By Butler Shaffer October 17, 2017
Even the most piddling life is of momentous consequence to its owner.
– James Walcott
Why do those of us who distrust the state do so? Is it because having read the writings of others who embraced ideas of peace, liberty, and individualism helped focus our thinking? But why did we favor John Locke and John Stuart Mill over Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli; and why were we more persuaded by the logical reading of Ayn Rand than that of Karl Marx? When we began to modify our opinions about these and other thinkers, along with developing our own views, how and why did we do so?
I can speak only from my own experiences, and so I do not presume to comment on the processes that led others to transform their thinking. In thinking back on my evolution, I have come to the conclusion that my love of liberty is likely traceable to a genetic disposition that also includes a love for life itself. In my pre-kindergarten years, I recall feeling anger at seeing persons stomping on bugs and ants for no apparent reason. At that age, I even had dreams in which I stepped on persons much smaller than myself, perhaps causing me to begin exploring my own “dark-side.” I have long been troubled by the killing of anything, including trees, plants, and other living forms. When a spider, bird, or lizard manages to get into our house, family members call for me to rescue the creature and escort it outdoors. I have two exceptions to my preference for respecting the inviolability of the lives of others:  when black widow spiders show up on our property, my wife does them in. The protection of grandchildren and household pets take priority.  I realize that life depends on the eating of other living things, which I have no problem in consuming. As an agnostic, I do not say “grace” before a meal, although I believe the origins of the practice may be traced to an expression of respect for the fish, chicken, or other being who provided us with our meal. A few years ago, some friends invited us to their home for a dinner. The husband had prepared a wonderful lemon-chicken dish, to which others shouted: “let’s hear it for Scott!” I could not help but reply: “let’s hear it for the chicken!”
Consistent with their rapacious natures, nation-states are inclined to use other predatory creatures (e.g., eagles, lions, snakes) as metaphors for themselves. I believe that advocates of liberty should consider using fruits as symbols of how the marketplace allows individuals to exchange their surpluses with one another to their mutual advantage. Michael Pollan’s wonderful book, , illustrates how such interchanges have benefitted both humans and fruits without destroying one another. Fruits have arranged to provide us with their delicious flesh that also contain the seeds for their reproduction which we transport to other regions. Recently, we humans have cheated on the bargain by insisting upon seedless fruits. I have great respect for watermelons that have retaliated against seedlessness by making their flesh more abundant and tasty in melons with seeds. Who can deny the self-regulating nature of the marketplace?
Why am I spending this much time on such matters? I am desirous of digging deeper into the question: why do I have such an insistence on the values of liberty and peace, with the marketplace and the inviolability of individual property interests as functional expressions of such values? Libertarians tend to believe that the cause of peace and liberty can best be advanced through ideas grounded in logically-directed reasoning. As a lawyer, I do not deny the importance of such a method, and use it in my own writings. But I am convinced that many of the words we put together have their origins deep within our unconscious minds. Our conscious mind, however, wants to be in control of our negotiations with the world, and thus insists upon the use of words. Ayn Rand based her philosophy on “reason,” but reason can be used to “rationalize” anything one wants to do. To Rand’s idea that “’A’ is ‘A’”, Arthur Eddington earlier observed “we used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding out that we must learn a great deal more about ‘and’.” Such an inquiry takes us into realms where words, alone, will prove inadequate.
In fairness to Rand, she understood what Eddington was saying when she warned us to “check your premises.” But what are the premises from which I am to use my rational mind? How can I test their validity based on my thinking? Can I step outside of my conscious mind and evaluate the content of what I “know?” Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” reminds us of what we know and cannot know from our observations. The philosopher, J. Krishnamurti, expanded on this insight in declaring that “the observer is the observed.” If we are to “check our premises,” how do we do so knowing that the premises to be checked have been created by the thinking of the viewer?
After many years of pondering, and with the help of Eastern philosophy, I have come to the conclusion that such an inquiry does not go very far if one depends primarily on words, reasoning, and other processes of our conscious mind. We live in a world that is so dominated by words, symbols, and other abstractions, that we imagine the forces that direct our thinking can be expressly articulated.
