Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Technical Summary of Cognitive Dissonance

Given the continued political craziness that seems to be never ending, I thought that people might be interested in reading a technical summary of cognitive dissonance theory. This is a section of a paper I wrote (that I'm going to send to a journal someday, I swear) entitled "Cognitive Dissonance, Envy, and the Psychological Roots of Anti-Liberalism." A few of the professors who have been kind enough to read drafts of my paper have given me feedback that this section is very solid, hence, I am not reticent to put it out there. Hopefully it gives some people some food for thought and self-reflection, and as always I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

The citations refer to:

Festinger, Leon. 
A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1962. Print.
Tavris, Carol, and Elliot Aronson. 
Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me). Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2007. Epub.

Cognitive Dissonance
            Cognitive dissonance is defined as “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.”[1] There are numerous ways this phenomenon manifests itself throughout one’s daily life, in the beliefs they hold and the actions they take. However, a state of dissonance creates psychological discomfort and a person experiencing it must attempt to deal with it in some way. Leon Festinger, who wrote A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, one of the earliest works on cognitive dissonance described two basic human reactions to cognitive dissonance. “The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance” and secondly that “when dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will likely avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance.” The need to alleviate cognitive dissonance is no different than the need to alleviate hunger or any other such motivating factor. Therefore, “dissonance, that is the existence of non-fitting relations among cognitions, is a motivating factor in its own right” and cognition is “any knowledge, opinion, or belief about the environment, about oneself, or about one’s behavior.”[2] Simply put cognitive dissonance is therefore the motivation to reduce dissonance or in other words it “is about how people strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful.”[3]
            Festinger lists three ways in which it is possible for someone to reduce dissonance. These are to change one’s behavior, to change one’s environment, or to add new cognitive elements. Changing one’s behavior is among the simplest ways to reduce dissonance and entails reacting to new information about reality as it is perceived. Festinger’s usual example was smoking. If someone smoked and valued their health, they would experience dissonance upon learning that smoking was detrimental to one’s health. If the person chose to reduce dissonance by changing one’s behavior, they would simply cease to smoke therefore eliminating the dissonance caused by the contradiction between smoking and wanting to be healthy.[4]
            Changing one’s environment can be more difficult but is often a viable solution. Festinger notes that it is often easier to change one’s social environment than one’s physical environment. Whereas changing one’s behavior in response to dissonance caused by new information means acting upon the new cognition, changing one’s environment on the other hand, means modifying one’s surrounding circumstances so that one’s cognition is changed. The example of this response that Festinger uses is a person who is often hostile to people surrounding himself with people who often elicit hostile responses. This then means that his responses are not unwarranted and therefore he does not experience dissonance. It is important to note, however, that the ability for someone to change his or her environment, either social or physical, is often limited. Therefore, “some means of ignoring or counteracting the real situation must be used” in order to change one’s cognitive element without first changing reality. Festinger notes that at times this is impossible, using the example of someone standing in the rain being unable to alter the cognition that it is raining no matter “how strong the psychological pressures are to eliminate that cognition” and but that other times it can be easily achieved especially if a social pressure is present.[5]
            Finally, a person can introduce new cognitive elements that help to reduce the existing dissonance without eliminating it completely. This introduction can be done in several ways, one of which is by reducing the importance of existing dissonance. Festinger uses the example of a smoker reading literature that argues that smoking is not harmful or at least is not as harmful as other literature claims. Or he may compare the risks of smoking to one’s health to the risk of injury when traveling in a car and conclude that smoking is safer than driving in a car. Alternatively, it may be possible to reconcile two dissonance-causing cognitions. Festinger cites the example of the belief system of the Ifaluk society. It is a society-wide belief that people are good, yet children will exhibit violent tendencies. The Ifaluk reconcile this contradiction by introducing a new cognitive element, namely a claim that the children become possessed by “malevolent ghosts” that make the children to act violently.[6]
            Instead of eliminating or reducing dissonance it is also possible to avoid dissonance, or attempt to avoid dissonance, when attempting to form new cognitions. When seeking new information a person would tend to utilize only those sources of information, whether they be other people, books, or some other source, that would support the cognition in question and add to the person’s consonance.[7]
            When examining cognitive dissonance and its relevance to psychological causes for opposition to liberalism there are two factors as discussed by Festinger that must be discussed. These are the voluntary and involuntary exposure to data and the role of social support in changing one’s cognitions. Willingness to expose oneself to new information depends on whether or not the information is anticipated to create, or lessen dissonance and to what extent the magnitude of the dissonance has amassed. When there is very little or no dissonance, then factors other than whether or not the new information will cause dissonance will likely be the primary motivators. However, when dissonance is at moderate levels the person would likely take into consideration whether the new information will likely increase or decrease dissonance before deciding to expose themselves to it in order to strengthen consonance and reduce dissonance as much as possible. It is only when the magnitude of dissonance has built up enough to be close to surpassing the level of resistance to change that a person will likely expose themselves to dissonance increasing information. Once the level of dissonance has surpassed the level of resistance to change, then the person “will change the cognitive elements involved, thus markedly reducing or perhaps even wholly eliminating the dissonance which is now so great.”[8]
