Viral Silence

This semester I volunteered to teach both of my classes in-person.  I’ve also given four public talks in Texas, and one at GMU.  All of these venues had mask mandates.  And in each case, I noticed an eerie pattern: Almost no one talks to each other anymore!  In the past, I had to ask classes to quiet down so I could start class.  Now I usually face dead silence.  Public lecture halls used to overflow with the chatter of the crowd.  Now you can practically hear a pin drop.

From what I’m told, I’m not alone.  When I talk to other faculty who teach in-person (rare, I admit), they too remark upon this viral silence.

What’s the explanation?  Here are my leading candidates.

1. Health fear. People avoid talking to others because they think it increases their odds of getting sick.  If you initiate a conversation, the other person might move closer to hear you better, or even remove his mask to speak more clearly.

2. Social anxiety. People avoid talking to others because they’re worried about upsetting others.  Maybe the other person will feel that you’re standing too close or wearing your mask improperly.  Maybe they’ll even bite your head off for your offense.

3. Poor audibility. Conversation is always a gamble.  If masks make it hard to hear and be heard, the gamble looks worse.  So fewer people place bets by opening their mouths.

4. Lack of normal social cues.  Human beings rely heavily on facial expressions to guide conversation.  So if you can’t see other people’s faces, you don’t know how to talk to each other.  This in turn usually leads to no talking at all.

5. General depression. People are so sad they don’t feel like talking.

6. The social multiplier. An extra factor to consider: Perhaps the preceding factors are all small, but when everyone has the same problem, the total effect remains enormous because humans feed off each other.  My social anxiety amplifies your social anxiety which in then further amplifies my social anxiety.

Other stories?  What’s the truth of the matter?


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Reflections on My Illustration Contest

You might not realize from EconLog or my academic work, but I love crafting and sharing stories.  Some are true, at least as far as memory serves.  I’ve told my kids hundreds of stories over the dinner table, most revolving around absurd events of my childhood.  I’ve also written a pile of fiction, mostly for my artisanal role-playing games.  I’ve explored almost every genre that’s game-worthy: high fantasy, superheroes, crime, dystopian, absurdist comedy, conspiracy, war, westerns, and even Bollywood.   And as you might guess from my Open Borders, I am also a huge fan of the graphic novel format.  Indeed, years earlier I wrote a fictional graphic novel, Amore Infernale; you can check out the storyboards here.

Since Open Borders has done well, I’m now trying to get my earlier book illustrated and published.  Making the transition from non-fiction to fiction is, however, harder than it looks, so I’ve decided to simply find and hire an illustrator on my own.  My search process is quite involved, but years ago my friend Dave Hedengren sponsored an illustration contest for me, so I decided to do the same.  Overall, running my own illustration contest was a great experience.  Here’s what I learned along the way.

1. Many Western artists have a strong norm against contests.  Why?  As far as I can tell, critics deem contests “exploitative” because a lot of entrants work hard for zero pay.

2. You don’t have to be a free-market economist to see how absurd this norm is.  Most artists “work” for free anyway, because no one on Earth is ready to pay them for their efforts.  So why would it be bad to at least give such artists a chance to earn some money doing what they love?  Artists with good outside options can and will opt out.  Artists who really need the money or don’t love art that much can have a day job.  Contests are a good option for the artists who remain.

3. There’s a close analogy between contests and unpaid internships.  In both cases, workers who aren’t worth training at the minimum wage can practice their skills and make connections by working for free.  This in turn (a) tells people whether they’re cut out for the career they’re trying, and (b) paves the way to a better future.

4. Are opponents of contests (and unpaid internships, for that matter) deliberately trying to hobble the next generation of competition?  I doubt it; their complaints seem impulsive, not strategic.  When they say, “It’s not fair!” they’re blurting out their unschooled opinions, not crying crocodile tears.

5. My prize was $400 to draw pages 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 of my storyboards.  For Western artists, this would be a modest payday even if they were sure to win, just $80 a page.  In the end, however, 53 artists tried their luck.  As the basic economics of immigration predicts, almost all of the entries were from developing countries.  Naive observers might assume that the internet has already integrated global art markets, but this is plainly not the case.  (Along the same lines, you might think that the internet would allow programmers to earn the same pay from any location on Earth, but Indian programmers get a huge pay increase if they reach the U.S.).

6. I was a little disappointed during the first two weeks of the contest.  No one even seemed to be trying to draw more than one or two pages.  But artists picked up the pace at the end.  On the last day of the contest, I had to choose between five great takes on all five pages.

7. Despite everything I’ve said, choosing the winner was painful for me.  I really did get invested in the artists’ dedication to their craft, as well as glimmers of their personal stories.  I spent more time visualizing the disappointment of the near-champions than the elation of the actual winner.  Running the contest make be feel like a boss – which made me start feeling responsible for everyone working for me.  Perhaps that shows that I’m not cut out to be a boss.

8. The winner of my contest is a promising young artist from the mountains of the Philippines, who works under the name Aljon Dave D. (or just “Dave”).  He’s a classy guy; just read his victory statement:

9. I’ve never tried self-publishing before, but since this is a work of fiction, I’m willing to give it a try.  Publisher certification must matter less when readers are looking for entertainment alone, rather than a mix of entertainment and truth.  If I do self-publish, Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski’s work on commodification has inspired me to try to monetize this project to the hilt.  I won’t just sell autographed hard copies and ads; I’ll sell product placements, and auction off the chance to select the model for minor characters.  If you want the Mayor of Verona to look like you, I will make it happen.

10. My two favorite pages are below.  You can see Dave’s entire winning entry here, along with the rest of the competition.  The decision was tough, but Dave won me over with his creativity and the expressiveness of his characters.  I still haven’t settled on an illustrator for this project, but Dave is a prime contender.


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The Wrong Pieces on the Chessboard

Inspired by a few recent posts, several friends have asked me if I’ve finally “woken up” to the great political threat of wokism.  In particular, they’re hoping that I’m ready to at least back the American right as the clear lesser of two evils.

I fear my response is: It’s complicated.

From a global point of view, I continue to see the American left and right as moral approximates.  No doubt one is even worse than the other, but they’re both so vicious that I see little reason to precisely weigh their sins.  While I disagree with the left on a larger number of issues, the American right is not merely wrong but sadistic on the single most important policy issue on Earth: immigration.  If your idea of freedom is gleefully denying the vast majority of humanity the rights to live and work where they please, I am not on your side.  No way, no how, nothing doing.

From a personal point of view, however, the American left has become quite bad for me.   Why?  Because as a university professor, the left surrounds me.  As my colleague Dan Klein has conclusively documented, academia isn’t merely overwhelmingly leftist; outposts of dissent from left-wing orthodoxy are rapidly vanishing.  (And don’t believe the nonsense that the median academic is “moderate.”  A Bernie Sanders supported could easily fancy himself a “moderate” when a quarter of his colleagues are self-identified “Marxists.”)

Even tenure at a public university no longer fully insulates me and my friends from thinly-veiled indoctrination and censorship.  I worry that in a decade or two there will be virtually no new positions left in academia for my students, friends, and family.

Would the Right do the same if they had the chance?  Plausibly, though the Right has done precious little to defund higher education to cut their foes in academia down to size.  The key left-right difference, though, is this: Unlike the left, the right doesn’t have the right pieces on the chessboard to harm me personally.  I could go out of my way to antagonize and insult the right, free of fear, because with few exceptions they’re not my administrators, not my colleagues, not my students, and not my customers.  In contrast, when I write about the Orwellian left, friends privately warn me to shut up.  And these friends have a point: Tenure doesn’t enforce itself.

How worried am I that my tenure will be revoked for political reasons – or any reasons?  I’d still assign it no more than 2% for my career.  Yet I’d assign a 40% chance that GMU will severely mistreat me for dissent before I die.

I say “die,” not “retire,” because thanks to tenure, I’m on the academic chessboard for life.


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Reflections on Texas

My trip to Texas was a lifetime highlight for me.  Some thoughts:

1. I hadn’t flown since March.  I passed through the following airports: Dulles, Dallas, Amarillo, Austin, and Charlotte.  All of them were half-deserted, except for Charlotte, which was inexplicably packed.  Even in Charlotte, however, the level of fear was low.  Travelers lined up in pre-COVID fashion unless you made a point of distancing.

2. My trip took me on a horizontally-flipped-J route from Amarillo to San Antonio, then up to Austin.  Everywhere I went was visibly less shut-down than northern Virginia.  Horrified?  Consider this: Given an area’s health stats, you should hope their level of caution to be low!  Why?  Because it reveals favorable trade-offs. While Texas is hardly winning the COVID race, the state shows that a package of (low caution with moderate COVID) is available.  Great news in my book.

