Monthly Archives: May 2012

These Are Not The Libertarians You Are Looking For

Since it’s election season in the United States, it’s time for the political parties to turn up the heat — get you excited (or better still, angry) about turning out and voting. And for some reason, whenever this time rolls around, libertarians get kicked in the butt.

Note I used a small-l. I’m not talking about the Libertarian Party, God Rest Their Soul, I’m talking about people who consider themselves advocates of personal freedoms and a society built on a healthy respect of those freedoms.

I suspect the reason libertarians get beat up so badly is that both parties play the libertarian card every so often, it’s just that the libertarians actually mean it, whereas the two parties are just using it as a trope to excite voters. For conservatives, yep, government should get out of your life — unless it’s abortion or legalization of drugs. For liberals, personal freedom is what it’s all about — unless you are doing something socially unacceptable like building your house on a wetland you own or legally avoiding taxes. For some reason, liberals seem to get really bent out of shape about libertarians, even more so than conservatives. Don’t know why.

After a recent thread on Hacker News that mentioned Peter Thiel, I’ve decided to set the matter straight about all this libertarian disinformation.

  • Libertarians are selfish. No. Believing in cherishing the individual is not the same as being selfish. Many libertarians organize charities, participate in outreach programs, feed the poor — gasp — all kinds of selfless things. They just feel that such acts have the most meaning if each person decides to do them, not if the majority foists it on everybody else.
  • Get your terms straight #1. Libertarians are those Ayn Rand nuts. Libertarians are not necessarily Ayn Rand followers. Those guys are objectivists. Yes, objectivism has influenced libertarianism, but the two groups disagree on many things such as foreign policy or the nature of the legitimate use of force by the state. Libertarians tend to start with political theory, ignoring ethics in order to be more inclusive. Objectivists come at the discussion from the opposite angle. There is no one school of thought for libertarians — they can believe anything. Compare this to the single thread of moral thought for Objectivists.
  • Get your terms straight #2. Libertarians are a bunch of Tea Party wankers. Libertarians are not necessarily Tea Party advocates. Yes, they are in favor of lower (or no) taxes, but not because they’ve been “Taxed Enough Already”. They were that way 100 years ago. There wasn’t a Tea party then.
  • Get your terms straight #3. Libertarians want to “get rid of all law enforcement [or government]” Wrong. Libertarians by and large want the minimal amount of government interference in their lives, not a zero amount. I don’t know any libertarians that want zero government or police forces. Those folks are called “anarchists.”
  • (From the thread) “They’re a class of abstract thinkers stuck in an imperfect world where their theories will always be unapologetically shattered by complex and unpredictable realities.” Yes, there is a time in your life when you are young and just discovering libertarian thought where you try to construct a theory of life, the universe, and everything. Sometimes this period persists through later life. But libertarianism is not a religion, cult, or way to calculate the complexities of the universe: there are libertarians that believe all sorts of things. Some are very pragmatic. Some are very theoretical. It varies; just like it does with folks of any other party. Practical libertarian thought is a tool, not an ideology.
  • “Libertarianism seems more like an elaborate, and status-reinforcing, justification for one’s own socioeconomic position.” This sounds much more like Objectivism or even Social Darwinism to me. Libertarians can feel quite compelled to help minorities and the poor. In fact, many people become libertarians after finally sitting down and seriously thinking through the best ways to rid our society of social injustices. They’d rather have something that works and might be unpopular than something that sounds good and creates more harm for everybody.
  • Libertarians lose themselves in theory because they believe the world is “comprised of sets of well meaning rational actors.” Not at all. In fact, the strength of libertarianism is that it does not assume that people are well-meaning or rational at all: simply that all humans should have the dignity of being wrong, evil, or clueless as long as they do not harm others. The system of government in the United States, for instance, was created by mostly libertarian-minded people who specifically designed it assuming that actors would act in selfish and ill-informed ways. That’s why it’s lasted so long.
  • Libertarians “Don’t [you] see the good things done by government? And you don’t see the damage caused by businesses and private individuals independently from and/or in the absence of government?” Yes, of course we do. Libertarians are all for government — in cases where it can uniquely help people. They are all against damage to others caused by businesses and individuals. There is no difference in what people observe or feel here. The only difference is choosing what underlying principle is used to help find ways to correct the bad things or enhance the good things, not whether these things or bad or good in the first place.
  • Libertarians have no empathy. Wrong. Libertarians have as much empathy as any other person. At some point, these anti-libertarian arguments cross the line into just ad-hominem attacks. They become a way of convincing people not to listen to libertarians no matter what they say. Libertarians are selfish theorists who lack basic compassion for others and believe all government is evil. That’s not an argument, that’s name-calling and an attempt to assassinate the character of other people instead of listening to them.

