Individuals, tribes & classes

How do genuine liberals (as correctly defined) view the world? As a collection of individuals.

How do conservatives view it? As a collection (clash?) of cultural communities.

Socialists? Economic communities (or blocks).

Communists? Classes.

Fascists? Tribes, nations or races.

People have drawn many diagrams to depict the political spectrum. But they don’t make sense to me. So I drew my own (in the new Google Draw. Try it.) Here it is:

This way of looking at the spectrum might help you to explain “left” and “right” to a child, should you ever need to. (More about the historical and arbitrary origins of “left” and “right” in a subsequent post.)

If you view the spectrum not as a matrix or a line but as a loop or circle, things become clearer. Liberalism then reveals itself to be not the “place in the middle,” the “split-the-difference” no-man’s-land of compromise and moderation, but the extreme and radical opposite of collectivism, which includes everything from Nazism to Communism.

Yes, Liberals care most about freedom, whereas collectivists tend to care more about “equality” (insofar as it pertains to the group of interest to the respective collectivist — ie, the class or the tribe.)

But the debate is not merely about the desired outcomes — freedom vs equality — of policy. It goes deeper. It is a debate about the unit of analysis. What — or rather whom — do we care about? What matters?

As a liberal, I instinctively choose individuals. People matter.

Now, it’s easy to lampoon this instinct. The caricature usually involves a quote from Margaret Thatcher, when she allegedly said:

There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals.

Here is what she actually said. As you can tell, it doesn’t come close to Ayn Rand in shrillness.

Individuals do form families and other groups, and liberals do care about those. But those are groups that individuals volunteer to form. (By contrast, I never volunteered to be American, German or middle class. Most of the time, I’m not even sure what those group memberships are supposed to mean.)

Let’s talk about Arizona

Enough prologue. Let’s talk about the new Arizona law against illegal immigration.

In my article in the new issue of The Economist, I try to analyze how the law and the backlash against it might affect American politics. My editor wrote a “leader” (ie, opinion editorial) to go along with it. And both of those pieces follow a short piece I whipped up the other day, when the law was first signed.

Now, it may not surprise you to learn that, in addition to the hundreds of, shall we say, passionate comments on our website, I have also been getting reader letters.

I have already regaled you with you my cavalier amusement at the tone of the American reader letters I get. But I must say, the mail bag of late has taken another turn for the worse. I leave it to your imagination.

So let’s step back and try to understand why I, and The Economist, would instinctively be

  • for more open borders,
  • for more liberal migration laws,
  • for freer movement of people.

Is it because I love Latinos, as some of my reader letters suggest (albeit in a different vocabulary)?

Well, yes it is. I do love them. Though no more so than I love Eskimos, Wasps and Tibetans. I love them all, but only as individuals.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when only diplomats carried passports. Other people moved freely where they wanted to go. Just read Casanova’s memoirs. 😉

This sounds like an ideal world: Free individuals and families moving wherever they want to go, with a minimum of hassle (besides the natural stress of moving).

I admit that this was before some countries had welfare states which might attract poor migrants and thus be overwhelmed. This issue — whose taxes pay for whose benefits in a given land — must be addressed.

And I also admit that this was before terrorists (who already existed) had access to weapons of mass destruction. So this issue — how do we keep murderous migrants out — also must be addressed.

On the other hand, I do not admit that immigrants in general, whether legal or illegal, are more likely than natives to commit crimes, because research proves this not to be true.

Garden of Earthly Delights

So what would a liberal Utopia look like?

All individuals anywhere would be free to move to and live where they please, within basic and minimal parameters to address the two issues above.

Americans, for example, would be allowed to go to Latin America or Europe to pursue careers, loves and dreams. Latin Americans and Europeans would be just as free to come to America to do the same.

This would apply to the “high-skilled” migrants, such as Indian graduates from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), probably the best university system in the entire world today. And it would apply equally to “low-skilled” migrants, because they, too, have contributions to make and dreams to pursue.

Is this realistic? Probably not.

But is it desirable?

That depends whether you view the world largely as tribes, classes or, as I do, individuals.

Bookmark and Share

The best tax for America

It is Tax Day again in America and some people left their returns to the last minute (as you can see on this photo, which I took in Los Angeles yesterday.) So I’ll take this occasion to muse about the relationship between America’s tax system and freedom.

One year ago today, I offered some “tax day thoughts on complexity in American life.” The gist of that post was that the complexity of America’s tax system, not the rate of taxation, is what harms freedom in this country. Contrary to what you might think if you go to Tea Party rallies, we are not overtaxed, we are badly taxed.

But I did not offer a better — meaning simpler — alternative system. In this post, which I expect to be controversial, I want to do that. (As always, keep in mind that the views expressed on The Hannibal Blog are mine alone, not necessarily those of The Economist.)