            According to Festinger, when a person is involuntarily exposed to dissonance causing information he can respond in three different ways. He may have an “initial understanding of the propaganda message followed by a circuitous line of reasoning which ends in misunderstanding.” This response means that a person experiencing dissonance from some new information would then attempt to separate his particular circumstance from the dissonance causing information and in the process come to understand the information in a way that does not cause dissonance. If the new information has been stated too clearly to permit misunderstanding then the person may simply dismiss the information, usually on a personal level, even while acknowledging its accuracy on a superficial level. Alternatively, a person may instead simply transform any new information so as to be compatible with his views and therefore not cause any more dissonance or in other words “issues presented in a frame of reference different from his own are transformed so as to become compatible with his own views.” Festinger speculates that people who have this reaction are likely to have already developed dissonance about whatever subject the new information is about and thus they would be more likely to have this instantaneous reaction as opposed to people who have the first two reactions who likely have not yet developed any significant dissonance about the subject of the new information.[9]
            As mentioned previously, positive social pressure can help to change or at least ignore certain cognitions and as it were help someone ignore reality. “The social group is at once a major source of cognitive dissonance for the individual and a major vehicle for eliminating and reducing the dissonance which may exist in him.”[10] In this context, however, the magnitude of the dissonance that arises when there is disagreement with others depends on two variables. The first is “the extent that objective, nonsocial, cognitive elements exist which are consonant with a given opinion, belief, or knowledge, the expression of disagreement will produce a lesser magnitude of dissonance.” So for instance if a person were to exclaim that it is a beautiful cloudless day and someone were to disagree and claim that it is grey and overcast, not very much dissonance if any at all would be created for the first person who is accurately ascertaining the reality of the weather. In contrast, it is noted that in situations where it is harder to ascertain the truth objectively (for instance the validity of a religion) then contrary views and opinions will lead to relatively more dissonance. The second variable is the number of people with whom one shares a belief or opinion. The more people who hold a belief in common with you, the greater the amount of consonance that is built up and the less dissonance that is encountered when there is a disagreement.[11]
            With these in mind Festinger lists three ways of reducing dissonance “stemming from social disagreement.” The first is to alter one’s own cognitions so that they are in alignment with the majority of other members of a social group. Festinger notes, however, that this only works if there is a clear majority and many people who hold the original cognition. The second way is by changing one’s social environment i.e., working to persuade other members of a social group to change their cognitions so they align with one’s own and thus removing the dissonance causing disagreement. Finally, dissonance can be reduced in a social setting if one is able to differentiate another person as not being “comparable to oneself.” The example Festinger uses is a person claiming the grass is green not experiencing dissonance when another person claims the grass is brown, because the first person is aware that the second person is colorblind.[12]
            Festinger notes a very important way in which the first way of reducing dissonance in a social setting can lead to a denial of reality. He uses an example of two people walking along when it starts to rain. Rather than acknowledging the rain, one of the people claims that it is not raining, but merely water blowing off the leaves of trees from a previous rain storm due to, for whatever reason, a strong dissonance with the cognition of it raining. If the other person was in tune with reality, they would likely reject this idea, however, if they were also experiencing strong dissonance then he would want to agree and deny that it is raining, and by doing so both people are able to reduce the dissonance created by denying that it is in fact raining. The more people who have a certain dissonance (in this case with rain) then the more people who will have an interest in denying reality in favor of the belief that water is blowing off of leaves and as a result will result in an easier process of denying that it is raining due to social reinforcement and the resulting decrease in dissonance. “If everyone believes it, it most certainly must be true.”[13]
            This phenomenon also leads to another observation of the importance of mass proselytizing. The more people who agree with one’s cognition, the easier it is to reduce any associated dissonance with said cognition. This phenomenon is especially applicable in cases where the dissonance causing information is particularly strong and cannot be modified and the only way to reduce the dissonance caused by the additional information is to introduce new cognitive elements that reduce dissonance as discussed above. One of the ways to do this is to strengthen consonance by surrounding oneself with other people equally interested in reducing dissonance. As a result mass proselytizing is incentivized in order to reinforce consonance and reduce dissonance. The more people who come to hold some belief, the greater the reduction of dissonance will be (although in cases involving the denial of reality it cannot be reduced completely).[14] 

[1] Tavris and Elliot, 21
[2] Festinger, 3
[3] Tavris and Elliot, 22
[4] Festinger, 19
[5] Ibid., 21 
[6] Ibid., 21-23 
[7] Ibid., 29-30
[8] Ibid., 126-130
[9] Ibid., 134-136
[10] Ibid., 177
[11] Ibid., 178-179
[12] Ibid., 181-182
[13] Ibid., 198-200
[14] Ibid., 200-202

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sodom, Gomorrah, and the 50 Righteous Men: Thoughts on DC Part 1

Washington DC, uh... I mean Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by God's wrath. 

