November 23rd, 2014

Mormon Pharisees and Phylacteries

It’s not uncommon for my Facebook posts to receive hundreds of comments; the more controversial the topic, the more comments are usually generated. A few issues, without fail, rank near the top: military intervention, breastfeeding, and vaccinations. But these threads were recently overshadowed by an unexpected tidal wave of opinion on an absurd issue: BYU-Idaho students being admonished for exposing ankle flesh.

Individuals who attend one of the LDS church-owned educational institutions agree, as part of enrollment, to abide by the school’s “Honor Code”—a code of conduct governing things such as drug and alcohol consumption, interactions with the opposite gender, and dress and grooming standards. It is part of the price of admission to study at the tithing-subsidized church colleges.

As many critics have (correctly) pointed out, however, the minutia of these mandates can sometimes be borderline (if not outright) ludicrous.

For the past several years, the LDS Church has invested substantial time and money in the creation of video vignettes of popular New Testament stories. The production cost and attention to detail have been significant; as the Mormon Newsroom wrote, “The creators were careful to reflect the stories of the King James Version of the New Testament as faithfully as possible, paying meticulous attention to scriptural details.” This careful detail especially included wardrobe and grooming, ensuring that the actors appeared like the individuals they were portraying, to create fidelity to the original story.

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November 18th, 2014

Changing Deckhands or Direction?

The following op-ed was published this past weekend by the Daily Herald.

The ballot box provides American citizens an opportunity to indicate their support for or opposition to a variety of political candidates and proposed policy changes — an opportunity that a majority ignore; in Utah County, more than 67 percent of voters abstained from voting in the general election earlier this month.

For the few who do vote, this process becomes a majoritarian popularity contest in which warring factions attempt to wrest power from their competitors in hopes of imposing their views on everybody else. As Lord Acton wrote, “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.” No student of history should regard American elections as a particularly praiseworthy process.

Of course, most see the current system as the least problematic approach to public policy, and therefore a valid system by which the government can be changed. But will this election actually change the direction America is heading, or is it, in the end, a theatrical rearrangement of deckhands on a ship whose course is fairly fixed?

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November 14th, 2014

Transparency, simplicity, publicity: Words for GOP to live by in 2015

The following op-ed was published this week by Fox News. It was written, in part, to publicize the forthcoming publication of Feardom.

Every Republican newly elected to the U.S. Senate shares at least one thing in common: they each campaigned on repealing the Affordable Care Act.

As Americans all across the political spectrum prepare for a fresh round of debate regarding this controversial policy reform, it’s important to pause and address how it was adopted in the first place.

If we’re to believe one of its creators, “ObamaCare” came into existence only because of “the stupidity of the American voter.” Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist and chief architect of the law, admitted last year to a friendly audience that it “was written in a tortured way” to dodge legislative obstacles, and that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage” that “was really, really critical for the thing to pass.”

Let’s take Gruber at his word—that the success of the president’s signature policy proposal was predicated on ignorance and obfuscation. One must conclude from his explanation that the Obama administration relied upon—and helped to maintain—the electorate’s alleged stupidity; in the eyes of a politician, an ignorant populace is a malleable one. “Great is truth,” wrote the dystopian author Aldous Huxley, “but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.”

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November 10th, 2014

Forced Taxation to Fund Schools — For the Good of Society?

I received my annual property tax notice in the mail last week, informing me of the amount of my hard-earned money that the government was demanding I submit, without mercy or exception. The penalty for non-compliance ranges from fines to foreclosure, clarifying to citizens that they do not in fact own the property for which they hold a title; we must pay rent to the government or be evicted.

The tax notice I was provided showed the break down of which government bodies would receive certain divisible amounts, the largest of which is the government school district in which I live—nearly $2,000, and $170 higher than last year’s mandate.

As a homeschooling father, I find this burden to be excessive and unjust. Because this taxation mandate carries with it significant penalties should I fail to pay, it becomes a priority expenditure. As such, the costs of my own children’s education becomes secondary; curriculum, materials, field trips, activities, and other resources needed to help my children learn can only be acquired after I have first financed the education of others’ kids.

“But!” the statist immediately interjects. “Surely this sacrifice is necessary for the good of society—it is the price we pay to live in an educated populace.” This argument is represented fairly well—though in nausea-inducing fashion—by author John Greene, who offered the following comment often paraded around by public school supporters:

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October 31st, 2014

In the Shadows of the Unknown

The following article was published in this month’s edition of The Freeman by The Foundation for Economic Education. It was written, in part, to publicize the forthcoming publication of Feardom.