3. I spoke to live audiences of 70-80 people in Lubbock and San Angelo, in halls built to accommodate about 1000.  Under university rules, audience members had to wear masks, but (unlike at GMU) the speaker may go commando.  Efficient!

4. Palo Duro Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” far exceeded my high expectations.  Entry was tightly rationed due to COVID, leaving the park virtually deserted except on the most popular trail.

5. I knew that Texas was growing frenetically, but I was shocked by the speed of expansion in west Texas.  When I previously visited Lubbock in 2013, there was a vast vacant lot from the Overton Hotel (across the street from Texas Tech) to the Walmart.  Now there’s scarcely an undeveloped lot on this entire half-mile stretch.

6. The rest of west Texas seems full of residential, commercial, and industrial construction as well.  You can drive for an hour at 90 miles per hour, then suddenly hit a small metropolis full of construction work.

7. Free-market economics is doing tolerably well at West Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Angelo State, and the University of Texas.  It’s hardly dominant, but none of these schools have a typical academic monoculture as they would in the DC-Boston Corridor.

8. I saw near-zero traffic enforcement outside of populated areas, making life a lot more convenient for Texans proverbially stuck in the middle of nowhere.

9. Other than abandoned farm houses, I saw no slums or “bad areas of town” anywhere in Texas.  All of the new construction looked solidly “middle-class” or better.  Caveat: Austin has multiple tent cities for the homeless, though all the ones I witnessed were out of sight of normal residential areas.  The largest tent cities were under Austin’s freeway bridges.

10. “Texas German Country” is only homeopathically German, but the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg is one of the finest war museums I’ve ever visited.  Fans of “Deep Roots” theories understandably point to the fact that Japan’s pre-war strengths allowed them to rapidly recover from military defeat.  But if Deep Roots matter so much, how did one of the most entrenched militocracies in history become one of the world’s most pacific democracies?  Who seriously expects Japanese militarism to revive in the 21st century?

11. Circa 2008, a car service drove me from the Public Choice meetings in San Antonio to speak at South by Southwest in Austin.  The seventy-five mile journey went through vast vacant stretches.  When I retrod the same route last week, there was scarcely an undeveloped block.  You can see wilderness from the highway, but are never out of sight of residential, commercial, or industrial properties – with additional construction well underway.

12. My dear friend Steve Kuhn sponsored a jaw-dropping meet-up at his mountain-view estate.  Attendees went around the pool introducing ourselves to the group.  Less than half of the guests were originally from Texas.  Anyone who said they’d fled California or the Northeast got a spontaneous round of applause.

13. Last spring, Steve Kuhn planned to launch a pro-immigration music festival in Austin.  When COVID ruined his idea, he decided to build a permanent pro-immigration venue, featuring an enormous miniature golf course, self-serve brewery and winery, pickleball courts, a vast beer garden, a live-music stage, and much more.  The name of Kuhn’s new themepark is: Dreamland.  And since Steve does not think small, the facility is nearly complete and will open in November.  Steve gave me a surreal advance tour of the facility, which I expect will make the next edition of the Eyewitness Travel Guide USA.  Don’t miss the giant blow-up from Open Borders near the end of the minigolf course.

14. The official per-capita GDP of Texas is only slightly above-average for the U.S.  On the ground, however, living standards seemed much higher, especially for working- and middle-class residents.  In every part of Texas I saw, almost any two-earner couple could instantly afford a three-bedroom house.  Nice places outside of Austin were starting at $180k.

15. Lots of Texans I talked to fretted that non-Texan migrants from the rest of the United States were “turning Texas blue.”  The “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs” meme came up occasionally: California leftists migrant to Austin for the opportunities, then vote for policies that ultimately make those opportunities dry up and blow away.  The true story seems more complicated; my friend Ben Powell pointed out that in the so-called “canary in the coal mine” Beto-Cruz senatorial race, voters born in Texas were actually more Democratic than voters born elsewhere.  Check it:

16. Seven years ago, Tyler Cowen published a cover story in Time called “Why Texas Is Our Future.” All of his reasons hold up, but let me add one more.  The chief problem with Texas is the great shortage of Texans, especially in the west.  As more and more folks move to Texas, this chief problem dies on the vine.

