the balance enough that the victorious allies could and did humiliate the Germans. Wounded pride is always dangerous, and in that case, it proved to be deadly beyond imagination.

War Profiteers


Profit is not the only reason wars keep occurring, but it’s one of them. There’s money to be made by selling arms to all sides of every conflict.

War profiteers get richer and politicians pose as war heroes without ever getting near a battlefield. The only losers are voiceless: the dead, the wounded, and the taxpayers.

Educating Immigrants for America


Americans in 1916 assumed that immigrants would forsake their lands of origin and become Americans. The popular metaphor was that of the United States as a “melting pot,” in which distinct nationalities and cultures joined the dominant American culture and added to it.

The idea that immigrants should remain separate from or even hostile to the American mainstream would have been dismissed as foolish and harmful since it leads directly to social strife. We see the results all around us in 2016. Of course, assimilation was easier to wish for than to achieve:

”The process has too often been irregular and haphazard. Many who should have become citizens have failed to qualify because of the lack of proper encouragement and assistance.”

Reducing Illiteracy


Another thing that hasn’t changed much is the problem of illiteracy. We live in an interconnected world and an increasingly technological culture. People who can’t read adequately or at all are excluded from participation in most events and issues. That was less true in 1916, but it was still a problem for a democratic republic:

”The illiteracy of millions of unschooled men and women — children in mind, though adult in years.”

Current events on both sides of the Atlantic provide ample evidence that plenty of “children in mind, though adult in years” are still with us.

Finding a Sensible Cigarette


Educated people seldom smoke anymore. That’s more because of social pressure than because tobacco is unhealthful, a fact that has been known at least since the early 1600s. In 1604, King James IV of Scotland wrote about the dangers of tobacco, and he probably wasn’t the first one to do so.

Until the 1960s, smoking was as much in fashion as it is now out of fashion. An unintentionally funny radio commercial of the late 1940s reported on a survey of 114,000 doctors. The survey discovered that more doctors smoked Camel cigarettes than any other brand. The commercial suggested that for good health, everyone should “do what doctors do” and smoke Camels.

Back Cover: Buying a Good Car


Finding a good car is still a problem: That hasn’t changed. Reliability is crucial, especially as the car gets older:

“A Pierce-Arrow grows old as gracefully as a good oriental rug or a Chippendale chair.”

In 1916, automobiles were still a luxury item: notice the chauffeur in the picture. It wasn’t until the 1920s that millions of average families owned cars.


  1. Stoddard’s ideas are shocking today, but they were entirely mainstream in his time. He held views similar to those of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »