Historical Myths Part 4/∞: The Boston Tea Party Was a Protest Against High Taxes

The story goes something like this: In the mid 18th century, the British Empire abused its power over its American colonies and saddled the colonists with heavy taxes. After the taxes on tea were again increased in 1773, the colonists had finally had enough so they disguised themselves as Indians and threw a whole shipment of tea into the Boston harbour, which ultimately led to the American Revolution.

Although this story sounds very reasonable, it is a serious distortion of history. The British-American colonists did not protest against taxes being too high. Their slogan was “No taxation without representation,” which is not about the rate of taxation at all. In fact, taxes on the colonists were very low and the British Empire spent far more money on maintaining its American colonies than it received from them in tax revenue. In particular, the government had gone into considerable debt to finance the French and Indian War, which originated as a border dispute between British and French colonists on American soil, and then became part of the global Seven Years’ War.

What the colonists did take issue with was taxes being levied on them by the British Parliament, even though the colonies weren’t represented in Parliament. The colonists by and large did acknowledge that it was reasonable for the British government to get the colonies to contribute more money, but objected to being taxed directly by Parliament. Instead, they wanted Parliament to request money from the various colonial governments, who would then tax the colonists (which was considered legitimate because the colonists were represented in their colonial assemblies). They argued that this system had worked well in the French and Indian War and that there was no reason to change it.

Parliament didn’t go along with this reasoning and wanted more direct control, so in the wake of the French and Indian War, they passed a number of measures to raise tax revenue from the American colonies, all of which the colonists resisted through protests, smuggling, boycotts, intimidation, and mob violence. As a reaction to these protests, Parliament reduced or eliminated many of the taxes, hoping that this reduced set of taxes would be easier to enforce. One of the taxes they kept in place was an import duty on tea.

However, this import duty did not raise very much revenue since smuggled Dutch tea was cheaper than legally imported tea, which was required by law first to be shipped to London before it could be sent to the American colonies. Organising a boycott against taxed tea isn’t very hard to do when all you have to do to take part in the boycott is to buy cheaper tea. To change that dynamic (and because the East India Company was sitting on a surplus of tea), Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773, which allowed the East India Company to ship tea directly to America. This would have made their legally imported tea slightly cheaper than the smuggled Dutch tea, thus hopefully breaking up the boycott.

This was the catalyst for the Boston Tea Party: not an increase in the taxes on tea, but actually a law that made tea cheaper. This would undercut both smugglers and the boycott effort against taxed tea.

The idea that the Boston Tea Party was about taxes being too high fits in nicely with the overall effort of mythologising the American Revolution. We can all sympathise with daring heroes who stand up to an overbearing government imposing oppressively high taxes. But men who dress up as Indians to commit property desctruction on a grand scale to protest against tea becoming cheaper? Not so easy a sell to a modern audience.

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Against Revolution

Popular culture is filled with positive depictions of rebellion against oppressive governments and other power structures: Star Wars, Braveheart, V for Vendetta, Hunger Games, etc. Rebellion makes for a nice underdog story and provides an easy justification for our beleaguered heroes to commit all sorts of violence without moral qualms. After all, who would object to killing a few Storm Troopers if that is necessary to rescue the rebel princess? However, I believe that violent revolution is hardly ever justified and that almost all attempted and successful revolutions in world history were a mistake.

My reason for this harsh judgement is not based on any sort of obligation of the people to obey their rulers, no matter whether the government justifies its power by an appeal to tradition, the natural order, the divine right of kings, the mandate of heaven, the general will, the good of the nation, or democratic election. I do believe that the people have a right to alter or abolish a government that no longer has the consent of the governed. What I want to argue here is that it is almost always imprudent for them to attempt to do so by violent means.

There are many problems with violent revolution. First of all, revolution is bloody and will likely claim many lives. Secondly, a revolution might fail (and most do) and the forces of government prevail, in which case much blood has been shed in vain. And third, and most importantly, successful revolutions frequently institute governments that are as oppressive as or more oppressive than the government they replaced.

War is the most fertile breeding ground for oppression. After all, who can afford to have respect for such concerns as individual liberty, freedom of expression, private property, due process, or humane treatment of prisoners while engaged in a life-and-death struggle? Even after the revolutionary has been won, the new government has only a very tenuous grasp on power and thus will likely continue its repressive war-time measures to root out old loyalists and new revolutionaries.