17. Call me crazy but this song is better than Sinatra’s “New York, New York” or Huey Lewis’ “I Love L.A.”


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A Straight Line from Friedman to the White House?

I’ve missed this article by Martin Wolf, hosted by Pro Market in the context of the debate over the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s New York Times piece on corporate social responsibility. Wolf starts by saying that he “used to think Milton Friedman was right. But I have changed my mind.” That he changed his mind is no big surprise, as he moved from being a free trader in the early 2000s to being a staunch proponent of whatever kind of government interventionism in recent years.

What is interesting, however, is Wolf’s argument. He changed his mind, he writes, because he doesn’t “believe in the contractarian view of the firm” any more. Corporations, writes Wolf, “are powerful entities able to exercise immense influence within society. Since corporations have been told that their only responsibility is to make profits and this has been internalized within their operations, the result is that society, including in particular its notionally democratic politics, is dominated by feral institutions.”

For the British journalist, Friedman’s point that corporations should play within the rules of the game is naive, as they contribute to writing the rules of the game and they do so by lobbying governments and their regulators so that they act in their interest. This is why, Wolf maintains, “there is a direct line from Milton Friedman to Donald Trump.”

Here comes this astonishing way of reasoning:

Why is this? Consider how one goes about persuading people to accept Milton Friedman’s libertarian economic ideas when, in practice, they shift economic rents upwards and desperation downwards. In a universal-suffrage democracy, it is impossible. Such libertarians are a minority. To win, they have to embrace ancillary causes such as culture wars, racism, misogyny, nativism, xenophobia, and that good old standby: nationalism. Much of this has of course been sotto voce and so plausibly deniable: “No, we are not in favor of discrimination, but your precious freedom does indeed include the right to discriminate.”

The financial crisis and bailout of those whose behavior caused it made selling the deregulated free-market even harder, as Mitt Romney’s 2012 failure showed. Afterward, it became politically necessary for libertarians embedded within the Republican Party to double down on those ancillary causes. Trump was simply the political entrepreneur best suited to do this. A natural demagogue, he was perfectly comfortable saying out loud what his predecessors had said quietly or let others say for them. This is why his supporters claim that “he says it like it is.” Those desperately-needed voters loved him for it because he respects their rage. Of course, his nativism, nationalism, protectionism, demagoguery, lying and now open assault on the notion of a fair election is a bit uncomfortable for corporate elites. But, if he gives them lower taxes and sweeping de-regulation, how many really care? If the result is to poison democratic politics forever, again, who cares?

So, to return to my main point: one cannot get away with stating that corporations should play by the rules when they create the rules they play by. The system for creating the rules of the game is corrupt.

When Friedman was referring to the “rules of the game,” he was likely thinking of the broader and more general principles of a liberal polity and of free competition: don’t hurt people and don’t steal their stuff, to quote the effective title of a book by Matt Kibbe. He was certainly not thinking of legislation à la cart and special privileges, that Friedman vehemently opposed. Moreover, in Capitalism and Freedom, where Friedman further elaborates his argument against the notion that corporations ought to have any “social responsibility” duty, he argues clearly that “if economic power is joined to political power, concentration seems almost inevitable. On the other hand, if economic power is kept in separate hands from political power, it can serve as a check and a counter to political power.”

Friedman, and libertarians at large, argue for a separation of government and business as clear as the separation between the church and the state. I’d like to have the reaction of some American friends, but I find the description of libertarians jumping on the Trump bandwagon quite laughable. If anything, perhaps the opposite has happened: that libertarians have emphasized their differences with the current US administration, focusing on matters that alienated them Republican support. Think about Cato’s top-notch work on immigration. Protectionism is a red flag for libertarians and that brought them to strongly distance themselves from the Trump camp. If you google Donald Trump and Milton Friedman, other than Wolf’s piece you’ll see things like this popping up.

In short, Wolf accuses Friedman of being blind to the issue of crony capitalism and to have a following which includes people eager to compromise for the sake of immediate political goals. The second claim would be an interesting matter of investigation. The first is plainly wrong.


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Cancelling David Hume

Daniel Johnson writes on our sister website, Law and Liberty, on David Hume and cancel culture. The University of Edinburgh “decided to rename the David Hume Tower, one of the best-known landmarks on its campus; it will henceforth be known as ‘40 George Square’.” The decision was taken because what Johnson calls “the fatal footnote – a brief sentence that to modern eyes seems unambiguously racist. His main argument is directed against Montesquieu’s claim that climate and other physical causes determine what we would call culture.”

