Farber’s First Essay


In the first editions of A Lodging of Wayfaring Men, I included several essays that I cared a great deal about. In the second edition (now available), I took them back out. I feel that a novel is best standing on its own. But I don’t want the essays to simply vanish, and so I will continue posting them here from time to time.

This is one of the major essays, penned by a character named James Farber, as he and others were building a “free digital economy.”

– PR

It began with rogue traders and the merchants of Venice. They really didn’t know what they were building or how it would work. They merely struggled for the betterment of themselves and their families.

It began to break out when the deep superstition of the Middle Ages cracked open under the strain of new philosophies and religious ideas.

It found room to thrive wherever new and wild vistas were found. It expanded with each discovery of far-off new lands. It made its home everywhere the old order was broken up and fresh starts were being made. It took a firm root in America and flourished there for over a hundred years.

Never again, where history is recorded, will there be any question as to whether or not it works.

“It” is the great discovery of the modern era: the positive-sum game. It is the liberation of human energy to do its appropriate job. It is the operation of creation, using the only counter-entropic force we have: free human energy.

You can see it work everywhere from the research lab, to the front office, to the construction site. It is what drives the entrepreneur to develop and produce a new product or service, and it is what gives the construction worker pride when his skill overcomes a difficult problem, turning his blueprints into a functional structure. Why is the construction worker proud, and why does the entrepreneur exult? Because they have done the one thing that all humans have the impulse to do – to create something good that would not have been otherwise.

Human energy is the great creative force in the world. Without it, things tend to entropy. (As the second law of thermodynamics states, “Closed systems tend to entropy.”) Without active and creative human energy, everything goes back to an animal level of existence.

This human energy does not function by obedience and compulsion – it cannot, no matter how many rulers wish it were otherwise. Look at the command economies of the dead socialist world; within several decades their occupants were reduced to an animal existence. Look at the millennia when constrained people lived at the pleasure of their kings, seeking permissions from their rulers to live and work. They continually starved and died. Things began to change only when freelance merchants began living according to their own minds and breaking away from the permissions of their rulers.

When human energy is free to move, creativity goes wild, as do motivation, happiness, and the accumulation of wealth. When it is restrained, the descent to animal existence takes over again.

The discovery of this fact is what differentiates us from the Middle Ages, and not much else. Do you think the people who lived in those dark times were inherently less intelligent than we are? They were not! You and I are their direct descendants, not many generations removed. We are essentially the same.

The term positive-sum game signifies that this system creates more than the sum of its parts. The only real magic – human energy – creates more than it started with. Take some raw materials that are themselves of little worth, and when you add human creativity you can create vehicles, computers, and space ships. The materials themselves have been around since the creation of the earth, if they could have turned into something great of themselves they would have done it long ago. But they cannot – it is only when humans manipulate them according to their own ideas that they gain any real value. Thus, five dollars’ worth of materials becomes a product worth thousands of dollars.

They who do not play the positive-sum game instinctively fall back into being motivated by envy. Ultimately, they find reasons to feel that “there are only so many pieces of the pie.” This is the seed of destruction.

The next thing they say is, “If you have a bigger piece of the pie, then someone else has to have less.” That is a zero-sum game – the idea that nothing is really created, just moved from one hand to another. Not only is it false, but it is also the credo of every envious looter who speaks of ‘fairness’ and ‘equal distribution of wealth,’ but who secretly hopes to get a share of the wealth held by others.

The real controversy of our time is this: Is human energy allowed to work in the world, or will it be tied down? The miserable experiment of Communism has taught the world’s rulers that the positive-sum game is necessary. So, their plan now is to allow human energy to work, but to siphon off as much wealth as possible without killing it altogether. We productive people are carrying the governments of the world upon our backs. Are they worth half of our efforts – half of our lives?

They take half of our earnings away from us continually by a vast web of taxes, fees, and regulations – for what benefit? “To help the poor,” they say, and clamorously infer that if you disagree you are a heartless and dangerous person, and further that all will despise you. But if our money is forcibly taken from us, is not the state robbing us? Any dictionary will tell you that this is so, but it is considered poor form to say so – even to consider it.

And are the poor better off? Certainly some of our money goes to the poor (although most is eaten up in the bureaucracy). This feeds their bellies insufficiently, while at the same time locking them into a life of dependence that wages an unending war upon their souls. Is that a good thing? Are the poor better off for this robbing of producers and living in a state of dependency?

Many of you will gasp and reel in shock that I would challenge the respectability and honor of your tradition, and you fear to let yourselves consider my case. You have come up against someone who does not share in your conspiracy of compliance. You must either turn away from these subjects or face the prospect of becoming a radical and of people saying bad things about you.

Are you angry? If so, it is not because I am wrong. If that were the case, you would simply turn away. You are angry because I am ill-mannered enough to bring up subjects that you wish to avoid. My ideas bother you. When they come up, you divert your mind to pat phrases like, “That is the price we pay for our society.” You dodge reason and shunt your thoughts away in order to keep your mental comfort level. You do not face these ideas head on because you are afraid of them – you are afraid that you might have to agree with them. And then you would have to face the choice either to be a hero or to be a coward.

I stood one evening in IBM Plaza in Chicago, looking over the riverfront skyline as the sun sank in the southwest and realized that the towering monuments to human effort in front of me were the results of the positive-sum game run at only half speed. Chicago was wild and open from the 1830s through the 1890s. Then, slowly, curbs and limits were imposed by do-gooder government and collectivist types. These inevitably slowed the workings of a city that had been, as one writer said, ‘geared for giants.’ But the restraints were not enough to stop the positive-sum game – only enough to slow it down.