A revolution is often fought by a disparate coalition united by nothing more than opposition to the current regime, but once that has been driven out, the old factions re-emerge in a power struggle that might well lead to another war. After all, violence has already been established as a legitimate and effective means of solving political dispute. Once the floodgates of revolution have been opened, blood is likely to continue gushing through them.

Here is a list of requirements for when revolution is justified:

  1. The government you’re rebelling against must be highly oppressive. And not just oppressive based on some ideal standard, but oppressive compared to other governments that exist in comparable countries. A good example of that would be North Korea. A bad example would be the current US government (or any other present government in a Western country), which is oppressive in a number of ways, but far less so than the average country. If you have a government that works tolerably well, chances are that violent revolution will lead to a worse government. Using drastic change to make things worse is a lot easier than making things better.
  2. You need to have good prospects to win and you need to be able to do so decisively so that you don’t get bogged down in a long and protracted war in which all sides lose. The American Revolution and the current Syrian civil war are good examples of this rule being violated. Another example are slave revolts: although these surely fulfilled criterion 1, they were almost always suppressed, and usually lead to even harsher treatment of slaves.
  3. You need to have realistic aims. If the goal of your revolution is to fundamentally reshape society from the ground up, or even to reshape human nature itself, chances are that your efforts will fail and leave a long trail of corpses behind them. The French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution are good examples of this failure mode. A positive example is the American Revolution, which in many ways sought to preserve society and government as it had existed in colonial times.
  4. Your revolution needs to be based on a desire for liberty, not on envy, hatred, and revenge. If and when you win, you need to be gracious to your defeated enemies. You need to pardon at least the rank and file supporters of the old regime. This is a minimum requirement for your country to heal and to recover and will go a long way in forming good relations with other governments. If you slaughter people indiscriminately during and in the aftermath of your revolution, you will have to keep slaughtering to cling to power and your neighbours will rightfully regard you as a threat and a potential enemy. Take the Haitian Revolution, a rare example of a successful slave revolt. Although their grievances were about as legitimate as they get, the Haitian revolutionaries killed or drove away all white people living on their land, including those who owned no slaves and were opposed to slavery. As a result, the new nation of Haiti was completely isolated, which contributed to it becoming the poorest country in the Americas.

This list is not comprehensive. Following it will not guarantee success, but violating it will likely lead to disaster. Even though these four demands are quite reasonable, almost no violent revolution in world history actually fulfils them. And there are indeed very few examples of genuinely successful revolutions in history, in which the revolutionaries not only won at an acceptable cost, but also instituted a goverment that is a noticeable improvement over the status quo. In upcoming posts, I will explain why I’m not a supporter of the American Revolution and why the Romanian Revolution of 1989 is one of the rare examples of good revolution.

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The Voice of Europe – Episode 156 – Even kids are figuring it out

Today, as on most Fridays, I’m co-hosting the Internet radio show The Voice of Europe, alongside Lucian Vâlsan and James Huff. Join us as we discuss gender relations and sexual politics in Europe from a pro-male and anti-feminist perspective.

Tonight’s topics include a ban on “sexist” advertising in Berlin, a boycott against restrictive dresscodes for male busdrivers in France, and a black gay misogynist explaining why white gay men are racist.

The show starts at 8 PM CEST, which is 2 PM EST, 11 AM PST, and 2 AM AWST.

Content warning: Likely to contain the occasional swear word. May be unsuitable for children and snowflakes.

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On Materialism

Capitalism is frequently accused of making people materialistic, of focusing their attention away from spiritual and idealistic matters and towards the pursuit of material wealth. It cannot be denied that modern Westerners spend an awful lot of time and effort on obtaining larger houses, faster cars, designer clothing, and the latest smart phone. I will argue here that the blame for this cannot be put on capitalism, but that this state of affairs is indeed lamentable, and that most people would be better off if they spent less effort chasing after worldly possessions.

One of the most important insights of economics is the law of declining marginal utility: the more of something you have, the less valuable, as a general rule, is another unit of that thing to you. Due to the enormous productivity increases brough about by capitalism, we now have vastly more material goods, which means we value material wealth less than our pre-capitalistic ancestors or our contemporaries unfortunate enough not to live in a capitalist country.

Indeed, people on the verge of starvation might well come to blows over a half-eaten sandwich, or prostitute themselves for the price of a warm meal. This is not to say that well-fed Westerners would never stoop to such behaviour, but the pecuniary reward necessary to induce them to engange in behaviour they find degrading is much higher. In other words, they value idealistic concerns like dignity more highly compared to material wealth, i.e. they are less materialistic.

Capitalism has not made us more materialistic, it has merely given us the means to more easily pursue our pre-existing materialistic inclinations. If they could have, ancient and medieval people would have happily gorged themselves on fast food and pop and whiled away the hours watching reality TV. The European Middle Ages in particular seem to us to be a much more spiritual time, but that perception is severely distorted by the fact that almost all the records we have of that time were put down by clergymen, who of course were much more concerned with non-material concerns than the average peasant or serf.

While it is true that religiosity has decreased since the beginning of the Industrial Age, it is not true that this has brought about an overall decrease in idealism. Rather, our idealisitic concerns have grown and multiplied to include concerns such as human liberty, scientific progress, and the environment. (I do not mean to suggest that these played no role in pre-Industrial societies, but their importance has grown enormously.) On the whole, we are now so rich that we can afford to care about a host of non-materialistic issues.

Still, I do believe that there still is an overemphasis on material wealth in contemporary Western society. A lot of people work long hours in jobs they despise to be able to afford a slightly larger house or a nicer car. Many of them would be happier looking for a less stressful job, even if it means accepting lower pay. You do not need to buy the latest iPhone. That smart phone you bought two years ago is still perfectly fine and you can use it for another couple of years. You don’t need to get a new car every five years. Just because the Joneses have a pool in their garden doesn’t mean you have to get one, too. If some particular material good really makes you happy, go for it. But don’t work yourself ragged just to achieve some sort of status symbol. Life is pretty good if you live in a modern capitalist economy. Enjoy it.

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Don‘t Underestimate the Utility of Shame

The modern social justice movement is very concerned about shaming, particularly with “slut shaming” and “fat shaming,” i.e. behaviour that makes people ashamed of sexual promiscuity and obesity. Two notions seem to be contained in the vehement opposition to slut shaming and fat shaming. First, that there is nothing wrong with promiscuity and obesity, and second, that shaming itself is wrong. I won’t address the first objection here, although much could be said about it, and will instead focus on on the second, which is more widely held in today’s society.

Shame is a deeply unpleasant emotion, so evoking it in others should only be done with good reason. However, negative emotions serve important functions: pain helps us avoid injury, disgust helps us avoid disease, fear helps us avoid danger, hunger motivates us to eat, and shame motivates us to better ourselves and to avoid behaviours that are harmful to ourselves and others. While it is good to have nothing to be ashamed of, being shameless is not.

Shaming then is a powerful mechanism by which society can incentivise certain behaviours and disincentivise others. It is a tool which can be used for good or for ill. Shaming should not be employed against behaviour that is meritorious or harmless, but should be reserved for what is genuinely harmful. Shaming is particularly appropriate for harmful behaviour that isn’t bad enough to justify preventing it by violent means (which making it illegal would entail). For example I think it is quite appropriate to shame people for infidelity in relationships, and particularly in marriages, but I would not want to criminalise it.

Shame is also, it seems to me, a vital ingredient of a functional welfare system. If people are ashamed to live off public assistance, unemployment will be more psychologically damaging, but there will also be a very strong incentive to find a new job. Remove the element of shame and low-skilled unemployed people have little incentive to look for work. After all, in many First World countries, people living on benefits have almost the same net income as low-wage workers when all benefits, subsidies, and taxes have been accounted for. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this post, I’d ideally like to get rid of governmental welfare systems altogether, but as long as we are stuck with them, the only way to make them work tolerably well is to shame people who take advantage of them. If the stigma attached to being on welfare ever disappears, I believe they will collapse in short order.

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The Voice of Europe Episode 155 – Sverige, JA!

Today, as on most Fridays, I’m co-hosting the Internet radio show The Voice of Europe, alongside Lucian Vâlsan and James Huff. Join us as we discuss gender relations and sexual politics in Europe from a pro-male and anti-feminist perspective.

Tonight’s topics include the recent UK election with a special focus on anti-feminist MP Philip Davies, a Berlin borough replacing street names to include more African slave traders in the name of political correctness, and Madrid issuing a ban on “manspreading”. We also take a detailed look at Sweden, where in spite of, or perhaps because of, the heavy feminist influence, female genital mutilation is on the rise.