The key argument by Johnson is at the end of his piece:

Was Hume more prejudiced than other thinkers of his day? Hardly: Voltaire and Kant, for example, were vicious anti-Semites. Or was he more complicit in the slave trade? No: Isaac Newton had been a large shareholder in the South Sea Company, which supplied slaves to Latin America. Hume’s compatriot, Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, accepted a post as a slave overseer in Jamaica, though he was unable to take it up. These and many other luminaries of the Enlightenment turned a blind eye to slavery and made no secret of their ethnic or religious antipathies. Yet none of them has been ‘cancelled’—at least, not yet.

Hume was unusual in only one respect: he confined his most odious prejudice to a single footnote.

This is a point what makes Edinburgh’s decision so astonishing. Hume was a highly original thinker, whose originality has little to do with his argument over persons of color. In a sense, this was actually nothing original: for once, the great philosopher somewhat echoed the prejudices of his time. Plus, nobody is reading Hume for *that* message: you cannot picture a thinker who is less likely to become popular among white suprematists or fascists of any sort.

Perhaps even more ironic is the fact that the new name of the building is strictly “geographical”: 40 George Square. But, as a Facebook friend of mine (alas I cannot remember whom!) pointed out, George Square is named after George III, whose reputation is not really that of a committed anti-racist.


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When Was This Written?

Western civilization is being forced step by step into a state of civil war by the rising assaults of a revolutionary movement known as [redacted].

This movement centers in the universities and spreads outward into every institution of today’s society.  It spreads in two ways: by indoctrination of those who are open to indoctrination, and by terrorization of those who are not.

Many observers are bewildered by the fact that the violence and terror have appeared suddenly in the midst of a scenario – written by liberals – calling for a new society based on gentleness, tolerance and the humanitarian concern of everyone for everyone else’s needs.  The violence, the obscenity, the unabashed totalitarianism have burst like a storm upon the calm of an afternoon tea party.

Answer below.

















The year is… 1970, a full half century ago.  The redacted giveaway is: “the New Left.”  The author is George Walsh, the most intellectually impressive follower of Ayn Rand.  The article, “Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of the New Left” (published in Rand’s official journal, The Objectivist) is sadly one of his very few publications.  And since it is packed with hyperbolic language uncharacteristic of Walsh’s wonderful lecture series, I have to think that Rand heavily rewrote it.

Even so, it’s a nice chance to reflect that left-wing fanaticism on college campuses, like religious revivals generally, has a strong cyclical component.  The idea that the world grows ever more leftist is wrong, and so is the idea that college students grow ever more leftist.  Hard as it is to believe, the current mania will not last.  As I’ve often said, ADHD shall save us.

That said, I am worried that the current mania will durably enshrine uniformity and exclusion into the fabric of higher education, so the anti-intellectuality and intolerance continue after the enthusiasm dissolves.


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Two Cheers for Small Business

We live in societies where we see a “near-universal appreciation for the aesthetic benefits of a thriving small business community,” but almost no empathy for small business owners. This is an interesting point made by Will Collins in an article published by The American Conservative and that makes use of James C. Scott’s work.

Collins is thinking of the recent riots in the US which, as you would expect from riots, resulted in physical damages and looting at the expense of restaurants and shops. If many left-leaning commentators typically express enthusiasm for “neighborhood restaurants, locally-sourced produce, and independent bookstores”, “in the wake of the riots, however, condemnations of looting and arson have been strangely muted”.

Though you may detect in the article a hint of nostalgia for a world of smaller shops and a certain antipathy towards big retailers, I think Collins has a point in highlighting that our societies tend to foster “a culture inimical to the character of the independent business owner.” The US is, or at least used to be, different the most European states in that regard, but certainly on my side of the pond there was a good deal of antipathy for shopkeepers. I was always struck by how it was common to refer to Margaret Thatcher with a certain disdain as “the daughter of a grocer”. You would expect that even people who deeply disagree with her would celebrate the upward social mobility and the achievement of somebody who comes out of a “petty bourgeois” environment. Not quite. The petty bourgeoisie is considered rather crass and vulgar, petty, a collection of prudes. The pursuit of money, an utter necessity for somebody who lives out of the oranges or the shirts she manages to sell, is seen as incompatible with higher pursuits.