There are many proposals out there for a simpler and more efficient tax system: A flat tax, value-added tax, et cetera. I won’t review them all, but instead pick the proposal that I consider simplest, cleanest and boldest.

The Idea

It is the so-called FairTax Plan.

Part of its strength (ie, simplicity) is that I can describe the entirety of America’s proposed tax code in a few short lines:

  • America’s existing income and other taxes would be abolished. (Not cut, but eliminated!)
  • The IRS and America’s other organs of proto-authoritarian oppression would also be abolished.
  • Instead, all Americans would pay a national sales tax, as most Americans already pay state or local sales taxes.
  • In addition, all Americans would get a prebate — ie, at the beginning of each year, everybody gets a check.

And that’s it!

The drafters of the proposal think that the rate of this new national sales tax needs to be about 23% to provide the same revenues that we now get from the income tax. It might be 28% or 19%. I’m not the least bit interested in that.

The idea is that we raise as much money as we would otherwise raise through an income tax. As it happens, we would need to collect quite a bit less than we currently do, because we would no longer incur the enormous costs of the IRS bureaucracy, auditors and accountants!

Now for the discussion of the advantages and alleged disadvantages of this new tax system:


I think the advantages are self-explanatory:

  • You would keep your whole pay check. Ie, your take-home pay would spike right away.
  • You would not have to file a tax return.
  • No more record-keeping! You no longer maintain mountains of paper for wages, the cost basis of your investments, mortgage deductions, childcare and nannies, et cetera et cetera.
  • IRAs, 401(k)s, Roth IRAs, Keoghs…..: You can throw them all into the trash, because all your investments are by definition untaxed.
  • Thanks to your annual prebate (which gives you a certain amount of subsequent sales tax “back”), a portion of your consumption is untaxed, too.
  • But beyond that, all your consumption is taxed, thus making you think twice about frivolous and unnecessary consumption, which reduces your carbon footprint and clutter.
  • Whenever you do consume (either goods or services), you can see the tax you pay on the receipt, in the clearest and simplest manner possible.
  • All this amounts to: transparency (replacing opacity) and freedom (replacing anxiety and bureaucracy).


There is only one major criticism of this sales tax, but it is a big one, so I want to concentrate on it.

The disadvantage is that this sales tax, like any consumption tax, at first glance appears to be regressive.

In the current system, rich people pay not only absolutely but relatively more of their income than poor people. (There is a reason why I italicized that phrase. Keep reading.) In the new system, poor people (who might need to spend, rather than save, all their income) would seem to pay relatively more of their income than rich people.

And this seems unfair.


I’ve pondered this for some time. As you may remember, I am a liberal, correctly defined (ie, libertarian but not loony). And I do worry about inequality, which is inevitable in a free society to some extent but in excess (ie, in America) harms freedom.

Part I

My first response to the above criticism is that our current income tax (ie, that which the FairTax proposes to replace) is not fair either!

Warren Buffett has famously explained how he, as a mega-rich investor who does no “tax planning”, pays a lower tax rate than his secretary, who lives off her meager pay check.

Fairness, it turns out, is not about progressive tax brackets. If you have progressive brackets but exceptions to everything (= “complexity”) you get not fair but unpredictable and arbitrary taxation.

So if you do care about fairness, first join me in stipulating that our current system must go.

Part II

My second response is to ask you to re-examine, as Socrates might, what wealth is.

Is it:

  1. to have vast stores of potential spending power (ie, paper statements of bank balances that produce income)?
  2. or to consume vast amounts of resources, human and natural, with your own or others’ (borrowed) wealth?

Our current conventional wisdom says 1. So if income is the definition of wealth, then a consumption tax is regressive.

I propose that the correct definition is 2. So if consumption is the definition of wealth (as it used to be for almost all of human history), then a consumption tax is fair.

Example: Croesus and Diogenes

Let me illustrate that point playfully by reviving two characters who have previously featured on The Hannibal Blog:

  • Croesus, the ancient king of Lydia who gave us the phrase “rich as Croesus”, and
  • Diogenes, the Greek cynic who chose to live in a barrel (and who is a hero of mine).

Let us assume that Croesus and Diogenes are equally rich in our Number 1) definition: Both get huge amounts of income from assets (Croesus from tribute, Diogenes from the equivalent of a trust fund set up by his benefactor, a wealthy Athenian).

Now let’s think about how the FairTax would treat these two rich guys:

Both Croesus and Diogenes would start every year by getting their prebate check. Their basic cost of living, their subsistence, is thereby pre-paid.

Diogenes can buy the few things he needs (dog food, loin cloth, etc) and his prebate covers the sales tax on these items. He pays no net tax at all, in other words.

(Meanwhile, he has millions in his bank account, sitting idle for him, but being lent out to other Athenians to grow the economy.)

Croesus is different. He sneers at his prebate check, which barely covers the sales tax on a single slave, and spends it in a day. Then he keeps spending: Gold, silver, jewels, women, palaces, feasts, galleys, ….

