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Something I learned at Voice & Exit 2015

Originally published on WilliamKiely.com.

How to Develop a Trait that is Essential for Human Flourishing

I attended Voice & Exit in Austin, TX this weekend. I learned a lot, but here I’ll share just one idea that’s now in my head as a result of attending the conference.

Brian Robertson spoke about Holacracy, a system for creating a self-management structure for one’s business or other organization. As he described ways in which businesses with Holacracy structures differ from businesses with more traditional hierarchical management structures, I began thinking about how a certain trait that appeared to be essential for a person working in an autonomous role in such a holacratic business might be the same as or similar to an important trait that I believe traditional public schools fail to develop in students.

What is this trait?

In his wonderful book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, psychologist Peter Gray lists “seven sins of our system of forced education.” The second sin he lists is “Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction.” Personal responsibility and self-direction, or how to handle autonomy and not feel the need to look to an authority figure such as a teacher, parent or manager to make a decision for oneself, is the trait. Gray writes:

Sin 2: Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction. When Civil War hero David Glascow Farragut was nine years old, he was appointed midshipman in the US Navy. At age twelve, in the War of 1812, he temporarily led a navy team that included adults two to four times his age, when he was appointed commander of a ship captured from the British. The great inventor Thomas Edison left school three months after starting it, at age eight, having been judged by his teacher to be unfit for it because of his “addled brain” (a condition that would probably be diagnosed today as ADHD). He then began systematically educating himself. By age twelve he was making an adultsize income from several businesses he had started, and two years after that he was publishing, on his own, a successful newspaper.

Farragut and Edison were exceptional people, but the practice of children’s assuming adult-like responsibilities was not exceptional in the early to mid-nineteenth century, before the era of state-enforced compulsory schooling. Today the typical twelve-year-old in a middle-class suburb is not trusted to babysit or even walk home from school unaccompanied by an adult. We have become a society that assumes that children are, merely because of their age, irresponsible and incompetent.

The belief that children and even teenagers are incapable of rational decision-making and self-direction is a self-fulfilling prophecy. By confining children to school and other adult-directed school-like settings, and by fulfilling their time with forced busywork, which serves no productive purpose, we deprive them of the time and opportunities they need to practice self-direction and responsibility. And so, children themselves, as well as their parents and teachers, come to think that children are incompetent. Over time, as forced schooling has been extended to include people of ever-older ages, the belief in incompetence has been extended upward.

An implicit and sometimes explicit message of our forced schooling system is this: “If you do what you are told to do in school, everything will work our well for you.” Children who buy into that message stop taking responsibility for their own education. They assume, falsely, that someone else has figured out what they need to do and know to become successful adults. If their life doesn’t work out well, they take the role of a victim: “My school (or parents or society) failed me, and that’s why my life is screwed up.” This attitude of victimization, set up in childhood, may then persist for a lifetime. As schooling has become an ever more dominant force in young people’s lives, the sense of individual helplessness has increased in our society, as I discussed in Chapter 1. Mark Twain was fond of saying, “I’ve never let school interfere with my education.” Unfortunately, today, because of the great expansion of forced schooling since Twain’s time, it’s becoming harder and harder for anyone to live by that maxim.

I asked Brian whether he thought that employees in the 300+ existing Holacratic businesses tended to be more responsible, adult-like, and able to handle autonomy in the first place, or whether they learn how to be like this over time by working in the autonomous roles of a Holacracy business.

Brian said that without a doubt people acquire this trait–learn how to be responsible, adult-like, handle autonomy, and own decisions they make–by working in a Holacratic business. That is, they develop this trait so they are better at it than before.

I then asked whether this personal responsibility that they develop only manifests itself in their success at their work for the Holacratic business, or whether it also shows in their life outside their work.

Again he confirmed my suspicion that taking on this kind of work teaches a person general responsibility, as opposed to a superficial responsibility that applies only to the specific job position in which they work. Brian told me that people tell him all the time that the increased sense of personal responsibility and ability to handle autonomy that they gained from working in the Holacracy business also gave rise to positive change in how they handle responsibility in their family and other aspects of their life.