Libertarians start from a philosophy that the individual is sovereign. They believe that sovereignty should be emphasized above all else as much as possible — not that all people are the center of the universe, but that we should be very careful about taking freedoms away from people. History shows they rarely get them back. From there they believe that the ability to own property is the ultimate freedom people have. They believe that freedom of association and communication allows societal change. Where do they go from there? All over the place. Libertarians are a wild and woolly bunch. You ask a Republican what he believes and he’ll likely parrot the latest Republican talking points. Same goes for a Democrat. You ask a libertarian what he believes and you could get any kind of response. It’s almost like we’re the last of the independent thinkers. (wink) Or a bunch of cranks. It’s a fun and exciting political group either way.

Libertarians are not Gordon Gekko types saying only the strong should survive and the weak should perish. That sounds much more like a Hollywood caricature. They do not think people should not receive help from others. They do not want the abolition of government. They are not all pointy-headed academics with little experience of the real world. They are not just Republicans who want to smoke dope. Surprisingly, libertarians come in all shapes and sizes and feel just as much empathy and compassion for their fellow man as anybody else does. Just to be clear: I like government — as long as it is in its proper place. I am not opposed to taxes where a libertarian argument can effectively be made for them. Hell, I’ll go so far as to support social programs as long as they are based in libertarian thought and principles. The proper amount of structure is a good thing. Too much or too little is really bad. Design only enough government as is necessary for a stable society, not a bit more. Libertarian principles give us the tools necessary to create better government. Without them all we’re doing is creating a nightmare our children will have to live in.

I imagine libertarian-bashing will get worse as the U.S. election approaches in November and folks start realizing that for all the wonderful speeches both parties have made, personal freedoms are at an all-time low and just getting lower. That’s a truth that’s much better attacked than acknowledged.

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Don Pedro Island Wildlife (2012)

Had a great time on our family vacation this year. Don Pedro Island in southern Florida was a blast. Plenty of wildlife and lots of things to do.

Here are some pictures of the wildlife we saw while we were there (apologies if I mis-identify any of these. It’s my first time as a wildlife photographer):

reddish egret on don pedro island

The Reddish Egret is a bizarre-looking bird. Beautiful to look at, though.

Saw this bird our first day on the beach.

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You are standing on the thing you seek to criticize

(This post is not about religion) A few years back I got the chance to read David Bentley Hart’s defense of Christianity, “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies“, and he made a point that has stuck with me to this day: society eventually embraces concepts that are foreign, only to have people stand on top of the results of those concepts centuries later to denounce the entire effort. I’d call it stupid, but it’s so pandemic that the phrase “crisis of education” seems more appropriate.


And so we have people living in a modern world, provided for by capitalism, which while amoral is not stupid and doesn’t normally do stupid things, telling us about the evils of capitalism — in tweets sent from their iPhone. We have people buying “pure” products without chemicals in them — not aware that chemicals are an irreversible part of being alive. We have people not wanting to vaccinate their kids — not realizing that the only way you could rationally be able to do that is in a world where everybody else vaccinates.

We have people ranting on and on about the bad things democracies have given the world — not realizing that freedom of political speech is the very reason they’re able to rant. We have people ranting on and on about the dangers of a security state — without honestly acknowledging that being protected from dangers to democracy is the very reason they’re allowed to rant. (I abhor the security state, but that doesn’t mean that there are not honest and logical reasons for it, or that all counter-intelligence efforts are bad, just that we’ve went way too far with our application.)

