Crawling Up from Barbarism


Chapter 2 of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate (2013) is titled “Nature and History”.  It’s where we begin a multi-week journey through the wardrobe of a moral imagination.  The fundamental disagreement between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine starts with radically differing views on the importance of human history and exactly what we mean by human nature.


Paine insists that in order to understand human nature we have to go back to its earliest and deepest roots. The true nature of man, before history, gives rise to his natural rights.  The core of human nature is that we are all equal individuals.  Paine believed that social hierarchies have no natural foundation because they arose through a history of coercion.  Existing power structures stem from some usurper who established himself over others by force.  Burke rejects this emphasis on nature over history because it reduces human history to nothing more than a process of illegitimate governments forming and then oppressing people.  That line of reasoning could be used to undermine any human institution.


The beginning of society is always some form of barbarism. But over time, we rise, becoming more mature as society mellows into legal governments that were violent in their commencement.   Burke criticizes Paine’s oversimplification of humans as separate, equal, rational beings.  That cold, lonely, naked perspective misses the reality of man as a social creature of not just pure reason, but of sympathies, sentiments and passions. Passion is natural but dangerous because if you “leave a man to his passions, you leave a wild beast to a savage and capricious nature”.  One way or another, reason applies through passion, so it’s crucial to tend to our “moral imagination” to avoid violence and disorder.  We cannot simply argue away our vices with reason, but we can be deterred from indulging in them by moral sentiments.  These moral practices arose throughout history via a system of old fashioned chivalry – values that pacify two potentially dangerous relationships:  Between men and women.  Between rulers and the ruled.


Thomas Paine was a revolutionary, arguing to strip away all unchosen bonds and obligations – which are barriers to the true, pure, equal individual nature of humans.  He considered inheritance the root of all societal evil.  The powerful pass their illegitimate power on to their children, denying others their natural rights, resulting in oppression, poverty, wars and injustice.  Chivalry is an antiquated excuse for maintaining existing, unfair power relationships and to keep the poor from rising, in Pain’s view.  But Burke never argued for static adherence to past practices, he suggests gradual political reform, improving on our existing regime – evolution not revolution.  Past moral practices are valuable not because their old but because they’re advanced – having developed through many centuries of trial and error.


Now that we’ve crawled up from barbarism, the next drawer in the wardrobe of our moral imagination is a dispute about justice and social order along with two very different understandings of social equality.


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Wardrobe of a Moral Imagination


Ideas matter…. a lot, because they can manifest into either prosperity and happiness or suffering and death. Important ideas start as opinions, then become beliefs and finally end as values.  The corrupted values of our institutions (the media, academia and politicians) are apparent and have moved to disturbing new levels, becoming even more obnoxious and arrogant.  An arrogant person is annoying; an arrogant person with inferior ideas is even more annoying; and a wrong arrogant person who works to impose misguided values upon everyone else is the worst.


The Great Debate – Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (2013) by Yuval Levin is a book that digs deeply down into the historic roots of the moral debate that continues to this day in politics, economics, philosophy and law. Levin analyzes, in vivid detail, the bitter public dispute between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine in the late 1700’s revealing (what many would argue) the superiority of Burke’s arguments.


Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was a brilliant, passionate, chivalrous writer who was appalled that revolutionary thinkers were trying to destroy ancient western morality. He writes:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the ideas furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd and antiquated.


Today’s naked vulgar – ‘do whatever you want’ – public morality is in need of proper intellectual clothing. Let’s embark on a War Chest exploration of this wardrobe of a moral imagination in the coming weeks by peering into the drawers holding Yuval Levin’s collection of Burke’s moral garments, which Paine sought to strip away:

Ch. 2 Nature and History

Ch. 3 Justice and Order

Ch. 4 Choice and Obligation

Ch. 5 Reason and Prescription

Ch. 6 Revolution and Reform

Ch. 7 Generations and the Living

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They’ll Never Learn


The third and final battlefront protecting wealth is the most grave. If the immorality and impracticality barriers to socialism are breached, then we get to mass death and misery.  It’s not necessary to speculate on the likelihood of this result.  It’s a matter of history.