Current research in brain/mind behavior is suggesting that what you and I think of as the products of our conscious mind may be thoughts, ideas, intuitive insights, and other creations emanating from deep within our unconscious mind, later to be presented to our conscious mind which presumes to have been its original work. Perhaps such expressions are from the “collective unconscious,” of which Carl Jung and others have written. If further research confirms these possibilities, the timeworn debate over free-will will be rekindled. But we may discover – to the displeasure of our conscious egos – that the will that is making choices in our thinking and behavior may reside within each of us in some place other than our conscious mind.
As Gutenberg’s invention helped us realize, the dispersal and decentralization of information has both a liberating and creative power. The Renaissance he helped to generate is in the process of being refueled in far more expansive ways. With the help of ever-changing computerized technologies, mankind appears to be in the early stages of what may prove to be the most prolific, humanizing, and individualizing social revolution. As we are able to both receive and communicate to others information that may be inconsistent with the established order’s need for a uniform mindset, individuals begin to think through the nature of their conditioned commitments. Our institutionally dominated world has no use for emotions, passions, and intuitions, regarding them as entropic byproducts (i.e., energy unavailable for productive work) associated with the uncertainties of the diverse and variable nature of human beings.
The expanded range and free flow of information begins to erode the conditioned thinking designed to keep us within our assigned work-stations in the herd. If individual “resources” – as we are called – cannot be relied upon to submit to the collective purposes of formalized abstractions, perhaps robots and computerized machines can take their places. Robotic policemen, driverless cars, pilotless airplanes, and wars conducted with computers used to select bombing victims thousands of miles away, may be the “last hurrah” of a system that has done so much to destroy the spontaneous and autonomous nature of what it means to be human.
This is all that the NFL fracas over the national anthem is about. The institutional order is always prepared to use emotions to remind individuals of the importance of sacrificing themselves to “greater” purposes than themselves; to keep the herd intact and to help round up strays. Flags, anthems, slogans, and color guards, and teary-eyed octogenarians wearing “USS Missouri” caps, serve this purpose. So many public ceremonies are prefaced with the playing of the national anthem: school graduations, sporting events, musical concerts, parades, some church services, and other events. Public outpourings of patriotism have a compelling influence on those in attendance. I remember reading the account of a journalist who attended one of Hitler’s stormy rants before some hundred-thousand partisans. The journalist, while not a Nazi supporter, acknowledged how hard it was to keep from raising his arm in unison with the others. Jung reminds us that the unconscious mind can express itself in either life-destructive and life-supportive ways. In this age of sappy-headed people, I have yet to hear of wedding ceremonies that began with the national anthem, but then I haven’t checked today’s newscasts.
But passions and emotions that interfere with herd-mindedness will not be tolerated. The real heroes in our world, people like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Ed Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, those who work for “Wikileaks,” and others who speak truth not to the powerful, but to the powerless are, like European Jews in the 1930s, forced to flee to other countries for safety. When armed psychopaths go to the tops of buildings to fire on masses of victims – a model premised on the top-down thinking associated with political systems – people rightly condemn such acts while, at the same time, seeking explanations in irrelevant places. Video footage of Stephen Paddock’s slaughter of innocents from his hotel perch was informative of dangers the established order sought to remind us. But when Private Bradley Manning made public, via Wikileaks in 2010, a heretofore secret video of American soldiers massacring non-military men, women, and children from their helicopter gunship, blame was thrust upon Manning for making such information public. Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, can ho-hum her responsibility for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children – and is still allowed to run loose in the world – while serial killers (whose victims are far less numerous) are held up as threats for which we ought to surrender our guns and embrace more powerful police authority.
Collective thinking and organizational systems are being challenged in many places in the world by unseen forces that resist self-destructive behavior. Cursory objections to traditional state-structured societies are finding expression in secession and “populist” movements; the emergence of new political parties and the fracturing or demise of older ones; libertarian and anarchist ideas whose peaceful and orderly implications pose alternatives to political violence; and even desperate efforts by some to resurrect the corpses of state socialism. Those of us enamored of peace, liberty, and individualism, will increasingly be taking our inquiries to planes beyond those characterized solely by logic and reasoning. In much the same way that our understanding of mathematics proceeded from arithmetic, then to algebra, then to trigonometry, and then to calculus – each stage incorporating but not rejecting earlier stages – thoughtful minds are looking for more refined models of social order. As life depends upon the interplay of “stability” and “change” – a process for which an understanding of the dynamics of chaos seems suited – the question emerges: how can more free, peaceful, and productive alternatives be discovered?