I personally criticize the social nature of science — where popular ideas get funded and unpopular ones get shunned, and sometimes it takes a generation dying to get closer to the truth. I hate the herd mentality and the activist scientist. I think they cause harm to science itself. But many take the human vulnerabilities of science to make a case that science is itself mostly worthless — that everything in the world is just a matter of belief. They say that believing in gravity is much the same as believing in divine providence.

Everything is not the same. Bedrock principles are not there by blind luck. We’ve tried other ideas and they didn’t work at all. This is an extremely important thing to know. We have learned a lot about how to allow humans to live, love, and have a meaningful life over the past several centuries. Picking out principles for having a dynamic economy or a vibrant scientific community isn’t like choosing a flavor of ice-cream at a dinner buffet. Yet vast swaths of people — people with six-figure incomes and college debts — think it is. They haven’t been taught the critical thinking skills or given the testicular fortitude to make cultural value decisions. And so here we are.

This convenience of belief is even more evident in identity politics. The Irish in America were treated like hell, until things got better. But do you think they’d stick up for the African-Americans? Not a chance. Once their lot improved, they left the African-Americans to their own defense. Would the blacks stand up for the Hispanics? For the most part, no. How about the Hispanics standing up for the LGBT community? Again, mostly no. In fact, I’d argue that in general the group most recently stigmatized are often the worst at doing the same to others. Time for a little payback.

Everybody seems to love to argue principles as long as it’s their group. Once it’s not their group, the principle doesn’t seem to matter so much any more. Yet it’s the application of principles that allows the conversation that society needs to evolve. Instead of understanding that certain principles allow for most any kind of government where progress and freedom can occur, we pick up principles are if they were convenient clubs to beat each other over the heads with until we get our way. We stand on the very thing we seek to criticize.

This is from people who mostly consider themselves well-educated and knowledgeable. Don’t get me started on the ones who don’t have the benefit of a higher education. I’m not going to go down that road. Why? Because the highly-educated group spends much of their time looking down on this group! It’d be a comedy if it weren’t so tragic.

I am not saying that this is a black-and-white thing. That some concepts are all pure and need no criticism at all. Far from it. I’m saying the exact opposite, in fact. Yes, the way we have implemented many of these ideas have hurt a lot of people.

But there’s no sense of proportion. An idea like freedom of speech might cause great good in the world and have a .0001% failure rate. Yet we denounce the entire concept when it suits us. Laugh at the British Muslims above if you like, but many of us do the same exact thing, just with lesser-understood principles. We get away with it because of rampant ignorance. We’re just as idiotic, just not as obviously so.

We are living in a generation raised with no idea how to separate political invective from serious conversations about how systems of people work.

Personally I don’t want to see the human race repeating the same mistakes over and over again, so to me this is a terrible tragedy. I can understand that many political leaders would feel otherwise. But we’ll never be able to fix something if we don’t understand which parts of it work and which parts do not (and more to the point, why).

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Battling the Borg: a Startup Idea

Last month I joined Pinterest. I kept hearing these stories of how many people were already on it and how fast it was growing, but I really had no idea of what it was.

Turns out Pinterest is basically online scrapbooking. People collect pictures and share them. It’s like the picture part of Facebook without the status updates.

As I started adding pictures, it occurred to me: how many more social networks am I going to spend my time filling up in my life? I think about all the content I’ve posted on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and now Pinterest. Tens of thousands of words. Hundreds of pictures. All sitting on somebody else’s server where they’re going to make money from them.

I’m not angry at these companies for making a buck, their use of the material is fine by me. But it occurs to me that 1) Much of this stuff I end up posting in multiple places, and 2) Since I’m the one doing all the work here, perhaps I should have better control over what I create. For instance, I don’t even know if it’s possible to retrieve all the material I’ve put on Facebook.

So I created a little blog just for Pinterest, I Heart Us! It’s about things I like. When I find myself wanting to pin something, I first blog it on I Heart Us! and then pin from there.

That way all of my stuff is in one primary place. If next year a new Facebook killer comes along, I can simply reuse the stuff I already have.

