WorldSys: Austrian Home Study Course, Week 25

READINGS: “Education: Free and Compulsory” by Murray Rothbard

1 How does Rothbard describe a person’s education, starting from infancy?

As a process of maturing into the full stature of a human being, which means developing the powers of reason which are our uniquely human endowment. Especially in infancy and early childhood this happens ceaselessly, every waking hour.

Education is not simply time spent in a school.

2 In what sense is everyone “self-educated”?

All the ideas, values, judgments, and tastes a person acquires are formed through their own mental faculty. They must follow the logic, examine the evidence, perceive facts directly, and assimilate it all into a body knowledge with their own memory and their own reason.

They may have access to teachers and institutions, books, the internet, a scholarly friend network, but learning still happens between their ears and nowhere else. Hence they are ‘self-educated’.

3 What is the use of formal instruction?

To help a child develop specifically intellectual faculties. Social education probably isn’t necessary — a child will learn how to relate to others in the process of interacting with their friends and family. But geometry, history, grammar, and things like that are best learned in an institutional setting where the materials can be gathered and errors corrected by a teacher or peer.

4 In what limited sense is “equality among men” beneficial?

Everyone should have the opportunity to develop themselves to the fullest extent possible in the absence of violence. This does not mean everyone will end up in the same place, or ever close to it, for human beings are radically unequal in their character, intelligence, tastes, talents, and ambition. But an ‘equality before the law’ is the only sensible basis for a social order.

5 What is the problem with imposing uniform curricula for all students of a particular age?

Children differ enormously in their educational requirements, and imposing ‘uniform curricula’ on them belies this fact.

6 How does the State infringe on parental authority?

Even private schools and home schools are forced to conform to what the State considers appropriate educational standards. This infringes upon the right of parents to teach their children as they see fit.

7 Are State schools benign so long as private schools exist as alternatives?

The existence of a private-school alternative does nothing for the children in State schools, and at any rate all the private schools I’m aware of still have to conform to the State-mandate standards. All in all private schools don’t do much to ensure parental sovereignty or justice.

8 What was the role of Luther in European State education?

Luther was one of the driving forces in early efforts to establish compulsory public schools. Because of letters he wrote and arguments he made the first modern public schools were established in Germany in 1524, becoming the model for later such institutions. Luther went on to create the “Saxony School Plan”, which became a kind of blueprint for state schools throughout Protestant Germany and bore many of the hallmarks of their modern ancestors: compulsory attendance, vast records kept on pupils, fines against truancy, etc.

9 Which European State was the first to have compulsory education?

Gotha, in Germany, though Prussia was the first to have a national public education system (NOTE: there is great historical overlap between Prussia and Germany, so perhaps Gotha was in Prussia; I’m not sure, and the text isn’t specific)

10 Did Napoleon favor State control of Education?

He did, and worked to institute a State-wide public schooling system.

11 Why do totalitarian governments wish to control education?

It should be obvious: one could scarcely endeavor to contrive a mechanism of control more total than having a citizen delivered into one’s hands by law as a child and then having near-daily access to them until they reach adulthood.

In my experience the hardest sort of people to reach are not those who have thought deeply about communism, democracy, and capitalism before deciding against the market order; it’s those incredible products of public schooling which are completely, utterly incapable of even beginning to take the first step towards conceiving of a truth besides the one taught them in high school and reinforced on the news. It is passing unlikely that you could even get such a person to consider the possibility that, say, roads could be provisioned by the private sector or that the FDA is a net social and economic negative.

More often than not the words of my thorough, exhaustively-cited arguments have literally not even registered in their minds.

12 Was education always a compulsory affair in the American colonies?

Most of the American colonies embraced a model of private, parental education in the English tradition. The exception was New England; the Massachusetts Bay Colony adopted the compulsory Calvinist school model for the express purpose of breeding good Calvinists. With the passage of a 1642 law that colony made it permissible for the State to seize children whom it judged to not be receiving the education which, in its eyes, they ought to be receiving.

This is the same absolutist government which made church attendance mandatory and church membership a prerequisite for enfranchisement. That such a place furnished the template for future compulsory public schools in the other colonies should give one pause.

13 What was Thomas Jefferson’s (mixed) position on government schooling?

Jefferson believed in having free public schooling provided by the government for the poor but squarely rejected compulsion.

14 Which two groups were the major forces behind compulsory education in the U.S.?

A network of professional societies and advocacy groups coupled to a number of journals pushing compulsory public schooling. In point of fact both were powered by individuals like Calvin Stowe and Horace Mann who constituted a tightly knit group of educationists working towards placing responsibility for instructing children squarely in the hands of the State.

15 What was the role of Horace Mann?

He began as the editor of an educationist journal called “Common School” and went on to become secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, where his annual reports began to have more and more influence. He was a prominent figure among advocates for public schooling; though this group did not endorse compulsory schooling they went to great lengths to encourage public schools as the prime equalizing force of Republican society while deliberately disparaging private ones.