Having finally made god my escape from the imperial city,  I can't help but reflect on the lessons I have learned from my time there. My main takeaway is on the people who live there. In the simplest form, there are people in DC working to promote liberty, and those working to promote the growth of government. There is no doubt that those in favor of expanding the power of government far outnumber those who desire to shrink it. DC is a festering sewer that serves as a heart of imperial darkness who's shadow stretches not just across the North American continent, but literally around the world, as the bureaucrats blinded by power dispatch their swarms of drones and missiles to lay waste to innocent villagers in the middle of nowhere. On the domestic front, nothing is beyond the reach of these tortured and mutated souls who are compelled to let no behavior or action escape their grip.

As the country drowns in debt and approaches bankruptcy, seven million working age men languish without jobs or purpose in life, foreign wars drag on without end, and the country continues to be divided and on a pathway to dissolution,  the party never stops in the imperial capital. As many people in the country struggle to get by, the ruling class and its army of servile minions live in 10 of the richest 15 counties in the country. What's even more outrageous, is that most of these people don't even do much of substance at all. The Federal Government is worse than useless, of course, but even many non-profit institutions in DC exist solely to collect money from people out in the provinces of the empire, telling them it will be put to good use fighting "the good fight" of course, which then will largely be used to fund salaries and travel that at the end of the day accomplish next to nothing other than paying for the widespread functional alcoholism that plagues the city so its pitiable inhabitants can find momentary reprieve from the dreary lives they hate living.

Don't just take my word on it, check out this excellent expose by a DC insider on how the conservative movement has been plagued by supposed activist groups that do little more than scam people out of their money when they trying to make a difference. Above, I said that my main takeaway was about the people in DC. However, in fuller context, I learned a great deal about the system that such people make up and am much savvier for the experience. It is hard to view much of the non-profit "work" in DC as anything other than a glorified welfare program for alcoholic nerds that is funded by goodhearted gullible people far away.

A city infested by so many wicked people brings to mind the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, not the part of the story that you might think. Genesis 18 tells us that God considered the inhabitants of the cities to be so wicked that they must be destroyed. At this moment, Abraham intercedes with God and asks if he will sweep away the righteous with the wicked and that if there were but fifty righteous people in Sodom would God destroy the city? God responds that he would not destroy the city for the sake of 50 righteous people. Abraham then asks if God would still destroy the city if only 45 righteous people dwelt there. God responded that he would not. Abraham repeats this several more times, asking if only 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 righteous people dwelt in the city, would God destroy it. God responded that he would not. In the end there aren't even that many righteous men and the city is destroyed. (Fun fact, the English word sodomy comes from this Biblical story because when God's messengers were staying with Lot, Abraham's nephew, the men of the city threatened to break into Lot's house so they could rape his guests.)

Now, how does this relate to DC? Surprisingly, because if DC was in the same place as Sodom and Gomorrah I don't think that one would need to argue God all the way down to ten people. There are a lot of good people in the city who are there for largely the right reasons and who are fighting the good fight.  How effective people are at advancing that fight is another question, but there are many good people there. I know many of them and am proud to call them my friends. I think that these people are, for the most part, resistant to participating in the scam because they are true believers who are motivated to advance their worldview and if it was up to me to argue with God to prevent him from obliterating the city, I would happily do so for their sake.

However, from my perspective, the DC liberty movement also has numerous problems that I think will have long term negative consequences and I will discuss that in my next post.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Gay Trump Supporters as Microcosm of State Deformation Theory

A Wall Street Journal reporter recently posted a brief interview he did with a gay couple at a Trump rally in Cincenatti, Ohio. The interview was unremarkable, with the two men expressing their concern about the state of the country and dissatisfaction with the status quo, the only thing that separated this interview from a million other reporter in the crowd interviews at Trump rallies is that the two men were gay. The reporter posted the interview on FB, and that's when things went downhill. In the over 900 comments the video received, numerous people attacked the couple as being gay traitors and threatened them with physical violence.

Things were taken to the next level when a gay-rights activist published the names of the two men, after which the hate and threatening messages started pouring in. Not to worry, though, one of them conceal carries because he "loves the second amendment."  

I found this article to be thought provoking on several different levels. In a sense, I think it can be viewed as a microcosm of what is going on in the country right now in regards to societal and political divisions, but at the same time, it also demonstrates something interesting about the future of gay culture in the U.S.

Lots of ink has already been spilled about the numerous divides between different demographics and their reasons for either supporting or not supporting Trump and it makes sense in this regard too. White blue-collar workers from rural rustbelt Ohio, pretty typical Trump demographic. However, what differentiates them is that they are gay, a demographic that usually leans left.