This got me thinking — why am I permanently creating any content for third-part sites? Do I really want the things I’ve created online scattered all over the place? Why not make a plug-in for Chrome or something that allows me to keep everything I type and share in one master place? Conversations, blog posts, pictures, replies on threads, things I’ve read — it can all go in one place. Then if somebody wanted to know how I felt about gun control or something, they could simply go there.

Sure, it’s not for everybody, but I think a lot of people would like something like this. Might be something worth pursuing one day.

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I’m Giving up Quitting Things

Dear Internet,

First there was Hacker News. I’ve been a member for many years and I was going to quit, but after thinking about it a long time I’ve decided not to quit.

Then there was Facebook, the program that the devil himself spawned. It uses our friends as marketing tools against us. I also was going to give that up but decided at the last minute to resign from quitting.

Now I’m looking at you, Google Plus. I would resign from your service as well, but upon further reflection I’ve decided to stop leaving.

I’m completely giving up on quitting things.

I know what you’re thinking — Daniel, please think about it some more, surely you can find it in your heart to not stop quitting things on the internet.

But I cannot.

All I can ask is that my good friends who are quitting things would think twice. Now is the time to quit quitting, before it’s too late.

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Paycheck-stub.com – 10 Years of Tedium and a Punch in the Nose

Had a friend about a year ago tell me “Man, you’re living the dream!”

Couldn’t help but think of him as I started yesterday on refurbishing hamburger-casserole-recipes.com. Eight thousand visitors, and the site makes like 20 bucks a month. If this is the dream, I should have asked for an upgrade.

But some things about the startup life are pretty cool. Like my conversation with the Intuit people yesterday regarding paycheck-stub.com. Over the past two months, I beginning to look at a sales level of over 50 people per month. People visiting the site want payroll services. At that level, it’s like there’s a little bell ringing. My startup is calling me. Hello! Daniel! Do you see this? Are you paying attention?

Who knew?

Surely there’s another opportunity there besides a one-time commission. 50 people a month looking for payroll? 50 new customers a month for any kind of business is a pretty big deal, but what about add-ons like accounting services, payment services, business loans, or tax compliance?

Yesterday afternoon Julie from the Intuit Service Provider program told me that yes, that was a pretty large amount of sales. They could get me in on the ISP program if — and this if ironically tragic — instead of sending people to an Intuit landing page I had people complete a form and had somebody call them back. She said if I were able to meet my sales goals for the site I stood a chance at being one of her top performers.

They say that war is 99% boredom and 1% abject terror. I don’t know about others, but my experience with startups has been 99% monotonous tedium and 1% YCombinator. One day after ten years of trying I fully expect somebody to come up to me and say “Yes, but you’re smart. It was easy for you.”

I plan on punching this person as hard as I can directly in the nose.

50 sales a month from a direct click could easily become 5 sales from a landing page. Or it could become 100 various other kinds of sales. And of course the punch line goes like this: if my vendors require me to construct my site such that the only people buying stuff don’t care about brand, then why am I associating with a brand? The crowd speaks. I must listen. This isn’t a jazz band or a kindergarten trip. It’s a business.

Julie seemed like a sharp cookie, though. We’re going to run the numbers for a month or two and see how it goes. I continue to be amazed at the amount of data well-constructed websites can generate.

But if at the end of the day paycheck-stub starts becoming a cash cow? It wasn’t because of clever planning, a great team, or some trick of marketing. It was because I wrote 30 other websites around topics from foot care to funny pictures. Startups, like finding a job, is a numbers game. You don’t get to pick what people want. All you get to do is increase your “luck surface area” so that eventually when people want something you’ll be there.

I think when success comes for many of of us it doesn’t sound like a reporter calling from TechCrunch. It sounds much more like a mundane and pedestrian conversation about the tolerance rating of drop-forged iron widgets or something like that.

So it makes me laugh when I read about startups on Hacker News that are inventing teleportation systems or making facebook enhance your sex life. For every one of these amazing VC-backed adventures, there are 100 guys making pencils more shiny, rocks heavier, and giving construction workers iPads. Yes, even telling people trivia about paycheck stubs. The culture around startups and the actual life of startups are two completely different things.

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