Episode 003 of Individual Thoughts by Trusted Knower, “Between the Darkness and the Light” is about the problems of democracy in the United States and the tensions between government authority and the representation of the public. We interview Paul Jacob, president of the Liberty Initiative Fund.
Paul Jacob is a longtime libertarian activist. He went to federal prison for resisting the coercive military draft and he was an early leader of the term limits movement. Liberty Initiative Fund helps citizens create local and state initiatives and referenda. More on Paul Jacob’s background can be read in this article at Free Liberal.
We highlight Paul’s suggestion to increase the number of the House of Representatives to 1 congressperson per 50,000 seats, which would greatly reduce the distance between the Congress and the public, while increasing the current 435-person chamber by at least 14 times, making the body over 6,000 strong.
We also talk about the disturbing parallels between China (run by the totalitarian Chinese Communist Party) and the control of the US by governmental and tech-industry elites.
In the second episode of Individual Thoughts by Trusted Knower, we interview Caleb Taylor of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy. He studies state policies and writes model legislation from a non-partisan, pro-free-enterprise point of view.
The Virginia Institute is essentially a think tank… we come at things from a particular economic point of view, and that tends to be the free-enterprise point of view. Sometimes people will point out, “that’s the conservative point of view” and my immediate response is, “no, it is not”. We come at policy problems from that point of view, in hopes of creating workable solutions for public policy.
…The last couple of years we’ve been working in health care, working to open up the law a little bit for new innovations like telehealth and direct primary care, to get into the market and shake some things up…. It is nowhere close to a free-market
….We are looking at energy reform…. We’ve done a little bit in criminal justice reform — civil asset forfeiture and the like. We try to make decision on what are issues that are really pressing for Virginians and how can we address those issues in a way that does not burden people with new taxes, does not burden people with new regulations, but creates an opportunity for these issues to be fixed inside the society. If we can get as local as possible, that’s the best.
The Presumption of the Statist Quo
According to Taylor, the Virginia state code seems predisposed against liberty in the way it is written, for example, in the area of health care services, there is a presumption that anything that is not explicitly allowed is against public policy.
I actually write legislation. I write it in very specific language. I have written legislation for a number of different states…. I generally write it in state specific language. Virginia has a very clear rhetorical direction that it takes inside of its legislative code which is a fundamentally different rhetorical direction that it takes in its administrative code. ….Sometimes the rhetoric that’s used is not healthy…. For instance, in health care law, specifically, it is written from a point of view… a tacit point of view that exists in the entirety of the health care code… that everything is illegal until we say it is legal.
This predisposition has economic consequences, according to Taylor. The Certificate of Public Need policy in Virginia, which requires approval of a board in order to upgrade services, restricts the ability to be responsive to new market demands, and to be able to prepare and to react to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perversely, the board that controls the expansion of health care services is controlled by existing companies, which have an interest in not having to compete with new hospitals or expanded services of their competitors. Taylor says that to make the case against competition, companies will even argue against the basic economics of supply and demand — that increased supply will increase the costs.
There is a distinction to be made, that is commonly not thought about, between the conception of law and the conception of public policy, or legislation. Law is something that is somewhat fixed, arising over time according to unchanging principles, whereas public policy is the agenda of the current government. Is there a danger from conflating them?
The conservatives look at it as “Here is the law and here is public policy and these things are separate. They are very distinct. They do not overlap.”
On the left, the law and public policy are the same…. they are mutually inclusive. You see that in the health care code language. You see this idea that the law is the public policy and because the law is the public policy, nothing should be allowed but the current “correct” public policy.
For an elaboration of this concept, check out Prof. Don Boudreaux’s lecture on the distinction between law and legislation.
The Loud American
Another aspect of governance that Taylor believes is important is to hear the voice of opposition, within governing administration, so that for example, a conservative administration would have someone to stand up for working people and the environment, and a progressive administration would have a person who argues for free enterprise. Embodied in the concept of “The Loud American” is a person who is specifically hired to push back against bad ideas and to broadly challenge the status quo.
Our first episode was “Standing Up to Wrongheaded Authority” (Part 1, Part 2), in which learn how Socratic method can be used to challenge other people’s ideas and our own. Having “intellectual ballast” means not only hearing opposing views, but reading into the deep literature of your intellectual opponents. Taylor practices this by maintaining friendships with people he strongly disagrees with. His learning consists not only in the reading classical liberal canon, including Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, but also Communist treatises such as Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.
In Part 2 of Episode 1 of Individual Thoughts by Trusted Knower (embedded below), we interviewed education innovator Michael Strong, author of The Habit of Thought, about how he uses Socratic Practice as part of the schools he creates, as well as how his own background led him to understand the importance of focused dialogue as a tool of learning.