This is where things get interesting. Political scientist Mike Desch has an amazing paper entitled "War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States?" where he argues that because there have been less wars and people are feeling less threatened, social divisions that had previously been pushed to the backburner because outside threats led to political centralization and social cohesion are now bubbling to the forefront. As the outside threats have diminished, social cohesion is breaking down as various groups begin to reassert their long dormant grievances and issues now that there isn't a very clear and pressing reason for unity. Desch talks about places like Spain and the UK, but I think his argument is relevant to this situation as well. 

We can view the gay community somewhat like a state. Contrary to popular portrayals in the media, gay people are not all leftist inhabitants of large cities on the eastern and western seaboards. However, it is easy to imagine how this idea came about, as gay people from various different social groups coalesced around something of a shared identity to face the outside threat. The outside threat being criminal prosecution, violence motivated by bigotry, and finally a denial of equality before the law.   However, for most gay people, such concerns are no longer as relevant. And thus, we might be seeing a microcosm of state deformation theory playing out before our eyes.

Perhaps, this situation demonstrates, that for at least some number of gay people, their allowing themselves to be lumped in with the "gay demographic" supposedly comprised of coastal leftists was a way of dealing with an outside threat. Now that for many people that threat has been largely neutralized, much like the states talked about by Desch, the "gay identity" at least as it is dominated by coastal leftists, is also deforming and giving way to more localized demographic concerns.

Some of the comments reported in the WSJ piece reflect this divergence of concerns. Among the charges leveled against the couple was the idea that they are privileged white males (one of the worst things to be these days it seems). Yet, this accusation demonstrates the privilege and hubris of those who hurl it. It turns outs that both of the men in question are blue collar workers who sometimes each work 80 hour weeks to make ends meet. Yet,despite their economic situation, they are threatened with having their "gay card" revoked (not to mention the actual threats of bodily harm) for putting their economic well-being ahead of the group they are "supposed" to belong to. In the end, at least for this couple, it seems that they consider the situation regarding their sexual orientation safe enough to check out from their previous demographic association in favor of their rural blue-collar identity. If "being gay" (in the sense that being gay is one's primary demographic identity) continues to be associated with being a coastal leftist that is out of touch with the concerns of rural blue-collar people then it won't be surprising that "being gay" is subsumed into a rural blue-collar identity when the two clash.

This raises some interesting follow-up questions, such as if the idea of a gay identity even surviving as a primary demographic with which a person describes themselves as it gives way to more cultural and economic concerns in the wake of a decreased perception of threats based on sexual identity. Only time will tell and these are simply some preliminary thoughts,but this election certainly seems to be demonstrating the validity of Desch's original theory. The U.S. is tearing itself apart and no matter who wins in November things seem only likely to get worse. If Desch's theory holds, then there will likely be a large political realignment that could ultimately culminate in the breakup, or at least radical decentralization of the country. Hopefully, such a thing will be accomplished peacefully with as little chaos as possible.

I have not gotten into Desch's state deformation theory in great detail, but here is an excellent summary by Stephen Walt that also talks some about the future and a PDF of the full paper is linked to above. Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

I'm Going on an Adventure!

The song of the Dwarves has captured my heart, and much like Bilbo Baggins I find myself preparing to leave everything behind and embark on an adventure without so much as a pocket handkerchief.

That is to say, I am leaving my job in DC and moving back to Pittsburgh at the end of October. I don't have a job lined up yet. Not sure what I'll be doing, but I am excited at the wide array of possibilities this has opened up.

I'm moving back for a lot of reasons, the biggest of which is that I miss my family and hate DC. Aside from my liberty friends, DC people are for the most part pretty terrible. The city is a stinking cesspool, a monument to the depravity and excess of our nation's self-satisfied ruling elite who feel the need to run everyone's lives. Not to mention, it is an incredibly expensive place to live.

Beyond that, I find that the DC culture necessarily demands conformity and marching more or less in step. I can understand this, but I have always marched to the beat of my own drum and have decided that the time has come to march off the beaten path back home. Being in DC has made me appreciate that smaller and local is usually better.

I have really enjoyed my time at CKI and really value the work they are doing, as well as all of my many friends I have made while there. I am confident that I will be visiting everyone at many future KAPpy hours.

Those of you who have known me for a long time realize how radical and crazy this is for me, but I am confident that I am making the right move. As the song goes:
The greatest adventure is what lies ahead.
Today and tomorrow are yet to be said.
The chances, the changes are all yours to make.
The mold of your life is in your hands to break.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun: Self-Reflection Through Simplicity and Similarity

I recently finished rewatching a wonderfully charming slice of life romance anime called Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun. If you are like me, you sometimes just find the need to escape from all the bad news and drama of life into something that just relaxes and entertains. I suspect that for many people comedies fulfill this role, however, sometimes I find that comedies, while being amusing, sometimes just can't do the trick. Sometimes one simply needs something that is not too serious, but at the same time isn't too frivolous so that one doesn't reflect on everything. Nozaki-kun fits expertly into this happy medium.