Peter Gray offers a solution to the problem of schools interfering with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction. In fact, his wording of the problem makes the solution obvious: Don’t interfere with the development of this important life trait! How can this be done? Give children the freedom to play, direct their own activities, make decisions for themselves, so that they can learn to hand the responsibility well, and not continue as they age into adulthood to feel the need to defer to a parent, manager, or other authority figure to make a decision that they ought to make and own themselves.

And as for teenagers and adults, let and encourage them to take on jobs or other roles with responsibilities of the kind all employees of Holacracy businesses must handle. Because, whether this is the only way to develop personal responsibility and self-direction or not, taking on more responsibility than you’re used to handling is an effective way to develop this trait of personal responsibility and self-direction.

Having this trait is essential to being an entrepreneur, and flourishing as an adult in life in general. Since the tagline of Voice & Exit is to maximize human flourishing, it seemed obvious to me that this was the most important new idea in my head to share.

I intend to read Brian Robertson’s book Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World soon (before the end of September) to learn more about the Holacracy management structure and how it is different from traditional management structures (which I also poorly understand and want to learn more about).

I also intend to obtain a job in which I have a good deal of autonomy and responsibility and in which I can make decisions and own them, rather than merely make recommendations to a manager or senior employer in a hierarchical organization who would ultimately traditionally be the responsible decision-maker. I want a job with these characteristics for reasons of personal growth, so that I can get better at the trait discussed in this post that I feel I was cheated on developing when I made the mistaken assumption that all I had to do to be successful was do what teachers and professors in school and college laid out before me–steps to get good grades. Foolish me. I will not take the role of victim. Even if I wouldn’t blame my past self for not realizing that the assumption was false, I do currently take responsibility for developing personal responsibility and self-direction in myself so that one day I can have the confidence to achieve my goals, whether as an entrepreneur or just a flourishing true adult.

(In addition to Peter Gray’s book mentioned above, I recommend his Psychology Today blog Freedom to Learn.)


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“The Most Dangerous Superstition” – Insightful, but poorly argued

Following is my Amazon Review of Larken Rose’s book The Most Dangerous Superstition.

3 stars out of 5

I believe that the two very controversial central claims of Larken Rose’s book “The Most Dangerous Superstition” are correct:

(1) No government genuinely has the special moral authority that most people think governments have.

(2) The belief in government authority is incredibly dangerous and destructive.

Indeed, as Rose writes on the back cover, “The vast majority of theft, extortion, intimidation, harassment, assault, and even murder––the vast majority of man’s inhumanity to man––comes [from the belief in government authority]. If humankind could give up this one false idea, even without otherwise acquiring another scrap of wisdom or compassion, the vast majority of injustice and oppression would instantly cease.”

Further, I agree with Larken Rose’s statement that the belief in government authority is “the most important issue in the world.”

So why am I rating this book only 3 stars?

Briefly, because I believe Rose’s arguments defending his two main claims are rather weak.

To give one example, Rose begs the question when he writes: “There is no ritual or document through which any group of people can delegate to someone else a right which no one in the group possesses. And that self-evident truth, all by itself, demolishes any possibility of legitimate ‘government'” (p. 35).

For a much stronger defense of the anarchist libertarian view that no government has political authority, see the first half of Professor Michael Huemer’s outstanding book “The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey.”

Rose also does a poor job making a case for the position that the belief in government authority is the most dangerous superstition. While he succeeds in showing that it is dangerous and can make basically good people do wicked things, he does not include an economic analysis showing the magnitude of the impact. Certainly this economic discussion would be needed to adequately defend the thesis that the belief in political authority is the *most* dangerous superstition in the world today.

Lastly, I would like to say that I greatly appreciated the valuable insights into the nature of the belief in political authority in Larken Rose’s book. The insights in his book go beyond those presented in his popular YouTube animations. He expertly illustrates the many senses in which people believe that governments have a special right to rule and the many senses in which people believe subjects have an obligation to obey. (In fact, Rose’s book may be more aptly titled “The Nature of the Belief in Government Authority.”) Most of these insights are not to be found in Michael Huemer’s book. For this reason, I recommend “The Most Dangerous Superstition.”