“No cause, ever, in the history of all mankind, has produced more cold-blooded tyrants, more slaughtered innocents, and more orphans than socialism with power. It surpassed, exponentially, all other systems of production in turning out the dead”.   That’s from Alan Charles Kors’ essay Can there be an “After Socialism”? (2003). How can anyone familiar with history who has a well-functioning mind and heart read that piece and say – ‘yeah, but socialism’s still a good idea’?


Coercive socialist policy leads to the termination of human life and the destruction of capital. Wealth is delicate and can be shattered and lost over time.  George Gilder writes that capital is not a stock of goods.  It’s a free flow of ideas; a mindscape of volatile, shifting knowledge and relationships that cannot be seized by the State.  Wealth “is not an inventory of stuff.  It’s an organic living entity, a fragile, pulsing tissue of ideas, expectations, loyalties, moral commitments and visions; to vivisect it for redistribution is to kill it.”  Mainstream intellectuals just don’t seem to get that and they probably never will.  The deadly problem is that if policy makers buy their deceptive arguments – aggressive attempted wealth redistribution will devastate the poor while destroying huge amounts of global wealth.


The bad idea of socialism persists because mainstream media, political operatives and academics are anti free market. Professors, news media and filmmakers ignore the capitalism vs. socialism comparative inquiry that has been rigorously debated for decades (with free market ideas kicking the snot out of centrally planned economics).  Some people reject capitalism because they don’t know any better; others because they’ve been indoctrinated with social justice warrior nonsense from the various race, class and gender grievance disciplines in academia, which are hostile to capitalism.


But the tide has turned. The influence of our arrogant elites is crumbling.  The public no longer believes that power and influence should be predicated on titles and fancy Ivy League degrees; it should be based on demonstrable, valuable, real-world knowledge and proven moral character.  The global outrage that resulted in Trump and Brexit is a reflection of a growing recognition that our elites have not earned the status they assume is rightfully theirs.  As Victor David Hanson puts it:  “The self-described ‘best and brightest of or our time’ are has-beens, having enjoyed influence without real merit or visible achievement.”  They’ll never learn and their time is up.



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Tied to the Mast


The classic moral justification for capitalism starts with Adam Smith. In spite of natural selfishness, people are led by an “invisible hand” – without intending or knowing it they advance the best interests of society by pursing their own interests.  Inequality and poverty are moral wrongs but we need wealth to survive and thrive, so we accept it as part of the deal.  Other moral justifications include the right to wealth and incentive – the creator of wealth has a moral right to it and wealth is an incentive to its creation.  But that doesn’t get to the real morality of vast wealth concentrations and global poverty.  We all need motivation to work hard, innovate and take risks; but Mark Zuckerberg was worth $14 billion at age 30.  Do we need that much motivation?


George Gilder believes capitalism works because the creators of wealth are granted the right along with the burden of re-investing it.  If wealth owners try to take it/cash out or exploit wealth, it tends to evaporate.  In the early days of Microsoft, if Bill Gates tried to leave the company or cash out, its value would have plummeted faster than he could get the value out.  He said “I am tied to the mast of Microsoft”.  Socialists want to seize capital for the masses but they fail to understand that detached from a capitalist, there is no capital.  Assets quickly wither and die without capitalists to tend them.  When Spain raided South America of its gold, it became rich and began smugly purchasing goods produced by other countries.  But when the gold was gone, Spain was an impoverished nation because it neglected its human capital, which is more important than the fruits of human capital.


Gilder writes: The process of wealth creation is offensive to levelers and planners because it yields mountains of new wealth in ways that could not possibly be planned.   It defies every econometric model and socialist scheme.  It makes no sense to most college professors, who attain their positions by the systematic acquisition of credentials pleasing to the leftist establishment above them.  Leading entrepreneurs do not ascend a hierarchy; they create a new one.


And once wealth is created, to maintain and increase it is just as difficult: Gilder writes:  A pot of honey attracts flies as well as bears.  Bureaucrats, politicians, academics, journalists, business writers and missionaries all think they could invest money better than its owners.  Aspiring spenders besiege owners in the name of charity, idealism, envy and social change.  But it’s the legal owners of businesses who have the clearest interest in building and preserving wealth rather than spending it on themselves.  They consume only a small portion of their holdings because as owners, they are the ones damaged most by mismanagement, exploitation or waste.


Government cannot seize our War Chest capital. We are forever mindful of it; tied to its mast.  But, a voyaging ship of knowledge and power is not a bad vehicle on which to be bound.  We are grateful for our blessings and responsible with our wealth.  Give thanks for the burden of managing assets prudently.  Happy Thanksgiving from The Estate Planning War Chest.

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Enemy egalitarian wealth redistributionists are soundly defeated on three separate intellectual battlefronts. Any one of the three would be enough for victory, but all three ensure that current wealth owners, without a doubt, are safely secure from political tyranny:

  1. Wealth redistribution is rationally and morally wrong
  2. Even if you believe leftist’s lies, redistribution will not work – it’s impossible to seize actual wealth (as opposed to the fruits of wealth)
  3. Even if lawmakers are deceived and try it anyway, it will severely harm the poor – the very people redistributionists claim they want to help – while leaving the rich unscathed.


A defense of capitalism along these lines is found in Chapter 17 of George Gilder’s book Knowledge and Power – The Information Theory of Capitalism and How It is Revolutionizing Our World (2013).  He first defines the inequality problem – Why, on a planet full of poverty and deprivation, should a tiny minority be allowed to control all the wealth?  He then explores the traditional answers followed by his justifications based on information theory.  Let’s take a George Gilder fly-by over the three battle lines preventing our enemies in the war of ideas from confiscating private wealth.


Traditional critics of capitalism center around 1) fairness; and 2) the character of capitalists (i.e. accusations of greed). Fairness is argued to be a concern because perceived unfairness produces unhappiness with all its social detriments.  But to focus just on happiness is to presume that leisured happiness is the goal of human life, when in fact, human advancement, productivity, wealth creation and wealth preservation are also goals.  To focus on greed depicts human economic activity as simply trading greed for wealth – in this hedonistic worldview, humans become machines ruled by the pursuit of pleasure, manifested by their quest for material goods and sensual satisfaction.


Capitalists are attacked as greedy, wallowing in their underserved wealth. But the observed behavior of successful entrepreneurs is not greedy fat cats.  The “idle rich” is a myth.  Entrepreneurs, to the contrary, exhibit discipline, self-control, hard work and austerity.  Their actual behavior (with limited exceptions) is far from greedy.  Gilder argues that the truly greedy ones are socialists because they have such an appetite for confiscating unearned wealth and power.  He writes that socialism is a conspiracy of the greedy to exploit the productive.  The laziest way to gain unearned wealth is to persuade the State to take it away from others for redistribution.  Next week, the Estate Planning War Chest continues our flight over the first battlefront – moral justifications for concentrated wealth – and then moves on to the second one – the impossibility of seizing actual wealth.


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Positive Liberty Is Deception – Not Freedom


In 1941 Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill signed The Atlantic Charter setting forth British and U.S. societal objectives for a post-World War II world.  It unfortunately seemed to legitimize the view that freedom from want and freedom from fear are part of the definition of the word liberty. I wrote about this on 11/24/15 while discussing the famous Norman Rockwell painting Freedom From Want of a family serving turkey at Thanksgiving.