The basic plot follows Chiyo Sakura and her friends as they navigate high school and help the show's namesake character, Umetaro Nozaki, work on his shojo manga Let's Fall In Love.

Unlike an action anime like Attack on Titan or Code Geass, where you are in so much suspense that you can't stop watching because you just have to know if whatever problem the characters find themselves in will be resolved, there is no such suspense in this anime. Each episode is pretty simple with the various characters doing various everyday things with not much suspense at all. Aside from Nozaki being a published manga artist while still in high school and living by himself, no one really does anything that couldn't conceivably be done by a normal real-life high schooler.

While there is, of course, the slight exaggeration of what counts as everyday life that just comes with tv, the characters find themselves in situations that most people can picture themselves being in. I believe that the anime is able to accomplish this by its heavy focus on characters internal emotions. Nearly everyone has found themselves in a situation where they are with someone they have a crush on and end up overanalyzing everything they say or do or just saying something stupid, even if they haven't found themselves doing the same activities.

I should clarify, however, that the show actually only lets us eavesdrop on some characters emotions and not others. This difference is actually very important and ends up demonstrating much more. A pattern develops that I think conveys one of the main takeaways from the series; no matter how well you can get to know other people, the hardest person to really know is thyself.

In a sense, the core plot of the anime is Nozaki's inability to understand himself while being able to understand other people to a pretty good, albeit imperfect, extent and the ongoing consequences of this failure of insight. Nozaki is able to read many of his friends very well, and as a result uses them as the basis for the characters in his anime. Of course, since everyone has trouble knowing themselves', none of the character models catch onto the trick. Sometimes Nozaki demonstrates some rather good insights, but at other times he is so dumb you want to smack him upside the head and ask how he can be so clueless.

I previously said that this is a good anime if you don't want very much tension or drama. I believe that the calming state of mind that is created by watching the show actually serves to facilitate working to solve the problem the show demonstrates again and again; knowing thyself. If the show had been about brave heroes fighting monsters or engaged on a heroic quest, it is quite unlikely that a viewer would be moved towards self-reflection as a result of a character's flaws, but because the characters of Nozaki-kun are relatable and on our level, the viewer is naturally drawn to analyze his own life.

If you are looking to take a break from the hustle and bustle of life and watch a charming and funny anime that can't help but make you relax, then Nozaki-kun is what you're looking for. And perhaps, it might even initiate some healthy self-reflection.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: The Free Market Existentialist

In this age of hyper-polarization over seemingly everything, many people find themselves bemoaning the state of academia. Universities are dominated by left wing professors that stifle intellectual exploration and on some college campuses by angry student mobs intent on enforcing ideological orthodoxy. Such attitudes are to the detriment of the true liberal spirit of inquiry that seeks to create a marketplace of ideas. With such a gray and gloomy backdrop, Dr. Irwin’s The Free Market Existentialist shines forth like a much-needed burst of sunlight on a dreary day. In a work that is immensely intriguing, Dr. Irwin leads the reader to confront many points and questions that most will likely never have encountered, or at least not in his unique and thought provoking manner. The end result of which is a multitude of new questions and virgin intellectual wilderness ripe for exploration.

Irwin has three broad goals: to make the case for the compatibility of existentialism and capitalism, to explain the case for existentialist moral anti-realism, and finally to make the case for a minimal government state with strong property rights based on moral anti-realism. However, recognizing that such a trio of pills would likely be hard to swallow individually, let alone all three at once Irwin expresses his desire “to start a conversation, not conclude an argument.” I believe it can be said without hesitation that Irwin succeeds magnificently in accomplishing this goal.

I couldn’t hope to do justice to Dr. Irwin’s full arguments, but will attempt to communicate a brief summation with commentary on his main points.

Irwin begins his trio of heterodoxies by explaining what existentialism is. “Existentialism is a philosophy that reacts to an apparently absurd or meaningless world by urging the individual to overcome alienation, oppression, and despair through freedom and self-creation in order to become a genuine person.”  One need not be well versed in existentialist thought to easily understand Irwin’s discussion of the existentialist implications of concepts such as God, free will, meaning, and authenticity. This is one of the best chapters in the book and the level of awareness with which Irwin addresses topics that he knows are not only likely to be unfamiliar to the reader but also likely to be difficult to process as well plays a large role in how accessible this book is. His discussion of God and the death of God is especially noteworthy and stood out for his gentle and understanding treatment.

This chapter was by far my favorite and even if one does not buy into all of Irwin’s conclusions and arguments, one can’t help but feel inspired to strive to truly live and engage in a life of authenticity. Thoughtful people who often catch themselves wondering about the nature of life will certainly find a great deal of food for thought in this section.