Your doorbell rings in the dark of night, so you quietly approach the peephole to size up your visitor. The porch light doesn’t illuminate the person well enough to see him clearly, but he’s definitely wearing a mask. You move your eyes lower to get a better look at the tall figure. He’s standing, waiting, on the other side of the threshold. He’s holding a machete.

On any other night, this scenario might send adrenaline coursing through your veins, fueling an almost palpable fear. But tonight is different. It’s Halloween. And rather than feeling scared, you casually open the door to discover that the dimly lit figure is the teenager from down the street dressed as the killer from a slasher flick.

We don’t fear a scary-looking stranger on our doorstep on October 31 because we know it’s very likely to be a friendly neighbor seeking sugar. This information, born of experience, empowers us to act rationally. It’s possible, of course, that the machete-wielding figure really is a murderer going door to door — but the odds are against it, especially on this night of the year.

Imagine if you didn’t know how to assess that risk. Imagine locking your doors, turning off all the lights, and cowering in the dark, waiting for all the trick-or-treaters to go away.

Unfortunately, this is the situation we too often find ourselves in when politicians and the media tell us to be scared — of terrorists, of deadly contagions from overseas, or just of each other. We know that not all of the threats can be real, but how are we to discern the true menaces from the false alarms?

When people are scared, they will support policies that promise to keep us safe, but end up costing us ever more—both in tax dollars and lost liberties. That’s why despots throughout history have sought means by which the masses could be intentionally kept in the dark: ignorance and fear give the despots power. It doesn’t matter which political party is in power. The left tries to scare people with dark visions of unchecked greed and exploitation. The right wants people to fear alleged threats to our security, both abroad and within our borders. Fear pervades politics generally. As John Adams once wrote, it is “the foundation of most governments.”

We naturally defer decision making to those who have access to greater political and military intelligence than the general population does. Christopher Guzelian, a legal theorist, posits that politicians are so successful in their use of fear because of “risk information (whether correct or false) that is communicated to society.” In other words, we fear the hobgoblins we can’t see solely on the basis that we’re told they exist and are coming after us. Guzelian concludes that it is “risk communication, not personal experience, [that] causes most fear these days.” Without information, and lacking direct experience, we often respond irrationally.

What can we do when we are not ourselves scientists, soldiers, or spies? How do we protect our freedom from a political class that benefits from our fears?

We’re all familiar with the fable about the boy who cried wolf. A shepherd boy repeatedly tricked nearby villagers into thinking that a wolf was attacking his flock of sheep. After multiple “false alarms,” the wolf actually did attack. But this time, when the boy called for help like he had many times before, the villagers did not respond. What changed? This time, they had information. While they didn’t know if there was a wolf or not, they did have observational data informing them about the trustworthiness of their source.

Our lives are filled with supposed shepherds warning us about the terror du jour. This warning may be completely concocted for political gain, or simply amplified or misinterpreted as a prediction of how a potential malefactor might act. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an analysis of predictions made by 300 subject matter experts — and summarized in his book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? — Philip Tetlock observes that “there is a tendency for experts to claim to know more than they do about the future.” Put differently, we rely on people who often do not know what they’re talking about.

While we may not have access to the information necessary to know whether a purported political, economic, or other threat is as bad as is claimed, we are not helpless. Some sources are more reliable than others. We can cautiously develop a sense of which sources to listen to based on their track records.

The US government’s record is especially bad on foreign threats. “A few recent examples,” writes historian Tom Woods, “include the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident (Vietnam), babies being tossed out of incubators (Iraq I), ‘genocide’ (Kosovo, where ‘hundreds of thousands’ of dead turned out to be 2000 dead on both sides of a civil war combined), weapons of mass destruction (Iraq II), and many others.”

Like the villagers in the fable, we cannot trust our shepherd — but what alternative do we have? Having grown weary of being duped by false reports, the villagers might have constructed a tower and employed an observer to stand watch and provide an accurate assessment of the surrounding area. The problem for the villagers, and for us, is that new infrastructure can be expensive. And, in the end, the new guardian may develop the same incentives as the old one.

Fortunately, modern technology offers us a superior strategy to combat those who wish to deprive us of the truth.

Prior to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1436, it was economically unfeasible for most individuals to own books, leading to widespread illiteracy. Without the ability to read information, let alone scrutinize and judge it, commoners had no intellectual defense with which they could combat falsehoods. The printing revolution empowered people to access and act upon truth, thus holding religious and political officials accountable for their misdeeds.