He consumes immoderately and to the detriment of his planet. But he is free to do so (freedom is one of our goals), and nobody even looks askance at him. However, each time he spends, he pays tax, and he knows exactly how much (transparency and simplicity are our other goals).

The years go by, and Diogenes donates his potential (= hypothetical) wealth to an anonymous Athenian. His wealth has been helping the economy all these years, because it was being lent to entrepreneurs. But now the Athenian recipient spends the wealth. And as he does so, he pays tax.

The taxes on Diogenes’ money were therefore only delayed, until such time as his wealth turned from potential into actual consumption. The taxes on Croesus’ money were immediate, because he chose to spend.

Every single dollar in the economy is therefore taxed, but only when it becomes consumption.

At a very fundamental level, this is how it ought to be. We should not calculate equality based on income but on consumption. If I have more than you but live more modestly than you, I should not pay more than you. This is the mental switch I ask you to attempt.

I believe it is fair that Croesus pays lots of taxes all along, but that Diogenes, who never consumes much, does not.

Effect on politics

A final thought about what the FairTax would do to our political discourse and climate.

Our current tax system is as complex as it is because it is the tote bag for our politicians: Any weird political give-away — to owners of gold mines or race horese, homeowners or Prius drivers…. — gets dressed up in Congress as a “tax break” and stuffed into the code. Each time that happens, society as a whole loses, but nobody notices because, well, the tote bag is too messy to see any individual item in it.

Complexity, in short, is the tool politicians and lobbies use to hide things from our attention.

If we switch to the FairTax, the tote bag is dumped and replaced by two and only two numbers:

  1. rate of sales tax, and
  2. the amount of the prebate check

Every American could understand this system and therefore participate in our debates about government, funding and fairness.

Should more people be exempt from all taxation? Fine, raise the prebate amount.

Is government too big? Fine, cut the sales-tax rate.

But what what if we still want to help particular groups of people? Earthquake victims or people whose homes are being foreclosed, for example.

Today, we would stuff more gibberish into our tote bag and nobody would notice the cost.

Under the FairTax, we could still help these people, but we would no longer do it through the tax code. We would pay these groups actual cash.

This, of course, would be transparent and easy to measure. Once again, we could all debate whether home owners in foreclosure actually deserve this cash (perhaps not) or whether earthquake victims do (probably).

We would understand what’s going on in our country as well as in our own finances, and understanding is the beginning of freedom.

A shocking thought, isn’t it?

Bookmark and Share

California as case study in dysfunction

On principle, I do not use The Hannibal Blog to advertise my articles in The Economist, but my piece in the new issue does fit into one of my running threads: ‘the freedom lover’s critique of America‘.

The piece is about “the ungovernable state”–this being California. Consider it a case study that grew out of my thoughts here.

In it, I have fun chronicling the dysfunction, and in the process touch on several themes that I’ve mentioned on this blog before, such as:

My conclusion: I endorse wholeheartedly the growing movement for a Constitutional Convention, which would throw out that ungainly tome and start from scratch to create something clean, elegant and simple.

Bookmark and Share

More on complexity in American life

One theme in my ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘ is that the sheer complexity of American life makes modern serfs out of many Americans.

It is in the nature of complexity that you cannot depict or chronicle it in one simple post. So I’ve had a go at American bureaucracy, at the tax system, at the healthcare system and so on. Now I come across this piece by Jason DeParle in today’s New York Times on the general issue of benefits in America. Excerpts with my emphasis:

As millions of people seek government aid, many for the first time, they are finding it dispensed American style: through a jumble of disconnected programs that reach some and reject others… Health care, housing, food stamps and cash — each forms a separate bureaucratic world, and their dictates often collide… Aid seekers often find the rules opaque and arbitrary. And officials often struggle to make policy through a system so complex and Balkanized.

Just one individual example:

A bureaucratic bungle compounded the woes of Ms. Johnson, who lost her job as a librarian at Magnolia Bible College in Kosciusko, Miss. Religious schools are exempt from unemployment taxes, so Ms. Johnson, 60, faced the recession without jobless benefits. She applied for food stamps and was denied because she had more than $3,000 in an Individual Retirement Account, though officials said she would qualify if the savings were in a 401(k). Finding the distinction illogical, Ms. Johnson searched the Internet and learned that Congress had just changed the law. As of October 2008, savings in either kind of retirement account are no barrier to food stamps. But state and county officials held firm, and a federal official sent an e-mail message supporting their outdated view. With the help of an advocacy group, the Public Policy Center of Mississippi, she finally traced the problem to an errant Web page at the Department of Agriculture. “To get maybe $320 of food stamps took an entire month of work,” she said.

I could paraphrase that last sentence about so, so many things here in the, ahem, land of the free.