16 How could a free market provide effective education for poor children?

It’s important to bear in mind before grappling with this question that, as with all things, schooling on the market would be much cheaper than a public alternative. With that having been said, poor families could take out loans for their children’s educations, investors might back especially promising children in exchange for some percentage of future earnings, there would probably be scholarship programs in place, successful private schools might offer education to poor families at steeply-discounted or even waived rates, or there might be free schools offered in the same way that many hospitals offer free clinics.

WorldSys: Austrian Home Study Course, week 24

READINGS: Walter Block’s “Free Market Transportation: Denationalizing the Roads”.

1 What is the lethal menace that Block describes in the beginning of his article?

The nationalized roadway system.

2 Describe the record of government road management in terms of fatalities?

Abysmal. Block walks through some statistics: 46,700 killed on public roads annually, over half a million in a decade, 960 on each year on Thanksgiving, 2,077 children each year under the age of five, and the macabre record goes back to about 1925.

3 Why has the government escaped opprobrium in spite of this performance?

People blame the statistics on everything except government management. I think the wider problem is a failure of imagination. In all the years I’ve spent advocating the cause of liberty, and in all the times I’ve heard people inveigh against the possibility of private infrastructure, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’d given the matter 100 consecutive seconds of thought.

It simply never occurs to most people to seriously think of non-public alternatives, and when pushed on the matter they confabulate a response on the spot.

4 Aren’t road accidents really the fault of bad drivers?

They certainly bear some responsibility, but if people are routinely murdered at a restaurant we blame both the criminal and the lax security of the establishment’s owners.

5 Why should we expect private owners of roads to act more responsibly than government officials?

Because there is a profit and loss system at play in the market which is absent in government. Though there are plenty of able and intelligent bureaucrats and plenty of incompetent and foolish business people, basic economics operates on the latter in a way in which it doesn’t on the former; namely, if you run your business poorly you go out of business.

So the McRoad company must pass the same tests as every other successful enterprise, giving the consumer what is desired better than the alternative. Governments, being almost by definition a monopoly, do not have to meet this standard.

6 What incentives for safety would exist in a private road system?

The same that exist for parking lots or apartment complexes. Having people die using your product is not only bad because you’re losing paying customers but also bad because of the tremendous damage done to your reputation.

7 Wouldn’t private roads involve thousands of toll booths?

No. This objection seems to assume that sections of road would be owned by different people, each of whom would charge for using their particular section of road. But more than likely there would be road companies, just as there are parking lot companies, which would own miles of roadways and charge at some market-optimal rate.

Even if hundreds of people did own roads piecemeal it surely wouldn’t make sense for them all to try and charge for their little bit, because the road would become unusable in short order. Some entrepreneur would see the opportunity to buy tolling rights from everyone and set up a more sensible, orderly toll system which pays out dividends.

But here in 2018 we needn’t worry about this so much. Electronic payment equipment, installed on all vehicles, would make even the problem of hundreds of toll booths less troublesome, automatically charging $.00001 every time we passed one. The same profit and less mechanisms would be at play here as they are elsewhere, driving prices down.

8 Don’t we need the government tool of “eminent domain” for an orderly road network?

No. It’s worth pointing out that even with eminent domain there are limits to where roads can be built, so it isn’t as though this is a panacea. But this objection seems to hinge on there being a necessity to build a totally straight road through some piece of property. This is almost never the case, and it will usually be possible to build around the homestead of a holdout.

The fact that at some price point it will be cheaper to simply blast a path through the nearby mountains puts an upper bound on how unreasonably high a property owner’s asking price can be. This is especially true when there are several plots of land which are suitable for road-building and the owners must compete with each other for the payout from the road company.

Suppose that someone does in fact own an absolutely essential plot of land and refuses to sell. No matter, build a tunnel underneath or a bridge over the parcel; property rights don’t extend to the stratosphere, or to the center of the Earth.

9 What is Block’s answer to the charge that a road owner could hold a family hostage in their home by blocking the exit?

This isn’t an issue with various analogous situations — landlords don’t blockade tenants’ doors and demand a fee to let them leave. Flea markets don’t rent out table space and then form a barrier around a seller’s wares.

Under a free market system ‘road access’ would be a provision within any property contract, and everyone would know that comes standard when purchasing land or a home.

10 Who would decide the rules of the road?

Whoever owned the road, most likely. Questions of this sort aren’t answerable with any degree of precision beforehand.

11 How would a private system deal with traffic snarls?

As with the previous question, it’s hard to say exactly what solutions would be evolved in advance. What we can say is that private companies have a strong incentive to develop rules which allow the smooth functioning of the system and will go bankrupt if they fail, whereas the public sector does not and will not.