The Internet has similarly revolutionized information access and analysis. Leaks of confidential government documents have turned into a flood; firsthand reports from theaters of war circumvent government censors and combat propaganda; the proliferation of mobile devices has turned every citizen into an agent of accountability who can document the actions of police officers and turn their abuses of authority into viral videos. These and a host of other innovations empower the individual to obtain and act upon the truth. They also minimize the risk of our believing that something is a threat to our health, safety, or welfare when it really isn’t.

The most important and innovative byproduct of this technological advance is the decentralization of information, including inputs and outputs. There are now an abundance of sources and a variety of means by which we can listen to them. We’re not reliant upon a single shepherd. The world features observation towers in abundance—a marketplace of investigators, researchers, analysts, and commentators. Should one source prove untrustworthy, we have other options from which to choose.

Likewise, our ability to share the truth using technology ensures that controls and censorship will forever be circumvented; with the click of a button, we can now help countless others see that the emperor isn’t wearing clothes. Social media has radically altered the traditional news networks, and citizen journalists are increasingly empowered to identify, investigate, and report on an issue of concern. Worldwide dissemination of information is no longer a fanciful, futuristic dream—the revolution has become our reality.

We live in a dangerous world, where threats do exist and should be dealt with. We should be diligent, however, in figuring out what is or isn’t a credible threat. Imagine if your young neighbor was shot and killed by another homeowner unfamiliar with Halloween. Wouldn’t we agree that more information would have caused that neighbor to respond differently?

We can’t expect people to act reasonably in the face of some purported threat unless they can access the truth and the context that surround it. Thankfully, today we have more tools than ever to check those who cry wolf and expect people to stay cowering in the shadows of the unknown.

August 14th, 2014

After Ferguson, Then What?

Cheye Calvo was the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, in 2008 when law enforcement officers raided his home as part of a botched drug raid. The mayor and his mother-in-law were held at gunpoint, and officers shot and killed the mayor’s two dogs—one while it was trying to escape to safety. If this story is unfamiliar to you, read Radley Balko’s summary here.

Calvo and his mother-in-law were completely innocent, and the officers involved in the raid faced no repercussions. The Sheriff was even so bold as to say that “we’d do it again. Tonight.”

The mayor began lobbying the state legislature for reform, and succeeded in passing a bill that would bring a bit of transparency to law enforcement. It required every Maryland police agency with a SWAT team to periodically issue a report on how many times the team was deployed, whether shots were fired, the nature of the alleged crime, etc. It did not enact any restrictions on law enforcement activity, yet it was opposed by every police organization in the state. Still, it passed. Crisis paved the path for reform.

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July 7th, 2014

Why I Now Remain Silent During the Pledge of Allegiance

Four years ago I wrote an article explaining the sordid history of the pledge of allegiance and the modification I made to its words to make it more palatable to me. For a couple of years I used this version whenever I found myself at an event or meeting in which those present were invited to verbally demonstrate their allegiance.

Now I don’t say any pledge at all.

Honestly, I have simply grown tired of seeing people wear their supposed love of freedom on their sleeve. Whether it’s attending a patriotic event, expressing gratitude for “living in the freest country,” saying the pledge of allegiance, participating in a parade, or a variety of other superficial activities, these are devoid of any substantive meaning without corresponding actions. In short, many talk the talk but few walk the walk—or, in Tom Paine’s words, there are too many summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.

While I take issue with the pledge itself—both its history and its textual composition (why do so few find it odd that they are pledging their allegiance to a piece of cloth or symbol of the state?)—my primary motivation for abstaining altogether from saying the pledge is to encourage people to think about their regurgitation of the same. In other words, I want people to focus on the “walk” and see how without it, the “talk” is worthless fluff.

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June 30th, 2014

The Public Relations Meltdown Regarding a Renouncing of War

The events of 9/11 served as a catalyst for the neocolonial interventionist power brokers in government to advance their agenda. In the months that followed, fabrications and talking points intertwined to paint a large target on the nation of Iraq. Not three months later, George Bush identified the country, along with Iran and North Korea, as part of an “axis of evil.” Sanctions against the Iraqi people were renewed and focused. World leaders were told by Bush at the United Nations General Assembly that Saddam’s regime was a “grave and gathering danger” and failure to escalate tensions would make the UN “irrelevant.”