Work in such fields as quantum physics, chaos, biology, microeconomics, the bicameral mind, and depth psychology, among others, is making us more aware of the order that lies hidden within complexity. But only the integration of the learning gained from our conscious and unconscious minds – sometimes referred to as “left“ and “right-brain” activity – can provide us with the understanding necessary for transforming our destructive thinking. We must pay more attention to the unconscious voices of our mind, which speak to us in dreams, alpha-state thoughts, intuition, emotions, passionate expressions, and other feelings that do not derive from conscious, rational effort.
We must also learn to pay attention not just to the work of engineers, empiricists, entrepreneurs, and other experts who perform the important tasks of designing and maintaining our material wants and necessities; but to the artists, poets, musicians and composers, and others who remind us of the importance of values that cannot be quantified. What has most attracted me to the Austrian school is its advocates’ awareness that cost-benefits analyses include, but are not limited to, numerical calculation. Forty-five years ago, I attended a debate between Murray Rothbard and Harold Demsetz, in which Murray responded to Demsetz’s argument in these words: “Harold, the kids aren’t going to go to the barricades in defense of lowered transaction costs!” Years later, when I asked a non-Austrian acquaintance – who was insisting upon quantification as the only approach to determining economic truth – “how does one quantify the costs of an Auschwitz?”, he answered that, from an economic perspective, this cannot be done. I suggested that, perhaps, he and other intellectuals need a new language.
If libertarians are to assist the rest of humanity in rehumanizing human action, such an effort will require a new language with which to identify and communicate insights that inform our judgments and actions. Paradoxically, employing words in such efforts will not suffice. Our unconscious mind doesn’t deal in words, but rather in pictures, emotions, intuition, and other sensual means. It is commonplace among Eastern philosophers – be they Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, or others – that if an understanding of how to live conflict-free lives could be reduced to words, “everyone would have told everyone else by now.”
Perhaps the words of artists, poets, and musicians can tease us with peeks behind the curtain that conceals our unconscious forces. The poet Seamus Heaney reminded us that “we are the hunters and gatherers of values,” while Alfred North Whitehead observed that “art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.” The pianist Artur Schnabel declared “the notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides!” Schnabel’s words are reflected in those of Michelangelo who characterized his sculpting work thusly: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” While such men used words to advise us of the patterns that lie hidden in nature, the linear processes of their minds and ours are incapable of informing us of their description.
Perhaps the insights of the poet, William Carlos Williams, can best inform us of the destructive consequences of our ignorance of truths that cannot be verbalized by conscious thought. “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” If every newspaper and television news channel report had Williams’ words attached as a caveat to what the institutional order was seeking to inform us, do you think we might develop a clearer understanding of what we are doing to ourselves and one another? Is it such “lack” that energizes wars, torture, and police-state practices; as well as sustaining so many feminists in their support of Planned Parenthood atrocities against unborn children who “die miserably every day?”
We need to move beyond the political practice of providing simple-minded answers to superficial questions by developing an understanding of the value of life that is not calculated in terms of dollars or statistics. We must respond to wars, genocides, torture, murders, rapes, the forceful taking of private property, police-brutalities, and other dehumanizing behavior, not by calculating the numbers of victims or their racial, ethnic, gender, religious, or other collective identities, or by seeking the motives of the wrongdoers; but by declaring that “people should not do these things to other people.”
It is the passion for life, not calculated scheming premised on divisive thinking, that energizes the deeper sense of what it means to be human. The recovery of liberty cannot arise through the elaboration of philosophic principles alone. Ideas are our conscious mind’s efforts to explain the importance of that which cannot be put into words. We are rational emotional beings, and must learn how to think and act in ways that integrate and harmonize all expressions of who we are. Consciously-derived ideas are crucial to our understanding, and should be developed with as much clarity as possible. But we must never forget that words are abstractions, something other than what we use them to represent. They are the best that our conscious mind can do. In the space that separates words from what they denote, is to be found the meaning of things we are unable to talk about. If peace, liberty, and respect for our unique individualities are important, why is this so? Why we should care about such values can only be discovered by listening to our inner voices that cannot speak to us in words. Unless we are driven by a passion for the independence and inviolability of life – a quality that arises from the human spirit – words alone will come across as little more than sterile posturing. The whatness of life has a profound meaning only to be discovered in its why ness. To do so, our minds must be open to the pursuit of truths that cannot be put into words. We must learn a new language with which our conscious minds and inner voices can have dialogues not only within ourselves, but with the outer world.