Under the current regime vehicles routinely get stuck in intersections and hold up traffic. Perhaps on a private road the computer monitoring system would simply bill any such infraction to encourage obedience to the rules.

12 How would “green light time” be distributed?

Likely through a bidding/auction system in which roads pay for green light time in proportion to their traffic. If they refused to do so it wouldn’t take long before motorists began to patronize competitor roads. Today something like this could probably be handled by a computer system which optimized green light times behind the scenes, charging the various intersecting roads accordingly.

13 Could road owners compete with each other?

Sure. It is sometimes presumed that they can’t because the conditions of ’perfect competition’ do not and could not prevail in infrastructure. But this is hardly a problem, because those conditions — firms small enough to not be capable of moving the price around, homogeneous and indistinguishable products, perfect information — do not and could not prevail anywhere.

14 What is “double decking”?

Building one road above another road. In various situations such a technique could prove useful.

15 Is it Block’s responsibility to completely predict the features of a private market in roads?

No, nor can it be done. One of the central claims of Libertarians and other free-market sorts is that it is not possible for an individual or a group of individuals to form plans, rules, and schedules which outperform the market. It is inconceivable, therefore, that someone could predict the exact contours of an industry which doesn’t even exist yet.

WorldSys: Austrian Home Study Course, Week 23

The World Systems Project is going to begin with a thorough examination of Austrian economics, starting with Robert P. Murphy’s outstanding “Austrian Economics Home Study Course”. The plan is to blog my answers to the weekly questions, with posts and book reviews tossed in as I go along. 

It should go without saying that the following contains ‘spoilers’, and if you intend on doing the home study course on your own you might not want to read further.

As with week 7 I found these questions especially difficult and beg more than the usual amount of pardon for any inaccuracies and errors. Perhaps some day I’ll return with a fuller understanding and amend what’s written here.

READINGS: “On Certainty and Uncertainty, Or: How Rational Can Our Expectations Be?”, Hans-Herman Hoppe.

1 Would people act if they had perfect certainty?

Probably not, for what would be the point?

2 Why is the notion of perfect uncertainty a contradiction?

Because we must be certain of total uncertainty, which can’t be the case.

3 Why is our knowledge of the physical world ultimately uncertain?

While we can say certain highly abstract things are true — such as that there are objects with properties — learning any of the specifics requires experience, which must necessarily always be imperfect, open to amendment or abandonment.

4 What is the difference between class and case probability?

When an airplane crashes, a glass shatters, or an earthquake destroys a house we may be shocked by the specific case, but as a class of phenomena these events are governed by an often thoroughly-studied probability. So we cannot say “this airplane will crash today”, but we can say that taken as a class a given percentage of airplanes crash every year, and so taken as a case this particular vessel has a given percent chance of crashing.

5 In developing these concepts, Ludwig Von Mises relied upon which mathematician?

Frank Knight and his brother, Richard Von Mises.

6 Under which conditions is insurance feasible?

It must be that the insurer is dealing with a class of physical phenomena which are predictable in the aggregate and over the long term, and it must be the case that there are enough insured to allow the insurer to make money — for there will surely be people who file claims long before their premiums have amounted to the payout for their policy, and this must be offset by people who pay premiums in excess of the payout for their policy.

7 Describe some practical difficulties in implementing this theory of insurance.

There are situations in which disasters occur which are so enormous insurance claims pour in all at once and threaten to bankrupt the insurance company.

We can also turn to the controversy surrounding ‘pre-existing conditions’ to see more examples of the thorny quality of insurance markets. People who suspect they might have some genetic malady which is detectable through testing are likely to be strongly dis-incentivized from taking the test for fear that it will cause their insurance premiums to go up, even though this is information almost anyone would want to have.

8 Can human actions be considered insurable risks?

No, only physical events like tornados or water heater explosions can be subjected to the kind of statistical analysis that makes insurance feasible.

Although I suppose it’s possible to insure against human actions like ‘burglary’, so I’m not sure what to make of this claim.

9 How does rational expectations theory differ from orthodox general equilibrium theory?

The operative model of a human being is that of a machine with perfect knowledge of the probabilities of future classes of action and which periodically breaks down by committing random errors.

10 List three flaws with the rational expectations approach?

It cannot account for the fact that humans learn and thus that their behavior changes; it assumes we can list out all possible actions we might take in the same way that we can list out all possible poker hands, then generating a relative frequency table; in order for the approach to make sense we must assume everyone has the same knowledge, because otherwise someone’s predictions could be better than another’s (but if this were true there’d be no need to point it out because everyone would already know).

11 Why can’t the positivist method be applied to predicting one’s own future actions?

On the Austrian view positivism is shot through with logical contradictions, so of course it wouldn’t be useful in predicting one’s own future actions.