Bookmark and Share

America seen from the Netherlands

At the end of this excellent piece by Russell Shorto, an American expat in Amsterdam, a Dutch author named Geert Mak says to him:

America is the land of the free. But I think we are freer.

Now, where have we heard this before? Oh, right, it’s how I started my ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘, only I chose to say the same thing about Hong Kong vis-à-vis America.

Shorto does a very thoughtful and balanced job on some of the same themes I’ve covered in this series so far, including notions about inequality and healthcare. Compare, for example, the tenor of what I’ve been saying about oppressive American bureaucracy and what this American expat tells the author:

The amazing thing is that virtually every experience [here in the Netherlands] has been more pleasant than in the U.S. There you have the bureaucracy, the endless forms, the fear of malpractice suits. Here you just go in and see your doctor. It shows that it doesn’t have to be complicated.

Bookmark and Share

Sick and unfree in America


In ancient Taoist China, a well-off family would hire a doctor, pay him as long as everybody in the family was healthy, and stop paying him as soon as somebody got sick until that person was healthy again. This, as far as I know, was the last time that a society aligned the incentives in the healthcare industry properly.

By contrast, healthcare today is upside down: You don’t pay for the thing you want (health); you pay for service when the thing that you don’t want (sickness) comes around. Hypothetically, if you had two doctors, one Taoist and one modern, and if the Taoist were good enough at his job to keep you healthy, the modern doctor would not get paid at all!

I bring this up only as a little thought exercise to illustrate something important: Healthcare is not like other industries. If the product is muesli or ball bearings, it makes sense to talk about competitive markets and such. But if you’re dealing with an industry that is fundamentally upside down, you have to be careful about using trite concepts of economics.

Another way that healthcare is different: If there were large numbers of, for example, children in society that could not get muesli or ball bearings, we could live with it. After all, they can get corn flakes instead, and walk instead of using wheels. The “market failure” would not equate to a shameful indignity. By contrast, if children (and adults, for that matter) cannot get access to healthcare, it is a shameful indignity.

(Disclaimer: As with everything on The Hannibal Blog, the opinions in this post are mine and mine alone, and may or may not overlap with the views of my magazine, The Economist.)

Healthcare and freedom

I bring up healthcare only reluctantly in my ongoing ‘Freedom Lover’s Critique of America’. I’m not qualified to talk about it and it’s not my beat at The Economist. But I decided that it belongs into this series because America’s healthcare system is so different from those in all comparable countries, and because it has such a direct bearing on freedom.

That the system is dysfunctional is well known. I won’t rehearse the familiar list of failings (many uninsured; many underinsured, et cetera). Let me just point to a few features for the subsequent discussion:

  1. American healthcare is typically American in that is it bureaucratic and adversarial. The effect on patients is alienating and dehumanizing. At the precise moment when they are most vulnerable and dejected, they are expected to go to war against their insurance company on the 1-800 numbers and phone trees to contest pieces of paper they don’t understand. But they have to, because their insurance company will contest almost every single claim–for this is built into the system!
  2. American healthcare is also typically American in being uneccessarily complex, as America’s tax system is. I’m not talking about the medical side–that is complex everywhere, because our bodies are–but about the administrative side.

Does this limit the freedom of individual Americans? Yes, and let me just give one concrete example. A free society is one in which people feel free to move and to change jobs, among other things. But a great many Americans are afraid to change or quit jobs, because their healthcare coverage is tied to an employer. So healthcare can become yet another of the shackles that makes serfs out of many Americans.

More generally, the system’s dysfunction limits freedom because it robs so many Americans of dignity. And dignity is a prerequisite for freedom. Thomas Jefferson could write “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” only because he lived in a relatively innocent age, the Enlightenment. A more mature constitution of liberty, such as West Germany’s after the Holocaust, begins with

Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar–The dignity of each human being is untouchable.

So yes, healthcare belongs into any debate about whether a country can claim to be free or not. Now let’s figure out what sort of problem healthcare poses, in general and in America.

What kind of problem is healthcare?

When the ancient Chinese paid Taoist doctors to keep them healthy, healthcare was a cost of living, comparable to food and shelter. When we turned it around and paid doctors for managing our sickness, healthcare became an insurance problem.

And there are two traditions of modern insurance:

1) Lloyd’s of London

In 1688, rich toffs started hanging out in Edward Lloyd’s coffee house in London, near where the ships came in and maritime gossip spread. They began betting on which ships would make it to port with their cargo and which might sink. They called it ‘insurance’. It was really a higher form of gambling, with huge profits when the bets went well and huge losses when they went bad. This is the origin of the Anglo-Saxon view of insurance: as a profit-business.