Freedom from want is not liberty; the confusion and “debate” persists to this day. Insecurity and poverty are not violations of freedom even though many try and argue otherwise.  Isaiah Berlin’s (1909-1997) essay Two Concepts of Liberty draws a sharp distinction between Negative Liberty (freedom from coercion) and Positive Liberty (freedom to fulfill your potential).  Berlin notes that negative and positive liberty are not merely two distinct kinds of liberty; they are rival, incompatible interpretations of a single political ideal. You have to pick one – you can’t have both definitions of liberty, if one is correct, the other is false.


Dahrendorf wrote – It’s not a helpful debate because nothing is gained by a confusion of terms. Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture or human happiness or quiet conscience.  The notion of positive liberty is rhetorical deception – designed to disguise underlying value conflicts.  Leftist thinkers tried to hijack philosophy in order to advance their agenda to substitute collective control of resources for individual liberty.   Positive liberty attempts to conflate and impose goals from some thinkers who believe that we “should” rationally desire equality as a justification for political tyranny.


It’s not a straight forward intellectual fight. The debate is illusory because those who argue for positive liberty hide the ball – they are disingenuous and dishonest about the meaning of the word liberty in their attempt to re-define the concept for purposes of pursuing their values and political ends.  But as Erasmus said to Martin Luther 500 hundred years ago – it is not necessary to fight with an enemy in front from whom you have incautiously received a wound in the back.  Our Estate Planning War Chest need not engage in the dispute.  We’re in the business of securing personal health, wealth and wisdom – we’re not in the business of treacherously attempting to convince a gullible, feeble minded general public that they rationally and morally deserve free stuff from a Government empowered to confiscate and then redistribute wealth.


It becomes more evident the harder hypocritical leftist elites try to push their agenda. Victor Davis Hanson of National Review writes:

Inequality cannot be remedied by legislation. The multitude of factors that contribute to it — chance, luck, circumstances of birth, innate talent, familial upbringing, human nature itself, and the forces of bias, self-interest, nepotism, and tribalism — require totalitarian remedies. History shows us that attempts to enforce equal results usually result in war or genocide. The more fervently progressives seek to redistribute income, or use diversity quotas to ensure proportional representation in hiring and admissions, or suspend constitutional free speech and due process to suppress individualism and heterodoxy, the more likely that progressivism’s affluent adherents will risk being exposed…

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Freedom Beats Equality – Hands Down


Mainstream writers today are ignorant of, or more likely, purposely ignore or even try to hide the powerful ideas of historical thinkers on the bitter conflict between freedom and equality – because it doesn’t fit with their equality bias. You can’t prefer both freedom and equality – emphasizing one necessarily deemphasizes the other.


Politicians whine about wealth inequality but don’t address grave concerns about trying to reverse it from thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, Alex Tocqueville and Milton Friedman, to name just a few. Tocqueville said “for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, and invincible; they call for equality in freedom; if they cannot obtain that, they call for equality in slavery.” Friedman said “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. Equality is less important than freedom because human equality is unnatural and would have to be coercively and violently imposed, thereby destroying freedom. You cannot favor them both. You have to choose – and freedom wins, hands down.


Even an amateur thinker can see the literary battle landscape littered with demolished arguments that equality is superior and should be preferred to liberty. It’s not even close. For over 100 years writers have critically examined the conflicting relationship between egalitarianism and freedom and almost all came down on the side of freedom. Some didn’t, like John Rawls (1921-2002), in his book A Theory of Justice (1971), which considered equality the moral benchmark for society. Obama is a big John Rawls fan. But Rawls’ ideas were quickly counter punched by the philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002) in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), which pointed out that in order to maintain equality in society a coercive central planner would have to constantly interfere with personal choices.


In addition to the many thinkers already discussed here, sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009) pulled together devastating critiques against collectivist egalitarian wrong ideas. Here’s a great essay on freedom from him:

His cogent clarity of thought on the matter is striking.

Dahrendorf understood that freedom is never permanently won. We must constantly fight for individual freedom against coercion from others in a battle that never ends. Fortunately, the intellectual weapons that defend liberty are many and strong. And I’m a happy warrior, parading those cognitive armaments out here weekly on the Estate Planning War Chest.

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