“Independent judgment is the ability to make decisions for oneself, based on the available evidence and on one’s knowledge of one’s self and the world, without looking to the approval of others in order to make decisions.”
Michael Strong, “On Socratic Seminars”, The Habit of Thought.
In our interview, Michael Strong tells us that his self-teaching started while growing up in northern Minnesota, where the poor TV reception encouraged him to become an avid reader. A particular high school class that focused on reading and having free discussion of philosophical texts made him realize that this was the educational format he preferred. He intended to go to St. John’s College, which has a Socratic-style Great Books program, but was talked into applying to Harvard. He went to Harvard, but was bored by being lectured to, so after a year transferred to St. Johns College, Santa Fe campus.
Michael Strong has created a number of innovative schools including KoSchool in Austin. Today, he runs the Academy of Thought and Industry, which has a number of campuses (in NYC, San Francisco, Austin, and St. Louis) as well as a virtual program.
Autodidacticism as Strategy
In all my schools, a significant trend has been Socratic… I see it as the essence of autodidacticism. If we can learn how to learn on our own, then we can learn anything.
Autodidacticism is the practice or philosophy of self-teaching. Strong gets young people to learn how to do this by practicing reading and discussing difficult texts.
“We read texts very closely… I have students read much more difficult texts than they would read on their own… Most young people don’t read very much, if they do, it is very easy material. So one of the ways, on a concrete basis, we get great SAT verbal scores, because if we are reading and discussing difficult material: Plato, Toni Morrison, Borges, on a regular basis, and the students are arguing about what the text means, that creates a deep relationship with prose and ideas, and sometimes even punctuation. Why did the author put the semi-colon there? But, in addition to the text-based autodidacticism, they are also obtaining a sense of empowerment that they can think through their own ideas.”
This practice of creating the ability to teach ourselves, also has implications for our personal freedom/independence of thought. Strong continues:
“…I’m opposed to the hierarchy of knowledge, where we are trained from the time we are are young to submit to the teacher’s belief, then submit to the professor’s belief, and then submit to the politician’s belief, submit to the minister’s belief. That is the default setting in our society. — we don’t have our own ideas, other people tell us what to believe.”
“Whereas, I think in reality, we all become learners and independent agents when we realize we have to figure it out on our own. We can’t really trust anybody — each of us has our own priorities, beliefs, convictions, and our own experiences. I see this big autodidactic Socratic process as, ‘Let’s try to make sense of reality as it stands’. And it’s really hard.”
“Once you accept that you’re responsible for making sense of reality on your own, all of sudden the doors open up and you become a much more empowered learner. Any time you don’t trust or you are not sure, or you are confused by what somebody else says, go and learn, figure it out, look at other sources, look for contradictions. Judge for yourself.”
Creating Your Own Education
Students and their families don’t have be beholden to their local public school system.
“Ivan Illich made the point that all these institutions try to create dependency. They want us to be dependent on them. They want us to believe that we need them.”
“The fact is, for most people, most of the time, you have to find a way to structure your child’s attention. If your child is focused on something useful, I don’t care what they are reading, what logic puzzles they are doing, what math they are doing, what educational videos you are doing. You don’t want them just playing video games all day. But, as long as they are focused on something positive.”
“Most of schooling is where kids are forced to do crap they don’t want to do, and they forget almost everything.”
“Get them to be readers. Through Socratic dialogue get them to explore ideas. Gradually, get them to be writers. Math requires discipline, so maybe half an hour to an hour of math everyday in a disciplined fashion. Then beyond that get some tutors and some interesting people.”
“There are so many educated people, there are so many great resources. A lot of the most educated people in history say, ‘At this age, I read all the books in my father’s library.’ If your kid is a reader, school is a waste of time.”
Jim brings up the story, from Dan’s paper (above), of a nice lady looking for a mechanic. Kevin says, that the idea is that if you can determine that a person is trustworthy, then you don’t have to evaluate their skills — all you have know is that they aren’t lying to you. You don’t have to directly evaluate the mechanic, you only need a friend with more knowledge about cars and local mechanics. You can rely on your trust in your friend, insofar as you can properly evaluate that friend’s trustworthiness. Economically speaking, you can plan according to statements provided by trusted persons.
It is important to practice asking and answering questions with good people in order to build strength in the ability to tell who is honest and what is actually true.
Practicing Rational Discourse:
Both of our guests in ep 001, Jan Helfeld and Michael Strong are advocates of practicing rational discourse by means of Socratic dialogue.
Michael Strong at UFM, “Socratic Practice as a Disruptive Technology”