Amid all the (supposed) diplomacy and agitation, the flames of fear and revenge were being eagerly fanned by the media. As one commentator has said, “Propaganda is still used more as an antecedent to war; in other words, if war is the paint, then propaganda is the paint primer that makes possible the total devotion of the public to the just cause of the state in wartime.” Americans had to be sold on the idea of fighting in Iraq before politicians pressed too hard.

Days after his speech at the United Nations, Bush pushed Congress to authorize him to use military force in Iraq. A bill was introduced on October 2, 2002. A few days later, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held its twice-yearly general conference in Salt Lake City. On Saturday afternoon, apostle Russell N. Nelson delivered an address that any faithful Christian would consider gospel truth. He drew attention to our living in the last days, full of prophesied turmoil. He referenced our mandate to follow the Prince of Peace, and noted that he taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”

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June 19th, 2014

Libertarianism Does Not Mean “Live and Let Live”

Critics of libertarianism—and there are many—object to the supposed “selfishness” they believe is at the core of the political philosophy. It is common, in reviewing their complaints, to see libertarianism referred to as “live and let live mentality” or, synonymously, a laissez-faire approach. I intend to show that this characterization is misguided; libertarianism does not mean, and should not be interpreted as, a blanket “live and let live” attitude towards the actions and beliefs of others.

It is true that an anti-authoritarian undercurrent pervades libertarianism. This is an inevitable counter-cultural response to the rise of the authoritarian state. It is therefore not surprising that those who generally sympathize with or support the state’s presumption and actual exercise of authority would object to those who dissent. If government, as Tom Paine said, “even in its best state is but a necessary evil [and] in its worst state an intolerable one,” then it is generally evil—and evil should be opposed.

Libertarians see the injustice in the system and therefore want to distance themselves from it. This is basic human nature; where danger exists, a rational individual desires to keep a safe distance. Because the state claims absolute authority, and because absolute power corrupts absolutely, as a general rule libertarianism stands at odds with the status quo. But does this equate to an across-the-board laissez-faire lifestyle?

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May 18th, 2014

Don’t Confuse Progress With Apostasy

In my last post, I argued that ideally we should progress past the point of constitutionalism and find even better ways to secure individual liberty and promote the common good. But I was careful not to use the word progress, because it is so charged and ill-defined—like many words, it has been commandeered and contorted.

When somebody describes their political ideology as “progressive,” what do you think? Do they support or oppose elective abortion? Do they support or oppose imposing new or higher taxes? Would this person object to, or advocate for, redistributive welfare programs? What, exactly, is a progressive?

Those who apply this label to themselves often believe that they are intellectual—smart in the sense that they have risen above the ignorance of past generations. Where tradition, culture, and political or religious views prevent others from being similarly enlightened, the progressive has evolved beyond such caveman-esque thinking. After all, who can object to progress? Its very name suggests a positive development that every sensible person should support.

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May 8th, 2014

The Constitution was a Means, Not an End

After several generations of preceding philosophical musings and political pamphleteering, a group of American colonists revolted against the most powerful empire in the world. It’s quite staggering to contemplate the boldness of their action—short of the divine providence to which many of them credited their ultimate success, they surely would have failed.

“Mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable,” they wrote in their treasonous Declaration of Independence, “than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” This is, after all, the human condition; apathy and inertia are powerful tools of the state to keep its subjects in line. “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism,” they wrote, “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government…”

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April 17th, 2014

Why Religious Liberty is the Wrong Fight to Pick

There’s been heavy debate regarding religious liberty in the past several years, specifically in relation to the mandate under Obamacare for employers to provide contraception and the surging movement to legalize same-sex marriage. The conversation extends to other issues such as the right to refuse service in commerce, discrimination in employment and housing, and adoption—among many others.

Without question, there are an abundance of examples one might reference suggesting a violation of religious liberty. In other words, many laws require a person to act contrary to the tenets of his faith, presenting him with what Bastiat called “the cruel alternative” of deciding between obedience to God or Caesar. This trend led Pope Benedict XVI to comment in 2012 that this, the “most cherished of American freedoms,” was being undermined by government policies.

But what, exactly, is religious liberty? Most would define it as the ability to believe in God—or, more generally, the supernatural—and act on those beliefs. Of course, religion is often comprehensive and all-encompassing; theology isn’t just focused upward upon God, but more importantly downward on each individual—our lives, our interpersonal relationships, our behaviors, our thoughts, our feelings. As Stephen L. Richards once stated:

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