Unsolicited Advice

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Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Mises University, the week long, semi-formal introduction to Austrian economics that the Mises Institute has sponsored for the last twenty years. Besides, it got me out of Washington for a week and anything that does that — I’m still working on a permanent escape from Mordor-on-the-Potomac — is not a bad thing.

However, I wouldn’t necessarily say the weather in Auburn was much better. It was humid and green the way just about everyplace east of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio is this time of year. But Auburn didn’t smell anywhere near as bad as D.C. does. Whether it’s the river, or the mildew in the forests and the mold on the trees, or the stink of people lobbying and grubbing for federal handouts and the sweat of zillions of gummint workers cranking and turning the machinery of state, or some frightful combination thereof, I don’t know.

I’m not sure I care to know.

(I miss the West. I miss the American desert. I miss craggy mountains, scrubland, dry alkali air and seasonal rain. Sigh…)

Anyway, it was an interesting week, and I got to meet a fair number of people I only knew through their writings. And people got to meet me too, even a few (non-Mises Institute folks) who recognized my name. It was also refreshing to see so much youthful idealism at work. It was impressive to see such a commitment to something so fundamental as human freedom. And not just the kind that Republican politicians commemorate and celebrate at Lincoln Day dinners. I mean real, tangible human freedom.

Also, one other observation on all the idealism. This is going to sound condescending, and I don’t really mean it that way, but I cannot help myself — it was cute.

I don’t know if I’m old enough to start giving today’s university undergraduates advice. But being as I am old enough to have fathered an undergraduate (though, alas, I have not), something in me wants to at least impart some wisdom — can I call it that? — to the next generation. And possibly to distant posterity, as it avoids nuclear waste buried in what was once the American desert a million years from now. Most of you will hopefully learn these things on your own, which is how all good things are well and truly learnt anyway.

It helps, though, to have a guide. Even if you don’t listen, or pay little heed (as I have often done to those who have offered such advice), you will remember.

1) Learn a Skill. I was amazed at how many young economics students and aspiring economists were attending, mulling future graduate study and possibly research or academic positions. And that’s good. But I have learned that while university is nice, it doesn’t really teach you anything you cannot learn on your own with a solid reading list and a wise mentor. More importantly, getting an education and learning how to do something useful are not the same thing.

So learn a skill, learn how to make or do something with your hands. Enjoy it and get good at it. Learn several of these skills and in lean times, when there are no academic jobs or no prospects for Austrian economists, you can pay your bills and meet your obligations to the people you love. This I learned all on my lonesome, in part because with as much education as I have gotten, I have always been disappointed with the results. In part it is because I had some unrealistic expectations of what having a university degree — even a Master’s with language skills — could get me. But I also did not know that the degree itself was not enough, and that for the work I thought I wanted to do when I first came here in 1997 — Middle East-related think tankery or journalism and whatnot — I simply did not share the world view of almost all of the places I could work. The government, and people advising the government, the people who make money concocting “policy” whether in or out of government, do not want to hear “no.” Be prepared for this as well.

A university degree is little more than a credential. It may help you get to where you want to go, but it is no substitute for real knowledge and real skills. You may pick up some of those as you study and as you work, but if not, set aside some time to find out what kinds of things you enjoy building or repairing with you hands, and master them. It will serve you well, both as a possible source of income and as a way of enjoying the simple pleasure of creating something you can touch and hold. No report, analysis, essay or article I have ever written has given me as much real joy as building a bicycle wheel, working on music in my home recording studio or tuning-up an automobile engine.

2) Don’t Get Too Caught Up in the Theoretical. There was a lot of revolutionary fervor and intense discussion of the kind of world Anarcho-Capitalists and Libertarians were going to be able to build once the state has been smashed, abolished, pushed overboard or simply made to wither away. I’m thinking especially of the talk about individuals in a libertarian society would defend themselves and how the contractual arrangements of private defense and private law would work. And a lot of conversation that focused on hypothetical examples.

I know I’m showing my own biases here, but I’m not really interested in theory unless it helps me understand the world I live in. I’m not interested in bright, shiny, “perfect” and theoretical tomorrows or imaginary human communities. I’m interested in the world that exists at my fingertips, a very real, flawed, imperfect, oppressive and oppressed world, yet one in which very real human beings strive to make sense and give meaning to their lives every day. That’s the world I was born in, will most certainly always live in, and will very likely die in.

It is a world I hate and a world I love. It is also, for better or worse, the world I choose to live in, too.

I think it’s important to remember that Ludwig von Mises did not write about how human beings might act in some better world than ours, but rather about how human beings do act. Here. Now. I came to this website as a kind-of “left anarchist” initially because of its unwavering stance against militarism and imperialism, and discovered as I kept coming back that Austrian economics made sense because it accurately described the world I have seen and lived in.