In chapters two and three Irwin dives straight into what makes him such an outsider; his assertion that not only is existentialism not necessarily Marxist, but that it is also a natural partner for capitalism. In an excellent analogy, Irwin likens marxism to cigarettes for their relationship to existentialism. Both are associated with existentialism, not for any deeper philosophical reason, but rather by historical circumstances. Sartre is the main point of analysis in regards to this relationship with marxism in the form of an easy to understand intellectual history. Irwin also has insightful commentary on factors that result in many intellectuals’ hostility towards capitalism.

Existentialism is a natural fit for capitalism, Irwin argues, because of some of the overlapping characteristics that each share. Both are individualistic, but whereas capitalism does not necessarily need existentialism, existentialism greatly benefits from capitalism's ability to generate the circumstances in which “the purpose or meaning of life is itself created and can be manifested in art or commerce.” Likewise, existentialism can help to avoid potential downsides of capitalism that can lead to unhappiness. By emphasizing existentialism's call to live authentically and to take responsibility for one’s life, Irwin makes the case that members of capitalist societies can avoid the alienation and consumerism that many critics of capitalism fear. As Irwin puts it “I believe that it is the minimal state and the free market that are most likely to produce great human beings and great culture by placing the fewest possible restrictions on people and giving them the greatest possible motivation to be productive, not just for profit but for a sense of purpose.”

In chapters four and five Irwin moves on to putting forward his case for moral anti-realism. The rest of the book pales in comparison to the obviously controversial claim put forward that there is no morality. Even though numerous readers are sure to vehemently disagree, it is still a very engaging and thought-provoking section. Especially interesting is the way he uses evolutionary biology to simultaneously make the case for moral anti-realism and support the core claims of existentialism regarding how one is ultimately responsible for one’s own life.

The final two chapters lay out the groundwork to justify property rights and a minarchist state in a world without morality. One of the key points in this section is that “for the moral anti-realist, there are no property rights prior to contracts. There are only property claims.” Irwin goes on to analyze the differences between property claims and property rights and invoking the idea of dispersed knowledge and the inadequacy of central planning argues that “we can expect variety among sets of property rights contingent upon the circumstances in which claims are made and codified as rights.” There are lots of detailed points in this section regarding property rights that are quite thought provoking and worthy of further reflection. In fact, it seems to me that this section might have the most room for exciting exploration and synthesis with Rothbard’s idea in The Ethics of Liberty of rationally established natural law as well as Misesian style consequentialism such as that put forward in Henry Hazlitt’s The Foundations of Morality.

One of my favorite quotes from the entire book comes from the last chapter, Moral Anti-Realism. Irwin is addressing concerns about material inequality: “The envy and resentment that drive people to cry ‘no fair’ in response to the increasing inequality in wealth between the top earners and the bottom earners is misplaced. The bottom earners owe a debt of gratitude to the top for the spillover, which they did not earn and without which they would be worse off. As Nozick argues in Anarchy, State, and Utopia and as Rand depicts in Atlas Shrugged, the poor and unskilled need the wealthy and skilled more than vice versa.” There’s not much left to say after that.

I hope this brief review has communicated how expansive this short volume really is. There is certainly plenty to disagree with, but all of it is thought provoking. I hope that this review will encourage some people to pick the book up and then, ideally, begin to participate in the wider conversation that Dr. Irwin intended this book to ignite.

A big thank you to Dr. William Irwin who provided a copy of The Free Market Existentialist for me to review. If you are interested in reading the book, consider purchasing it through my Amazon associate link.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Irish Pub and Brief Reflections on Community

This past weekend I took the time to watch a delightful documentary on Netflix called The Irish Pub. Lacking any introduction or narration, the film simply dives right into interviews with a variety of traditional Irish pub owners around Ireland.

It is clear that owning a traditional Irish pub is a labor of love from the proud way in which the owners describe the history of their establishment, in some cases going back over 100 years. Many of the proprietors work to preserve everything just as it has been, purposefully creating an island of stability in a turbulent sea of change. I found this aspect of traditionalism to be the best part of the film. But this traditionalism extended far beyond simply keeping the ancient flagstone floor and the same furnishings. Rather, it extended to the pub as being a true community place were locals gathered together and truly got to know one another.

Many of the proprietors discussed the ways in which people develop relationships in their pub, all while having a bit of craic, of course. I found it especially touching the how several of the proprietors had come to have such a close relationship with some of their patrons, especially the older ones. In one bar there is an elderly patron who hasn't paid for a drink in years simply because the owner loves him and his company so much. If you like nice old people, this film is full of them.

It is hard to imagine something like that happening in many parts of the United States today, although I will say that I did think of this great article discussing the important role McDonald's serves a community gathering place in many communities. I currently live in Arlington VA, a place that is largely bereft of true community. I suspect that a large reason for this is because so much of the population has moved to the area relatively recently in the grand scheme of things and will likely move again and therefore doesn't have roots in the area and won't invest the time to put them down now.