The show starts at 8 PM CEST, which is 2 PM EST, 11 AM PST, and 2 AM AWST.

Content warning: Likely to contain the occasional swear word. May be unsuitable for children and snowflakes.

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The Non-Aggression Principle Part 2/3 – A Conclusion, Not an Axiom

Back in the 1960s and 70s, when libertarianism was a newly emerging ideology, many libertarians used the term “non-aggression axiom,” rather than the now more common “non-aggression principle” (NAP). This was not just a terminological issue, but also had an important practical implication: Many libertarians back then saw (and may still do see) the NAP as an axiom, rather than as a claim to be established.

Axioms are foundational presupposition on which our arguments rest. By its very nature, a well-chosen axiom cannot be proven (if it can be proven based on your other axioms, the axiom is redundant). Thus, if you’re arguing based on the non-aggression axiom, your interlocutor can simply dismiss your whole argument by rejecting your axiom, and at that point there is nothing you can do except abandon the approach of treating the NAP as an axiom.

There is nothing obvious about the NAP and there is no reason why a sensible non-libertarian should just grant you this principle. Of course most people will happily go along with a weaker version of the NAP, namely that aggression against person and property are usually bad and should usually not be allowed. However, there are many other important values besides non-aggression, and it is not at all obvious why preventing aggression should trump all other concerns.

Trying to base your case for libertarianism on the NAP is essentially just begging the question. A more reasonable approach is to start with premises most people actually agree with, such as the weak NAP outlined above. Then the real job of argumentation begins and only at the end do you emerge with the NAP as the result of a long chain of reasoning. I have sketched some of these arguments in my four-part series on why I’m a libertarian (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). Actually convincing people is very difficult and there are no guarantees of success, no matter how brilliant your arguments, but with this approach there is at least the chance of changing a reasonable person’s mind.

 

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State Schools Are About Propaganda

Why do modern states provide free state schools? The obvious answer – that education is important and should therefore be provided to everyone – can’t be right. After all, food is even more important than education, yet governments generally leave the production and provision of food to the market.

Nor does it help to say that state schools are about making sure that the children of the poor receive an education. Most children who attend state schools do not come from poor families and parents who could easily afford to pay for a private school still get to send their children to free state schools. If it were just about helping the poor, governments would simply give them money directly or give them vouchers to allow them to send their children to privately provided schools.

A more reasonable explanation is that the purpose of state schools is propaganda. It is to shape the hearts and minds of the coming generation and to instill in them whatever values and beliefs government elites desire in their citizenry. Thus, schools in monarchies aim to turn their pupils into monarchists, republican schools into republicans, communist schools into communists, National Socialist schools into National Socialists, and democratic schools seek to turn children into democrats. In short, state schools are instruments of propaganda.

Obviously state schools also teach their pupils much useful knowledge and many valuable skills, so propaganda is not the only purpose of state schools. But since such learning would also take place in private schools and at home in a system without public education, we have to conclude that the primary reason for schools being run and funded by the government is indoctrination. Of course not all forms of indoctrination are harmful and not all the values and beliefs taught in state schools are wrong or pernicious.

What I am concerned with is that public education cuts down on the diversity of ideas. If nearly everyone in a given society is taught a particular set of values and beliefs, questioning this concensus becomes difficult and errors and flaws are less likely to be corrected. A healthy and intellectually productive society needs an open dialogue between diverse ideas. Cutting down on the diversity of ideas hampers the productive process of exchange and debate and thereby impedes progress.

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Quote of the Week – George Orwell on Economic Competition

The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.

This brilliant quote is taken from George Orwell’s review of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and situated in a discussion of monopoly. Orwell contends that free market competition leads to monopoly and “a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State.” Orwell’s argument, while rherhetoric brilliant, is deeply flawed.

The analogy between economic competition and other kinds of competitions is misleading. In a footrace, only one person can come in first. What matters is not how fast you run, but whether you run faster than your opponents. A race is a zero-sum game – your gain is another person’s loss and vice versa. And if there are prizes for the top three finishers and the third fastest runner needs 40 minutes, then it doesn’t matter whether you reach the finishing line after 41 minutes or an hour.

Not so with economic competition. McDonald’s might produce millions of hamburgers per day, but that doesn’t mean a small restaurant producing tens of burgers per day can’t compete with them. Economic competition is not winner-take-all. In most markets, whether you’re profitable or not has little to do with whether you control 50% or 0.5% of the market share. A small, independent burger joint won’t outdo McDonald’s on units sold, on revenue, or on total profit, but it may well be more profitable in relative terms. Unlike in the board-game Monopoly, the goal of real-world capitalists is not to acquire all available property, but merely to make a good return on their investment.