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Other Blog Posts on The Most Dangerous Superstition:


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My Thoughts on “The Tale of the Slave” by Robert Nozick

The Tale of the Slave

The Tale of the Slave from Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 290-292.

Consider the following sequence of cases, which we shall call the Tale of the Slave, and imagine it is about you.

  1. There is a slave completely at the mercy of his brutal master’s whims. He often is cruelly beaten, called out in the middle of the night, and so on.
  2. The master is kindlier and beats the slave only for stated infractions of his rules (not fulfilling the work quota, and so on). He gives the slave some free time.
  3. The master has a group of slaves, and he decides how things are to be allocated among them on nice grounds, taking into account their needs, merit, and so on.
  4. The master allows his slaves four days on their own and requires them to work only three days a week on his land. The rest of the time is their own.
  5. The master allows his slaves to go off and work in the city (or anywhere they wish) for wages. He requires only that they send back to him three-sevenths of their wages. He also retains the power to recall them to the plantation if some emergency threatens his land; and to raise or lower the three-sevenths amount required to be turned over to him. He further retains the right to restrict the slaves from participating in certain dangerous activities that threaten his financial return, for example, mountain climbing, cigarette smoking.
  6. The master allows all of his 10,000 slaves, except you, to vote, and the joint decision is made by all of them. There is open discussion, and so forth, among them, and they have the power to determine to what uses to put whatever percentage of your (and their) earnings they decide to take; what activities legitimately may be forbidden to you, and so on.
    Let us pause in this sequence of cases to take stock. If the master contracts this transfer of power so that he cannot withdraw it, you have a change of master. You now have 10,000 masters instead of just one; rather you have one 10,000-headed master. Perhaps the 10,000 even will be kindlier than the benevolent master in case 2. Still, they are your master. However, still more can be done. A kindly single master (as in case 2) might allow his slave(s) to speak up and try to persuade him to make a certain decision. The 10,000-headed monster can do this also.
  7. Though still not having the vote, you are at liberty (and are given the right) to enter into the discussions of the 10,000, to try to persuade them to adopt various policies and to treat you and themselves in a certain way. They then go off to vote to decide upon policies covering the vast range of their powers.
  8. In appreciation of your useful contributions to discussion, the 10,000 allow you to vote if they are deadlocked; they commit themselves to this procedure. After the discussion you mark your vote on a slip of paper, and they go off and vote. In the eventuality that they divide evenly on some issue, 5,000 for and 5,000 against, they look at your ballot and count it in. This has never yet happened; they have never yet had occasion to open your ballot. (A single master also might commit himself to letting his slave decide any issue concerning him about which he, the master, was absolutely indifferent.)
  9. They throw your vote in with theirs. If they are exactly tied your vote carries the issue. Otherwise it makes no difference to the electoral outcome.

The question is: which transition from case 1 to case 9 made it no longer the tale of a slave?

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My thoughts on Nozick’s The Tale of the Slave: Continue reading


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Why are YOU a libertarian? – LearnLiberty Meme

LearnLiberty started a meme yesterday by asking “Why are YOU a libertarian?

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Here is the photo I submitted:

WhyLibertarian_NoPoliticalAuthority

I am a libertarian because I do not believe that governments have political authority, as argued by Professor Michael Huemer in his book, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey.

Here are two other answers I came up with:

WhyLibertarian_NoConcealment

I am a libertarian because majority opinions, elections, flags, anthems, rituals, traditions, badges, uniforms, charismatic orators and neoclassical architectural buildings have all failed to conceal from me the truth that threatening peaceful people with violence through governments is still wrong.

WhyLibertarian_SameMoralStandards

I am a libertarian because I apply the same moral standards to governments as you apply to all nongovernmental persons and organizations in society.

Many of the people who participated in the meme are anarchist libertarians, but most appear to be minimal government libertarians. This may therefore be a fun way to expose many people to new views.

A few peoples’ photos received over a thousand “likes” on Facebook. Professor Steve Horwitz‘s received 820 “likes” as of the writing of this blog post:

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I’m a libertarian because I do care about the poor… and I don’t care how good your intentions are

You can see all 140+ peoples’ answers here. For an archive of thumbnails of everyone’s answers see here.