As Charles Murray's insightful book Coming Apart demonstrates, community and civil society are on the decline in many parts of the country, to the great detriment of everyone involved. I usually think of Murray's book and Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone when it comes to the decline of American communities, but I was at an academic conference a few months ago where one of my former professors mentioned that he thinks that Putnam and Murray's understanding of community differs from that of Robert Nisbet. Nisbet, a very important figure in the history of American conservatism, wrote the book The Quest for Community, which I have unfortunately not read yet but plan to in the future.

Such details aside, I do truly think that the decline of community is a major problem that is contributing to current societal problems and will continue to do so in the future. If community can act as a shock absorber to some extent (much like family does, another institution that seems to be ailing) then it seems prudent to worry about how society would deal with a large-scale problem or disaster. The problem is that building community certainly isn't easy, and requires a long term personal investment, rather than just throwing more money at the problem. Even more than that, it seems that many libertarians fail to appreciate the importance of community in preserving liberty.

I suspect that this libertarian antipathy might be the result of how most libertarians are pretty strong individualists, and even more than that, libertarians are a weird bunch. That can certainly discourage libertarians from getting involved in communities. Perhaps more libertarians need to open pubs in their hometowns rather than moving to DC to write a white paper or spending all their time in virtual communities arguing on the internet.  

Anyway, I do highly recommend taking some time to watch The Irish Pub. It is the perfect film to watch on an occasion when you are stressed out and can't deal with the tension of a drama and want something more substantive than some junk food television. It is a charming film that I found to be very enjoyable and entertaining.

If any of the books I mentioned sounded interesting, consider ordering them through my Amazon Associate links.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Hobbit Audio Book Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party

For a long time, I have thought it would be cool to be a voice actor. That career path doesn't seem very likely, but I figured why not read an audio book? I love The Hobbit and I thought it would be fun to read it and see what people think.

I will try to do a chapter every week, although that might not work out since it actually takes longer to record, edit, and upload than I thought it would. There is a link in the YouTube description to download an MP3 file if you want.

If you find that you can't wait for the next chapter, consider buying The Hobbit through my Amazon Associate link.

Let me know what you think!  

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Scouring of the Shire: Tolkien and Brexit

This Thursday, as many of you likely know, is the Brexit vote, when the UK will be voting on whether to remain part of the European Union. It has been a hotly contested campaign with tight polls. People around the UK and in the U.S. have been arguing about all of the pros and cons of Brexit for months, but I thought that it might be a good idea to get the perspective of a very prominent Englishman whose voice I have not heard brought up in the discussion. That person is JRR Tolkien.

Seeing how Tolkien passed away decades ago, it would be difficult to get his direct opinion on the matter. However,quite fortunately for us and all posterity, Tolkien left behind his voluminous writings from which we can glean his views. There are many places that could be drawn upon in this instance, but I think the best example would be the chapter at the end of The Return of the King called "The Scouring of the Shire."

It is unfortunate that many people are unfamiliar with this section of Lord of the Rings since it was cut from Peter Jackson's movie adaption. To quickly catch everyone up to speed, unlike in the movie, Saruman does not fall off the top of Orthanc and get impaled on a spike. Rather, while the heroes are off fighting Sauron, Saruman convinces Treebeard to let him go free through the power of his persuasion. It turns out that Saruman had been meddling in the Shire for quite some time and had assembled a gang of thugs that was oppressing and wrecking the Shire.

When Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin arrive at the border of the Shire they find that things have changed drastically since they left. Saruman and his goons have instituted numerous oppressive laws, destroyed the environment, created polluting factories, chopped down the party tree, created ugly public work projects, and thrown the Mayor of Michel Delving, and anyone else who opposes them, into the Lockholes.

To make a longer story short, the heroes simply can't let this stand and go about rousing the hobbits from their complacency, at which point Saruman and his thugs are quickly dispatched with. Order is restored and traditional institutions resume their functioning.

Now that you are up to speed, you might be asking "what does this have to do with Brexit?" This might begin to make more sense once one understands that to Tolkien, the hobbits are Englishmen. In fact, the Shire and its societal structure are entirely based on historical English institutions (as the wonderful Dr. Tom Shippey explains in this excellent lecture on the politics of Tolkien). The scouring of the Shire represents a restoration of the traditional institutions of decentralized self-governance that Tolkien viewed as immensely superior to the all-consuming bureaucratic centralizing state monoliths that have come to dominate everyone's lives in the last century or so.

Speaking of bureaucratic monoliths, once one has come to understand the above points it is quite easy to fit the EU into this scenario thanks to Tolkiens use of timeless applicability in his writings.

The EU bureaucratic elites and the false cosmopolitans of the UK have undergone what Tolkien scholar, Dr. Tom Shippey, calls "the wraithing process," in which a person is made hollow by the pursuit of  some abstraction, in this case, European centralization. Saruman is the perfect example of someone who has undergone the wraithing process. He started out with good intentions, but somewhere along the way he got lost and ends up becoming a force for evil himself. And in doing so he comes to disdain everyone he views as beneath him.