(Some of the links above are affiliate links. If you click on them and decide to buy a product, I receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you.)

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Book Review: That Hideous Strength

Literature, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition which lays bare deep truths about life and human nature that cannot easily be put into plain language. By this standard, C. S. Lewis‘ 1945 science fiction novel That Hideous Strength can be counted as a success. Although technically the final part of a trilogy, That Hideous Strength works well as a stand-alone work (to which I, not having read the other two books, can testify). Apart from telling a relatively engaging story of adventure, romance, and politics rooted in Christian, Greco-Roman, and Arthurian myth, the book is a scathing critique of progressivism and sociology, and, among other things, an exploration of class and of gender roles from a Christian and traditional conservative position. Tha fact that I enjoyed it in spite of being neither a Christian nor a traditional conservative is a testament to Lewis’ skill as a writer.

The novel’s two main characters are Mark and Jane Studdock, a young couple in a strained marriage. Mark is a sociologist working at a small college who is consumed by his desire to become an insider, a member of the inner circle – any inner circle. This makes him easy prey when he is offered a chance to join the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), an organisation that ostensibly pursues scientific progress for the betterment of mankind, but has hidden sinister motives. Meanwhile, Jane is haunted by strange prophetic dreams and deeply dissatisfied with her marriage. As the story progresses, the two of them are simultaneously and seperately drawn into a grand conflict between superhuman forces.

Perhaps my favourite character in the book is John Wither, the enigmatic Deputy Director of the N.I.C.E. He is the perfect embodiment of what makes the N.I.C.E. so scary: there is a lack of official hierarchy and explicit rules, which gives unlimited power to those who know how to work the system. Accordingly, the Deputy Director, who is the real centre of power at the N.I.C.E., never commits to anything and has a penchant for using vague and non-commital language. Here is an example of Wither’s style:

‘One moment, Mr Studdock,’ interrupted the Deputy Director. ‘It is so important to be perfectly clear what we are doing. You are no doubt aware that in certain senses of the words it would be most unfortunate to speak of my offering anyone a post in the Institute. You must not imagine for a moment that I hold any kind of autocratic position, nor, on the other hand, that the relation between my own sphere of influence and the powers–I am speaking of their temporary power, you understand– of the Permanent Committee or those of the Director himself are defined by any hard and fast system of what–er–one might call a constitutional, or even a constitutive, character. (…)’

The only thing scarier than a big, powerful bureaucratic organisation is a big, powerful organisation that is not bound by bureaucratic rules. Aside from the description of the inner workings of the N.I.C.E., Lewis is at his most delightful in the observations about sex differences and gender roles that he has various characters make throughout the novel. Consider, for example, the following gem:

‘The cardinal difficulty,’ said MacPhee, ‘in collaboration between the sexes is that women speak a language without nouns. If two men are doing a bit of work, one will say to the other, “Put this bowl inside the bigger bowl which you’ll find on the top shelf of the green cupboard.” The female for this is, “Put that in the other one in there.” (…)’

What makes Lewis’ oberservations on gender roles so enjoyable to read is that they break out of tired stereotypes and are provocative without ever becoming mean-spirited. I feel like this is an art we have mostly lost in the intervening decades. Far too often in today’s atmosphere, discussions about sex differences are either predicated on the absurd assumption that all sex differences are pernicious and the result of oppressive cultural structures, or else they devolve into a discussion about which sex is superior.

Lewis also makes poignant obeservations about the arrogance of intellectuals and the hypocrisy of many of those who perceive themselves as champions of the down-trodden, such as when Jane boards a train with a bunch of lower class people:

Jane hardly noticed them: for though she was theoretically an extreme democrat, no social class save her own had yet become a reality to her in any place except the printed page.

I could keep quoting delightful passages like that for pages, but I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering them for yourself. The only slight let-down about this book is the over-reliance on supernatural forces in the last third, which offer a bit of an easy way out (I won’t go into any detail here, lest I reveal too much of the plot). On the whole, however, I thoroughly enjoyed That Hideous Strength and can warmly recommend it.

(Some of the links above are affiliate links. If you click on them and decide to buy a product, I receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you.)

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