The Chicago skyline I watched was the result of the positive-sum game being played at half speed, yet its results were awesome. I thought about what might have been if it were allowed to operate unfettered. And then I thought of the greatest example of the positive-sum gave during my lifetime: Hong Kong. It went from rice fields to the grandest city of the East in one generation – an explosion of unrestrained human energy.

What things we have been deprived of! What glorious accomplishments aborted and stillborn! And now our recent explosion of technology has become the target of bureaucrats worldwide. Where will we go from here? Will the positive-sum game once again be strangled, or will it migrate to new and open lands?

But! Moving to a new land will be a problem, won’t it? There is no land on this planet that is not claimed by some gang of rulers. So, until cheap space flight is achieved, there is only one new country to be found: cyberspace. So escape there we shall. And there we will – and must, for our own sake and for the sake of our descendants – establish the positive-sum game without restriction.

Toward that end, we have built a private free market. We used our own money to do it, and we’ve broken no laws that we are aware of, save laws that outlaw privacy. Now the rulers are trying to stop us. Why? We want to run an experiment and see if freedom really is better than servitude. Why won’t they let us try? Are they interested in the betterment of mankind, or are they really interested in monopoly powers? All we want is to be left alone and to try freedom. Why is that threatening? And why do they wish to imprison us?

James Farber

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3 thoughts on “Farber’s First Essay”

  1. This article reminds me of something I wrote about a year ago: America is Paradise Lost. It is the greatest country in the world, and I would not choose any other in which to live. However, it is just a shadow of what it should have been, would have been, if America had adhered to the limitations on government that our founders enshrined in the Constitution. We should have been an Olympic champion, and instead we are merely the healthiest patient in the ICU. Just think of what could be if we restrict government to its proper role, and got government out of charity work. If we had free markets in health care, our costs would probably be somewhere around 20% of where they are now. About 70% of federal spending is just charity care, and the interest on the debt that accrues because of that spending. Most state and local spending is also just redistributive. Suppose that government was only engaged in its proper role of protecting individual liberties, as the Declaration of Independence says it should be. Suppose that our military was engaged in defense, rather than policing the world. Government spending would probably be about 10 – 20% of what it now is. Prices of everything would be drastically lower, because businesses would not have to pay so much tax. We would all have much more to spend, because our individual taxes would be mostly eradicated. Americans gave $373 billion in 2015 (from Giving USA 2015). That is a lot of money. We truly are the healthiest patient in the ICU. If we did not have 40% of our production gobbled up by government, and instead had a more proper amount of perhaps 5% taken, and with lower prices for everything, just imagine how much more money Americans would give. Think of how much further it would go. Without all the taxes and regulation, think of how much more innovation would come out of America. There would be so many fewer people needing charity, because able bodied people would not have a government dole on which to depend. For those who truly need charity, there would be a large surplus. It would not be difficult at all to help those who need help, with the great abundance America would enjoy. We should try a new course – freedom – and revel in the enormous prosperity that would result.

  2. I quite enjoyed the essay you wrote, Paul. There was something else I wrote about a year ago that also bears upon this theme:
    What does our socialism cost us?
    I did some math. I figure I am roughly 40% enslaved, meaning that about 40% of my work is taken from me by various levels of government, to be used to support other people. Federal expenditures comprise about 24% of our gross domestic product (GDP), then adding in state and local spending, it gets up to around 40% of GDP. Being more productive than many others, and therefore paying higher taxes, I figure about 50-60% of my work is being taken from me. Approximately 75% of government spending is for our various redistribution programs, like Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, disability payments, etc., and the interest on the debt that accrues from their massive spending on these programs. 75% of the 50-60% of my work that is taken from me equals about a 40% enslavement rate. We can quibble about the numbers, but they are in the ballpark.
    Everything government spends, it has to take from the productive sector of society, in one way or another. There are the taxes we see, like FICA and income tax, sales tax, and property tax. There are the taxes that are harder to see, like gas taxes and the special taxes on hotel rooms. Then there are more hidden taxes, like corporate taxes which customers pay in the prices they pay for things. Then there are the completely hidden taxes like inflation of the money supply. If government doubles the money supply to pay for their spending, all else being equal, then they have made each dollar worth half as much, and thus they have taxed us 50%.
    My average fee that I charged my patients in 2015 was $58 per visit, including labs and acute-care meds, and some of those visits were house calls. [I run a direct-pay, no-insurance family practice]. Suppose I did not have 40% of my work taken from me to support other people. I could charge 40% less, and end up with the same amount. I could have seen the same number of patients, spending the same amount of time and providing the same quality of care, and only charged $35 per visit. I would have netted the same amount in the end. I would have just as much left to support my family, enjoy life, and give to those in need.
    I could do so much more with it, however. I recently had a shoulder surgery at a free-market surgery center, the Surgery Center of Oklahoma. I recently posted about the excellent service they provided me. What is the relevance to this issue? I paid a total of $6,149 to get my shoulder repaired. It was a fairly involved surgery, considering what a hash I had made of my shoulder. “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage” – Indiana Jones. If the SCOK doctors were not also 40% enslaved, they could have charged $3,689 for my surgery and came out the same. I would have had $2,460 left, with which I could have done other things.
    Several years ago, I had an arthroscopic knee surgery at SCOK. I’m not kidding about the mileage. That surgery cost $3,740, which is still the price. If that surgery only cost 60% as much now, that would be $2,224. So if not for our socialist system, I could have used my savings from my shoulder surgery to pay for a knee surgery for somebody else. I could have just given somebody else the money for a knee surgery, and had $36 to spare. This principle would apply to all our spending and giving. We would have about 40% more to give, and those needs would each cost about 40% less. Alas, how high is the opportunity cost of our socialist system. Choose freedom. Choose prosperity. Choose happiness.

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