As for all the theoretical examples given to illustrate various points, we live in a world inhabited by 6 billion (more or less, so all those who estimate these things say; I’ve never counted them all myself), and virtually every permutation of human culture and civilization, virtually every choice a person or a collection of people can make, has probably been made. There are probably more than enough real, live examples of many of the kinds of statelessness that we, as anarcho-capitalists, are interested in seeing. The state, as we know it and understand, as it expresses itself across the world, pretends to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, but it is not. And we give it far too much credit if we take those claims at face value. A whole lot of the world — perhaps even most of it — is outside the effective range of state power at least part of the time. And some parts of it are outside state power most of the time.

That is not a call for some great libertarian “hijra” to wherever the law is the least, but rather a hopeful reminder that people are, in many ways, as free as they choose to live. We’d do well to look at those examples, see how they succeed, see how they fail, and see what we can learn from them. Our battle, if it can be described as that, is not for real estate or power or sovereignty, but for men’s minds, their attitudes and their actions. One person at a time. Starting with ourselves.

3) Don’t Surrender to or Compromise With Power… Ever. “If only I were king…” I did not hear that phrase as often as I thought I would. But hear it I did.

We should never become so concerned about the “goals” to ignore the means. Freedom cannot be “established” by fiat. The state cannot be abolished by anything but another state. Any striving we might make for power, or any attempt we might make to advise those who wield it, will not accomplish any narrow or broad goals we have. Imperfect as it is, human liberty is a reality of the here and now, not a future beautiful sunrise we are waiting for like Marxists for the Revolution or like lobbyists awaiting the signed piece of legislation.

To compromise with power, even if it means accomplishing what seem very laudable goals, is to give in to power, to give in to its logic and its insatiable demands. Which of us, for whatever reason, wouldn’t like to see the abolition of compulsory public education? Yet vouchers do not get us there; they are a dangerous half-measure that risks tighter central regulation for all schools and creates another government subsidy that will eventually force costs to spiral out of control. Got kids? Don’t wait for the end of the school system. Don’t wait for that government check. Pull them out of school if you can, educate them yourselves or in cooperation with your neighbors or a community of like-minded folks. Don’t hope and wish. Do.

Anti-communism was such a half-measure. Who among us supports or supported communism? Yet, the medicine was nearly as destructive as the disease it sought to cure. The hunt for communists at home was intertwined with the war against communism abroad, and both were murderously destructive of human life and liberty. It is fine to work with allies when it comes to opposing state power, but we must remember that it is unlikely we will ever have any allies when it comes to the advice we would give the state.

One of the most positive lessons I ever learned from reading (and re-reading, and re-reading, and reading again) the Tao Te Ching is that there is no trying. There are no half-measures, no interim steps, no phases toward freedom. There is only doing, only being free. So be free. Live free.

4) Take Hope, Find Joy and Live Gladly. I know, this sounds both naïve and stupid. Especially in this world abounding with murderous government, violence, theft, coercion, ignorance and utter foolishness. It is hard to have much hope or joy when regulation abounds, bombs fall, police beat, taxes are collected and soldiers point guns with the hope of making people do what they’re told. It is very discouraging and sometimes seems hopeless that human beings will ever be free. In 1984, George Orwell creates a conversation between Winston Smith and his prison interrogator, O’Brien, in which O’Brien describes a future of humanity as a human face stomped flat with a boot. It is a future many of us fear — conservative, liberal, leftist, anarchist, libertarian alike.

But it is not our future. We have to remember that governments regulate, police, coerce and tax because the people who run the governments of nation-states generally fear freedom. Freedom came first. Human beings are free. We live in a very imperfect world full of other human beings who seek to deprive of us our freedom. Sometimes we will have to fight them. Much of the time, however, we will have to merely accept they exist and work our way around them. People have done that for thousands of years, and in those places where the writ of the state does not run, that is where freedom is.

That place where the state has no control, no say and no sway, can be as small as the area between your ears, if that’s all you have. But that’s where freedom — yours and mine — starts.

A much more important point to make, one y’all probably know but needs to be repeated — the world is much, much, much more than the sum of its governments. Life is not all politics, ideology, parties, or the struggle of great men to do great things. In fact, none of that is real greatness. Real greatness is our devotion to our families and the people we love. It is in the work we do, to make things that others want and find useful and are willing to pay us for. Real greatness is in the love we share with others.

Do a million things. If you can, try everything once. Live. Get rich. Make music. Bake bread. Be honest, earnest and sincere. Suffer fools gladly and be merciful and patient with those weaker than you. Protect yourselves from the wolves and let the sharks swim around you. Smell flowers.

Above all, find joy and reflect it every moment you can. The world is a horrible place, full of cruelty and death and suffering. But it is also a wonderful place, full of beauty and joy and mercy. Look for that goodness, find it, and follow it. Do not make it your goal or purpose to add to the misery, and adopt no means that aid in its accumulation. The world has enough pain and misery in it. You don’t need to add any.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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