2) Swiss mountain valleys

In Switzerland, going back to I-don’t-know-when, villagers got together to share risk. You might say they “collectivized” it, but don’t think that they were socialists. They were freely volunteering to pool their individual risks because they noticed something that we now call

the Law of Large Numbers

Say that a Swiss village had 1,000 houses. The villagers knew from historical record that, on average, one house would burn down every year. That house’s family would be devastated. Let’s put their loss at SF1,000 to make the math simple. The other families would suffer no loss at all, but they could not tolerate the indignity of letting one family suffer and lived in fear that they might themselves be next.

So they agreed, in free assembly, to pony up SF1 each for a SF1,000 fund. The SF1,000 then went to the one family whose house burnt down to make it whole.

What had they done? They had exchanged a

large but uncertain loss

for a

small but certain one.

They were able to do this thanks to the Law of Large Numbers, which says that an unpredictable risk becomes highly predictable when it is pooled with large numbers of similar, but unrelated, risks.


The Law does not work if the individual risks are correlated. The Great Fire of London in 1666 (below) happened because all of London’s thatched houses stood so close together that they were in fact one big house from the point of view of a flame.


The Law also does not work if adverse selection spoils the risk pool. For instance, say that some of the Swiss villagers had opted out of the pool because they had stone houses. Only those families with highly flammable houses would have entered the pool, but that would mean that the 1-in-a-1,000 ratio no longer applied (it would be much higher).

The Law also does not work if moral hazard changes the way people behave once they get insurance. If some villagers get the idea that, since they are now “covered”, they might as well set their houses afire, the system breaks down.

Finally, the Law works best for risks that are high in frequency, low in devastation. Fire is a good example. It does not work well for risks that are low in frequency, high in devastation. An extinction-causing meteor is a good example. (Who would charge whom what premium for what risk?)

Back to healthcare

And where does healthcare fit in?

  • First, it is very high in frequency (everybody gets injured or sick sooner or later) and low in devastation (usually only that one life is at risk). For most illnesses–diabetes, heart disease, etc–actuaries know exactly what percentage of the population as a whole will get sick in a given year.
  • Moral hazard is not a problem, because–loonies and rock stars excepted–people do not intentionally ruin their health just because they are insured.
  • Adverse selection is a problem, because risk, and the perception of it, changes over a lifetime. The young feel immortal and would opt out to save the buck (Swiss Franc) for a beer, leaving only the geezers to pay up.


Healthcare seems to be altogether unsuitable for a Lloyd’s of London (Anglo-Saxon, profit-driven) insurance culture, and perfectly suited for a Swiss-mountain-valley (risk sharing) insurance culture.

The prerequisite is that everybody in the pool must participate to avoid adverse selection.This, however, would require a mandate for the majority to coerce a few unwilling individuals, and that is something that (real) liberals do not like. But many liberals (and the Swiss are freedom lovers!) make this sacrifice because they understand that it is necessary: Dignity mandates that we look after the sick even if they have opted out of participating, so some people would become free riders.

There are two simple ways to get everybody into one risk pool subject to the Law of Large Numbers:

  1. Tax everybody a little bit (the equivalent of the SF1 per village family) to cover the proportion of people being sick every year, or
  2. make people buy their own insurance, rather as we require car insurance for drivers.

The first leads to a British or Canadian-style single-payer system. (Important: Notice that the government need only manage the funding of the care, not the care itself.) Since everybody is covered, there need be no paperwork for patients. I still remember when I was visiting Britain as a teenager with a soccer team and woke up unable to move my neck one day. I dragged myself to the street, got a taxi to a hospital, and, although I was not British, got fantastic care without signing a single piece of paper.

The second leads to a system of competing insurance carriers. This is fine, although there is one problem: What if you pay premiums to one insurer while you’re young, but then you switch to another insurer when you’re old? That would be adverse selection again (for the second insurer). But in a competitive system, patients would move in both directions, and might cancel one another out. Even so, there is slightly more paperwork for patients, since the care provider needs to reclaim the money from any of several insurers.

Notice that, either way, the economic burden is the same: Every citizen pays, whether through taxes or premiums, the same amount to participate in the risk pool.


And now, the American way: A bit of everything, mixed together and stirred. If you’re a veteran, you participate in huge risk pool. If you’re old (Medicaid) or poor (Medicaid), you participate in other risk pools. If you buy your own insurance, you can carry your coverage around, but you are paying much higher premiums because the insurer assumes adverse selection. If you’re employed, your company arranges coverage, but only as long as you work for it. If you are none of the above, you have no coverage and go to the emergency room when you’re sick, thus leaving the provider to hike everybody else’s costs to compensate for you.

Paper, paper, paper. No law of large numbers for society as a whole. Fragmentation. Confrontation between patient and insurer. Nightmare.

And if Obama goes on to do just the “politically feasible” thing–which, in America, is to add more “options” and complexity–it will get worse.

The way to bring freedom and dignity to America is to get rid of employer-sponsored insurance and to have either  one single government-run insurance pool or mandatory individual insurance for one privately-run insurance pool. Nothing else works.