Once you have come to view yourself as being superior to everyone else, then it becomes a very short step to come to the view that you should be ruling these silly little people. Saruman demonstrates this when he says to Gandalf, "Our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see."

Such sentiment can be found in any central planner around the world, but is especially clear in those involved in the EU project, a project designed to, like Saruman's goons in the Shire, lay waste to any and all traditions, customs, and norms which have built and preserved societies. Looking at the power hungry EU central planners one can easily call to mind the attitude of one of Saruman's thugs when he declares that "you little folks are getting too uppish... This country wants waking up and setting to rights." He then goes on to threaten that if Lotho Sackville-Baggins (who turned traitor and was collaborating with Saruman) doesn't toe the line they will simply replace him with someone who does. (Quite an ominous implication if the EU continues to follow Tolkien's script.)

However, Tolkien had great faith in the resiliency and power of traditional institutions and this comes out in the story.  Upon his departure, Merry had been the horn of Eorl the Young, by Eowyn. Whoever blows this horn "shall set fear in the hearts of his enemies and joy in the hearts of his friends." Once Merry blows this horn the paralysis over the Shire dissipates and the hobbits rise up and defeat their oppressors with relative ease.

Tom Shippey points out, with great insight, that "if Tolkien were to choose a symbol for his story and message, it would be, I think, the horn of Eorl. He would have liked to blow it in his own country, and disperse the cloud of post-war and post-faith disillusionment, depression, acquiescence, which so strangely (and twice in his lifetime) followed on victory. And perhaps he did."

We can only hope that, come Thursday, the citizens of the UK have indeed heard Tolkien's horn of Eorl through his work and the works of  other heroes of liberty, and will vote to throw out all the EU wraiths and all the Lotho-like traitors who believe they know what's best for everyone else. There would still be a long way to go, but it would be the first step on the path to scouring and restoring the Shire.

I am indebted to Dr. Tom Shippey, and in particular his excellent book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, for coming to understand the many political themes throughout Tolkien's work. I highly recommend reading it, and, if you do decide to read it, I would be most appreciative if you considered purchasing it through the Amazon Associate link above.

Father's Day and Reflections on Family

                                                        Four Generations of Yost Men.                                                                             
This past Sunday was Father's Day and, as a result, I found myself reflecting about what my dad, as well as what my family, mean to me. There can be no doubt that I have been extremely fortunate to be blessed with a wonderful family that has been so loving and supportive my entire life, but I doubt that I reflect on this enough.

My dad has always been there for me. We are definitely very different people with very different interests, hobbies, and skills, but he has always demonstrated a deep and caring love for me. My parents scrimped and saved so I would be able to get a better education than what the lousy public school in our district would have provided, and this continued as I went to college and eventually moved to the D.C. area where I am now. Without a doubt, I would not be where I am today without all the support my family, and especially my dad, has provided. Moving several hundred miles from home to one of the most expensive zip codes in the country requires significant capital that I would never have been able to furnish on my own, being a broke college graduate and all. I was fortunate to have a job opportunity right after college, but, without my dad, I wouldn't have been able to take advantage of it.

                                My dad's truck loaded with most of my worldly possessions.

Speaking of work, if there is one thing that stands out about my dad (and my grandfather too, who is practically a second dad), it is his work ethic. He is constantly working hard. But, all this hard work is not for its own sake, as is the case for the unfortunate people who live to work rather than the other way around. His hard work has always been to improve his life and the life of his family. Compared to my dad, I am simply a lazy bum. He has provided a clear model of someone who desires to improve his lot in life, and rather than waiting around for something to change, he goes and pursues that change to make it a reality. Looking around at the world today, it is clear that we need more people like my dad who are willing to put in the hard work to bring about change in their lives.

The world is a rough place to be on your own. The institution of family can make things a lot easier. If one looks at family economically, it is a way to drastically reduce transaction costs and pool capital and resources, not to mention fulfilling important social needs. There is a lot of trash talking about millennials living with their parents, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing if the family is still working as a unit and the millennial is working towards being a net contributor to said unit. Parents invest lots of startup capital into their children to get them off the ground. In a lot of cases the return on investment is largely psychological, but if a family is close-knit it can serve as an important institution that profits everyone who is a member.

It seems to me that people who suffer from the breakdown of the family are, in the end, suffering from a foundational problem. A successful family serves as a solid foundation upon which one can build one's life, and eventually even contribute to strengthening the foundation as well. On the other hand, people trying to start out life without a family that has their back need to establish their own solid foundation or they will be building their life on sand. It is harder to begin with and is prone to more serious accidents as the construction project commences. In my view, the breakdown of the family is fundamentally a problem that affects well-being. Those of us who profess to care about the promotion of well-being for ourselves and others should prioritize encouraging the strengthing of familial ties and strive to set a good example with our own families.

I am fortunate to have been born with a dad and a whole family that has provided a solid foundation on which to start my life, and, for that, I am very grateful.