The great enemy of small business is red tape. It seems to me that those having a strong “appreciation for the aesthetic benefits of a thriving small business community” tend to think of it as a fish tank , which shall be preserved as it is, with exactly those fishes it came with. They take a static view of their community and care about it not changing. They are not sympathetic, instead, with people who are trying to set up a small firm or shop, that is: with more people trying to find meaning in the “zone of personal autonomy” that their shop comes to represent.

Collins also makes a point many are making about the future of cities should Internet commerce take over the world. Will neighbourhoods simply be empty? As “small businesses help keep neighborhoods safe by attracting foot traffic and providing “eyes on the street” to informally monitor public spaces”, are we going to see crime spiking, as shops close? I tend to believe shops will be more resilient than people think. For one thing, somebody may be willing to buy an iPod online, but not necessarily her apparel or her medicines. Niche and highly specialised activities can benefit from personal contacts and handshakes (whenever we’ll go back to shaking hands). But also, for example, immigrants may prefer to go to small groceries run by people in their own community. Foodshops and small restaurants and takeaways can take over from shops that cannot compete with online retail. We will see. Cities are so central in our civilisation because, clearly, they are good at adapting to changing human needs. Still, the pandemic drove many to predict the end of the office as we know it, and thus to people preferring to live in suburban areas, fearing new pandemics and the consequent lockdowns, instead of in city centres. We will see. One interesting feature of crises like Covid19 is that they leave our imagination unbridled, but also, in the midst of an emergency, my impression is that we tend to overestimate changes that will be permanent and underestimate changes that will be transient.


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Implicit and Structural Witchery

You’re back in Salem during the 1690s.  After an exhaustive hunt for witches, the Lord High Witch Hunter files a bombshell report: Despite his best efforts, he’s failed to find any witches in Salem.  Don’t imagine, though, that the fight against witchery is over.  During his investigation, the Lord High Witch Hunter uncovered an enormous volume of “implicit witchery” and “structural witchery.”  For example, residents of Salem occasionally skip church, or lose interest during the sermon.  That’s implicit witchery, pure and simple.  Even worse, some leading merchants happily trade with Catholics and pagans.  That’s structural witchery at the highest levels of society.

If you’re part of this society, you’d better not laugh.  That’s implicit witchery, too.  For anyone else, however, the Lord High Witch Hunter’s report is absurd.  The magistrate launches a massive witchhunt.  He fails to detect actual witches.  So he redefines “witchery” as “Lack of single-minded devotion to my faith.”  Why bother with this farce?  To make a thinly-veiled threat:  If you’re not part of the solution to witchery, you’re an implicit/structural witch.  And will be burned like a witch.

Similarly, imagine that during the McCarthy era you fail to uncover any actual Communists.  The Lord High McCarthyite could admit he was wrong, but where’s the fun in that?  Wouldn’t it be better to declare that you’ve discovered a massive dose of “implicit Communism” and “structural Communism”?  As long as your society fears you, anything could count.  Perhaps support for progressive taxes is implicit Communism.  Perhaps the overrepresentation of left-wing academics in state-funded universities is structural Communism.  Yes, you can cry, “Bait-and-switch.”  But that sounds dangerously close to implicit Communism.

Or suppose you’re in modern Iran.  The Lord High Inquisitor hunts for atheists, but can’t find any.  So he declares war on implicit atheism and structural atheism, which abound even in the Islamic Republic.  Shocking?  Not really, because almost anything qualifies as implicit atheism or structural atheism.  If this is such an obvious scam, how come hardly anyone in Iran says so?  Fear.  Minimizing the danger of implicit atheism is a prime example of implicit atheism.

In the modern West, hardly anyone worries about in-the-flesh witches, Communists, or atheists, much less implicit or structural versions of these creeds.  But that’s because the targets have changed, not because the age of moral panic is over.  And while the list of targets is long, racists and sexists are plainly at the top.  The most obvious result is that people spend ample time trying to find racist and sexist individuals.  In practice, however, this is as frustrating as trying to find witches in Salem.  People today are about as likely to declare themselves racists and sexists as people in 17th-century Massachusetts were to declare themselves brides of Satan.  Part of the reason, no doubt, is fear; avowed racists do get punched in the face, after all.  The main reason, though, is that almost no one sympathizes with creeds that almost everyone hates.