Bookmark and Share

Complexity in the American drawer

Remote controls

This is only tangentially related to my ongoing ‘Freedom Lover’s Critique of America‘; but tangent does mean touching in Latin, so this does touch the topic:

I am staying in a very American sort of place: The owner has gone out of his way to provide “conveniences”, and in America that usually involves screens–nowadays of the flat-panel variety. They must be in every room, so that you don’t ever have to miss out. Other devices must be connected to the screens so that you need not compromise on your entertainment options. You must, you see, have choice. (More on the paradoxical effect of choice on freedom here.)

And so I opened a drawer. It turned out to be the mother lode of complexity metaphors in American life. All you need to enter this American paradise was contained therein. I thought of the number of remote controls, then the number of buttons, then the number of permutations. But I’m not that good at math.

I savored the irony, then closed the drawer and opened a book.

Bookmark and Share

Frenemies: Freedom and equality


Marianne, above, did not flash her boobs to all those corpses for nothing. She did it for the trinity (as in the tricolore she carries) of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Let’s leave fraternity, which is a rather mushy notion, to one side. That leaves liberty and equality. Do those two belong together?

I knew I would have to address this issue sooner or later in my ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘. But the fascinating debate in the comments below this post brought it to the fore. Fortunately, that comment thread neatly summarizes the entire spectrum, across the world and history, of views on the subject. As I see it, the three options are:

  • You can’t have freedom without equality.
  • You can’t have freedom with equality.
  • It’s complicated.

The Classical Liberal view

Broadly, classical liberals (as properly defined) are passionately in favor of equal opportunity and just as passionately against enforced equal outcomes, exactly as “Hizzoner” paraphrased Friedrich von Hayek here.

Which is to say: If you (ie, the government) predetermine that everybody will be the same (think the same, dress the same, drive the same car, live in the same house…) then nobody in your society can be free, if ‘free’ means being able to be yourself, ie different than others. Why create, why achieve, why risk, if the fruits of your effort and ingenuity will be confiscated (“redistributed”) in the name of equality?

I personally glimpsed the extreme form of just such a dystopia when I peaked into East Germany months before it crumbled (although I didn’t know that it would crumble, of course). They were all driving, or on the waiting list for, the same damn Trabi. And while I was ogling their Trabis, many East Germans were already flooding into the West German embassy in Hungary, trying to escape and eventually forcing their leaders to let the Berlin Wall crumble.

That same example, East Germany, also showed what Hayek correctly predicted would happen in reality in an ‘egalitarian’ society. As Orwell might put it: Some were more equal than others. The difference was that the ‘more equal’ ones didn’t use wealth to assert their supremacy but more nefarious means–party connections, or what the Chinese call guanxi. The resulting horror was captured intimately on screen here.

And so, to those of us, like me, who were devotees of Ayn Rand, the answer was clear. Equality is the enemy of individualism, and thus of freedom.

How it got complicated for Liberals

Even at the time, however, there were some contradictions that gnawed at me. Even in the ‘free world’, we were often invoking equality. For instance, democracy, which we (perhaps wrongly) associated with freedom seemed to be based on the equality of one citizen = one vote, even as capitalism seemed to be based on the opposite, ie unequal outcomes.

Then there was the bit about equal opportunity, which we were all supposed to be for. Well, this was messy, because, inconveniently, we were biological organisms and as such insisted on looking after our offspring. Anybody who ‘makes it’ devotes his entire life, and all his resources, to ensuring that his offspring get a head start. And who can blame him?

So if ‘we’ (the government) really wanted to preserve equal opportunity, we would have to get heavy-handed and stop ‘him’ from looking after his kids. We would have to stop him not just from sending his kids to better schools and doctors, but from reading his kids all those bedtime stories, paying for all those piano lessons and SAT prep courses, building all those Lego houses with them–ie, from doing all those things that give kids ‘unequal’ opportunity. In short, we would have to take his freedom away! Obviously, a non-starter.

The triumph of biology

And then I saw a documentary. I tuned in somewhere during the middle and never saw the title, so I can’t be sure it is this one, but it might be. It was based at least in part on Sir Michael Marmot’s Whitehall Study from Britain. Here is how I remember it:

Stress: It is not the same as pressure, which we all feel from time to time. Instead, it comes from ranking low in a hierarchy and lacking power over your own time, your own self (=not being free). You who are at the bottom are at the whim of others. You suffer. And not ‘just’ psychologically, but biologically. You tend to get fat in your mid-section, and your heart, blood vessels and brain change visibly, with entire neurological circuits shriveling up. Meanwhile, the brains and hearts of top dogs expand and thrive.

The most poignant moment came when they cut from our species, Homo sapiens, to monkeys. The researchers observed packs of primates, and sure enough: a monkey at the bottom of the hierarchy got fat in his mid section, had hardened arteries and heart walls and a a shriveled brain.