12 Why does Hoppe compare Lachmann to the German historicists?

Hoppe claims that Lachmann is making a similar kind of argument with similar sorts of flaws. In essence Lachmann is saying that because human beings learn from their experience there is no way for us to make sensible statements about the future, because every episode — every bank failure, every episode of hyperinflation, every bad investment — teaches us something such that we don’t behave the same way afterwards.

13 Why are the propositions of praxeology counterexamples to Lachmann’s views?

Hoppe responds with a litany of praxeological propositions which refute this view. Because humans learn can we really not say that voluntary transactions are beneficial for all parties involved, that an overnight doubling of the money supply would lead to spectacular decreases in purchasing power, or that a minimum wage of $1,000 per hour without a concomitant increase in the money supply would engender massive unemployment?

14 Do a priori propositions provide us knowledge of the “real” world?

Sure. If we take a priorism seriously and arrive at a deductively valid claim about money (see the examples in the previous question) then, because every economy on Earth uses some form of currency we have come to understand something about the “real” world.

15 What is Mises’s approach to the singular events of human history?

To treat them as subject to case (not class) probabilities for which we understand some of the factors involved. Each event, being singular, can usefully be distinguished from similar events

Is Mathematics a Young (Wo)man’s Game?

I began giving the titular question a great deal of thought when, 8 years ago, I took my first stab at learning new mathematical concepts since high school. I was 22, and because I had become interested in issues lying at the foundation of artificial intelligence I decided to pick up a textbook on discrete math.

Along with continuous mathematics, discrete math forms one of the two great branches in the Tree of Mathematics. The canonical example of continuous mathematics is calculus, used to model and predict the behavior of continuous systems like fluids or rockets with variable speeds. Discrete math includes subfields like set theory, logic, and combinatorics which are applied to discrete domains like cryptography and probability theory.

You’re likely familiar with the rule that anyone destined to do important work in mathematics has probably done it by their mid twenties. Groundbreaking work does occasionally come from people who have to dye the grey out of their hair, but it’s uncommon.

This used to trouble me. I was only just beginning to discover these topics at an age when most serious mathematicians are at the height of their powers. Would there be any point? Would I prove able to probe the Truth beneath the Greek symbols and braids of deduction, or would this be a Goddess that eluded me?

To properly answer this question we must draw distinctions between 1) being smart enough to invent a field; 2) being smart enough to work in a field; 3) being smart enough to successfully study a field.

These are three distinct levels with three distinct cognitive thresholds.

There’s a big difference between being insightful and prescient enough to invent quantum field theory, to do professional research in quantum field theory, and to grok a book written about quantum field theory.

Or consider an analogous question: is music a young (wo)man’s game? If you’re starting to learn the guitar at 35 you’re probably not going to become the next Eric Clapton. Does that mean it isn’t worth pursuing? Of course not. Does that mean you can’t achieve a significant degree of skill? Not if you’re willing to put in the time.

As I’m approaching 30, there may not be any chance left for me to contribute in a significant way to mathematics or to work in mathematics professionally. I wouldn’t say it’s completely out of the question, but I’d have to end up being more talented than I currently estimate myself to be.

Profiting from the study of mathematics, however, is something anyone can begin to do at any point in their life — I recently learned that Ayn Rand was taking algebra lessons in her 70’s!

And it’s worth saying that you shouldn’t be discouraged by bad experiences in high school math classes. While I do sympathize with the obstacles facing the legions of underpaid and overworked teachers staffing the public school system (I’m an ex-teacher myself — the struggle is real), it’s hard not to feel just a little bitter at how badly they routinely mangle the teaching of mathematics.

I made my first attempt to learn calculus in sixth grade, before I’d entered high school, and picked up Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time at around the age I hit puberty. I took the most advanced physics and math classes I could, several years earlier than usual, to prepare myself for what I was sure would be a career in theoretical physics.

In my case, the same man taught both subjects; the cocktail of boredom and obnubilation he served in lieu of teaching managed to simultaneously strangle every bit of enthusiasm I brought with me and convince me that I just wasn’t cut out for Actual Science. Luck and stubbornness is all that saved me — luck, in that I ended up befriending someone willing to expertly teach me the rudiments of discrete mathematics in his spare time, for free; stubbornness, because I resolved not to let impressions formed by experiences in a school in rural Arkansas drive my decisions on what to learn.

Don’t let your years or your past experiences stop you from studying mathematics. It is the most beautiful, most powerful set of abstractions ever to have been invented. I know of almost nothing that better imparts a sense of the awesome capacity of the human mind and the breathtaking scope of man’s creative vision. It undergirds huge swathes of philosophy, science, and technology, codifying and generalizing them into the tools that will someday dismantle stars, cure cancer, upload minds, and fire the light of the human spirit into the void of space.

Even if you make but modest progress, you’ll be better for it.

I was.