So what are you supposed to do if you want to continue the good fight against social ills you’ve already practically driven to extinction?  Move the goalposts all the way to Mars.  These days, the world’s best detectives would struggle to find outright racists and sexists.  Yet implicit racism, structural racism, implicit sexism, and structural sexism will always be in plain sight, because the definition expands as the phenomenon contracts.


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Stay Out of Holly Golightly’s Way

I recently re-watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was a particular favorite of mine in college, so I’d seen it many times before. But I had never really noticed how many lessons about economic opportunity there were to find in Holly Golightly’s life experiences.

Trailer screenshot -Public Domain

[Spoiler alert, in case you’ve been busy for the past 60 years.]

In the iconic opening scene of the film, Holly Golightly (played by Audrey Hepburn) is out on an early morning walk, still fully dressed from the night before. She is wearing the outfit that is not only the most memorable of the film, but perhaps of Hepburn’s entire career. Her hair is swept up to show off a multi-strand of pearls and the low-cut back of her black Givenchy dress. With coffee and pastry in hand, she stops for some quality time with the jewelry in the windows of the Tiffany & Co. flagship store.

Some think Holly Golightly was a prostitute, but writer and director Truman Capote says he saw her not as a “callgirl” but as an “American geisha.” She doesn’t have sex for money, as far as we know. She charms. She attends parties, lights up a room, works hard to make people feel good about themselves (and about her). There’s not an invoice for her time but she often gets “fifty dollars for the powder room” from her dates, money to tide her over until she can marry a husband rich enough that she’ll never have to worry about money again. This comes to a head in a tense exchange with the film’s main love interest, the down-on-his-luck writer Paul Varjak, in the New York Public Library. Paul declares his love and Holly responds by telling him about the rich bachelor she has her eye on. When he responds with anger, Holly fires off,

“Holly: What, do you think you own me?

Paul: That’s exactly what I think.

Holly: I know, that’s what they all think. That’s what everybody always thinks, but everybody happens to be wrong!

Paul: Well I am not everybody! … Or am I? Is that what you really think? Am I no different from all your other rats and super-rats? Wait a minute. That’s it. If that’s what you think, if that’s what you really think, there’s something I want to give you.

Holly: What’s that?

Paul: Fifty dollars for the powder room.”


In addition to the disturbing conflation of love with ownership, this scene is where Paul’s disgust for Holly’s willingness to prioritize financial security over romance becomes painfully clear. Economist Victoria Bateman notes the divide between those who make their money with their brains and those who make their money with their bodies, and the particular contempt reserved for women who use their bodies to procure financial gain. Until this moment, Paul is absolutely enchanted with Holly. They have been tearing up New York City, having a fabulous time, staying up late talking, taking care of each other. But once Holly makes it clear that her priorities are different from his, he becomes furious.

I won’t spoil the rest of the film by telling you why Holly makes the choices she does. And it doesn’t really matter anyway. The point is that the world Holly lives in—like it or not—is one in which her choice of how to support herself works. She’s supplying something in demand, and making the most of the opportunities available to her. Life is hard, and people sometimes choose paths that don’t quite gel with other’s sensibilities. Would it be trite of me to point out in 2020 that women who engage in sex work (or even just work with a sexy presentation) have just as much right to freely choose that path as anybody else?

And, for those who are aware of the ways in which women have historically been denied economic opportunity, there’s a sinister side to the Paul Varjaks of the world finding even more ways to shut doors. Of course, Paul is just one person, and a fictional one at that. But to the extent that his attitude gets used to push through legislation that systematically denies women opportunity under the guise of protecting them and their morality, it’s downright dangerous for women and detrimental to economic growth. The economy is constituted of billions of small opportunities pursued daily that, if not interfered with, add up to the mutual satisfaction of wants that keep people fed, healthy, and able to pursue meaningful lives. This is true even when those opportunities are pursued by people whose choices we may not always agree with or understand. We still benefit from their contributions to the market, and learn from watching to see if their actions are getting them somewhere we might like to go, or somewhere we might like to avoid.

It’s easy to see the many analogies that can be drawn between Holly’s experiences and the many other forms of entrepreneurship that are looked down upon by one group or another. And, for those who wish to maximize opportunity and well-being, the response is the same. You don’t have to like what Holly does. Just stay out of her way.



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