Equally poignant: One group of monkeys, led by particularly aggressive alpha males, played in a trash dump and was decimated by an epidemic. Another group, more female and egalitarian, moved in and absorbed the survivors of the first group. The egalitarian culture prevailed. And voilà, the health of the surviving monkeys from the first group recovered and improved! They were slim, their hearts and arteries pumped, their brains fired on all neurons.

Let’s take this one more step toward generalization: You recall that I criticized Ayn Rand for getting individualism wrong (which took me many years to figure out). Well, I now know how she got it wrong. She did not allow or understand how inviduals, when forming groups, pick up signals from one another that change who and what they are.

Watch this amazing TED talk by Bonnie Bassler as a mind-blowing illustration of what I mean. It is not about humans per se, but about bacteria. That’s right. Stupid, single-cellular strings of DNA and surrounding gunk. The trick to understanding bacteria (→all biological critters?) is to grasp how they chemically detect the presence of other bacteria, and then suddenly change their own chemistry. Upshot: No bacterium is an island.

The case of America

Let’s now look at America. Without getting into the academic weeds, there is a proxy for social equality called the Gini Coefficient. If the coefficient is 0, everybody has exactly the same; if it is 1, one person has everything, and everybody else has nothing. So countries fall somewhere in the middle between 0 and 1. Now look at this world map:


The first thing you will notice is that the darkest blues and purples–ie, the greatest inequality–tend to be in poor countries, even in nominally “Communist” ones such as China. That’s because poor countries tend to be corrupt and feudal, with a few lords and many serfs. It is hard to consider these countries “free”.

But the second thing is more interesting. If you look at just the “developed” countries (let’s say those belonging to the OECD), you notice that one country stands out.

All the rich countries are in shades of yellow or green, meaning that they are fairly egalitarian societies. Only America is blue. America, in short, is the least egalitarian of all the developed countries.

And so? I’m not sure. The old Hayekian in me would chalk this up as a possible sign of more freedom in America than elsewhere. The new bacteriologist and epidemiologist in me wants to ring the alarm bell. This is not healthy! Sure, the Americans on top of the pecking order might show up at Party Conventions every four years and proclaim that ours is the freest country in the world. But many other Americans are simultaneously dying from their serfdom, whether they are aware of it or not.

For the time being, let’s consider freedom and equality neither friends nor enemies, but frenemies.

Bookmark and Share

Tax day thoughts on complexity in American life


April 15. Tax day. All over America today, people are amusing themselves with “tea parties“. And that is great fun, to be sure. Part of our creation myth is that the country started with a tax revolt, as we rugged individualists stood up to those imperial tyrants. So let’s put on our costumes and play.

But let’s then talk seriously about taxation as part of our ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘. To do that intelligently, I feel I must remove one important distraction upfront:

I don’t believe we are overtaxed in America. I believe that some of us could pay even more. But the amount or rate of American taxation is not the problem.

What, then, is the problem? Make no mistake that there is a problem. America’s tax system is a scandal. It is incompatible with freedom.

The problem is complexity, and its effect, opacity.

Today I heard the IRS commissioner say on NPR that America’s tax code is four times as long as War and Peace. 5.5 million words, apparently. The wordcount, however, is a very abstract and bad way of grasping the complexity of the system. We don’t read the code.

The complexity begins hurting, and enslaving, us as we live–that is, as we participate in our society and economy, have children, work and save, and so forth. Young Americans probably don’t know what the fuss is about. That’s because they are not yet participating fully in society. Some adult Americans–probably the spouses of the one “doing the taxes” in any given household–might also feign surprise. That is because they have chosen not to inquire into this scandal. But they are fooling themselves.

The only legal American way to keep things simple in matters of tax paperwork and hassle is not to live. That’s the only way. Don’t work, save, have children, move, and so forth. (Above all, never ever contemplate hiring a nanny!) So I think we can agree that a country that torments its citizens just for trying to make their dreams come true (might I say, for “pursuing their happiness”?) is not … free!

Short meditation on complexity and simplicity

Regular readers of The Hannibal Blog already know how important simplicity is to me, in all things aesthetic, creative, or administrative. Simplicity to me accompanies freedom. I feel free when I am free of clutter.

But I also recognize that nature is full of complexity. and that complexity can be beautiful. However, it comes in three very different kinds:

  1. Natural. Our bodies, for example, are extremely complex. The two nervous systems, the immune system, each organ, each cell, each organelle within each cell–all these are beautifully and mysteriously complex. However, this complexity has evolved, and comes with a “user interface” that remains extremely simple. We do not compute how to attack a virus in our body or how to inhale, we just do it. The complexity is hidden.
  2. Manmade, but following the path of nature: Our cars, for example, are constantly getting more complex. I might have been able to fix a Model T, but I can’t begin to comprehend the 20-odd computers that together represent my Prius. However, just as our bodies hide their complexity from us with a simple user interface, my Prius hides its complexity, so that driving (and bluetoothing, GPSing, etc) is simpler than it was in a Model T. Such complexity is actually sophistication. It works for us, and thus is humane.
  3. Manmade, and going against the path of nature. This is the bad one. This is where our bureaucracies reside. They get inexorably more complex, as surely as entropy increases anywhere in nature, but away from sophistication and toward oppression. They are inhumane. Our tax system is the best (meaning worst) example.

Symptoms of denial

So they arrive, the W2s, W4s, W8s, the 10this and 10thats, the Schedules A, B, C, D, E, F, the worksheets and other papers, and above all, those truly weird, out-of-nowhere, can’t-even-indentify, forms of the sort that we just got and now have the pleasure of disputing and investigating.

People respond in one of three ways.

  1. Take deep breaths, fire up TurboTax and just do it. Those of us who are youngish tend to do it, because we are the do-it-yourself generation, or don’t trust that a tax preparer would do it as meticulously as we will, or actually want to understand (gasp) our affairs.
  2. Get an accountant, forward all that dreadful crap to him, sign whatever he produces, and push the whole thing out of our consciousness.
  3. Break down and give up completely, not filing at all.

In my opinion, 3 is the worst, 2 is the second-worst, and 1 is merely bad. Why? Because all those in Number 2 are fooling themselves. They are accepting that they cannot, and never will, understand their own relationship to government. They are acquiescing in a subtle form of serfdom.


We can say, speaking for adult Americans who participate fully in life, society and economy, that:

Nobody truly understands why they pay what they pay

The tax system, in short, has become a black box.


Black boxes are profoundly and inherently illiberal. Propaganda about “lands of the free” is empty when you’re shouting it over black boxes. (And there are other black boxes in American life, to which I will get.)

Finally, recall my two comparisons to Hong Kong: 1) There, my tax return was two pages, counting the bilingual translation, and I understood exactly what it contained. 2) This despite Hong Kong not being a democracy. How intriguing. As it turns out, it is our peculiar American brand of democracy that has caused this mess.

Of that, and of the possible ways out of this mess, more in posts to come.

Bookmark and Share

Bureaucracy and alienation in American life


The Hannibal Blog continues its multi-post and cumulative ‘freedom lover’s critique of America.” In recent posts, I reflected on Hong Kong, and how very differently–read: freer–I felt when I lived there. Now I want to start exploring what it is that makes me feel unfree in America.

Let me define the direction of my posts (in the comments you can go wherever you please). I won’t be talking about America’s role in the world at large. I won’t be talking about whether or not the world owes America for saving it from totalitarianism in the past (it does). I’ll be discussing only what it feels like to be inside of America today, after having known life in other developed and comparable countries. More specifically, I will concentrate on what it feels like to interact with the organs of official America. (That individual Americans will comfort one another and make life livable is obvious, but no more so than in any other country.)

In essence, this becomes a discussion of American bureaucracy.

God knows other countries have a lot of it, and often more of it, than America. But America has a peculiar brand of it. It has many and overlapping bureaucracies. These share data but do so awkwardly and antagonistically. Democracy does not help but often hurts, because electoral politics (people campaigning in poetry, then governing in prose) add to these bureaucracies. America’s legal tradition, often praised, hurts too, because it is adversarial (as opposed to inquisitorial). It is based on the clash of two parties, each trying to win, with the hope that truth and justice are on the side of the winner. This pervades all of official life in America: You prepare for clashes, you arm for war, then climb down when possible. (Hong Kong also has an adversarial system, but without the rest of America’s bureaucracy.)

Let’s make this concrete. Watch Barry Schwartz talk about our loss of what he calls “wisdom”. It meanders a bit and will strike you as only tangentially relevant. But pay attention to some of the anecdotes. They are peculiarly American. In one, a father takes his son to a ballgame, buys him some lemonade, doesn’t realize that it is a brand that contains some alcohol, is observed by a guard who (yes, preparing for war, using the bureaucracies) calls an ambulance and the cops. The son ends up in the emergency room (procedures and rules are being followed, you understand) and is declared safe. One bureaucracy (something with “welfare” in the name) sends the child to a foster home for three days. A judge (in another bureaucracy, the court system) sends the son home, but now orders the dad to move into a motel. The ordeal goes on for two more weeks. All bureaucrats involved eventually say “we have to follow the rules”.

America is all about rules. It is the land of ever more disclosure statements, ethics training seminars, pieces of paper (often with a notice at the bottom about a “Paperwork Reduction Act”!).

Schwartz says these procedures and frameworks of officialdom are meant to “spare us from thinking”, to relieve us of spontaneous and moral judgment. They “assure mediocrity”, he says. To me, they contribute to making me feel less free.

Bookmark and Share