Pennsylvania thinks soap is unnecessary

When self-checkout kiosks began appearing in supermarkets in the early part of this decade, I resisted them stubbornly. They seemed to be a symptom of the deification of efficiency, and of the modern tendency to avoid meaningful interaction with other people–two phenomena to which I am just as susceptible as anyone else.

It did not take long for me to mellow on this, if for no other reason than that the stores were making use of fewer red-blooded cashiers in the wake of this new invention. I began to take note of some of the advantages of the self-checkout routine. For one thing, if I’m in a bad mood, I don’t risk subjecting some innocent person to my bad vibe, but for another thing, I pay more attention to certain details on my grocery bill.

One of those details concerns items which are taxed and items which are not taxed. Here in the State of Pennsylvania, the tale is that necessary items are not taxed–for example, clothing and food. Of course, some foods are taxed, if they are deemed to be non-essential. Soda, for instance, is taxed, if I recall correctly.

Never in my life would I have thought that soap would be a taxable item. Imagine my surprise when, on a trip to the store this evening, sales tax came up after I ran the hand soap over the scanner. On what planet is soap not necessary? And are some soaps tax free? I happen to have certain soaps that I like, soaps that kill bacteria and that do not dry, crack, and shred my hands all to hell. How is this not an essential item? Would the people who have to sit next to me on the subway agree that soap is non-essential?

All of this brings out the absurdity in having the government decide what is necessary and what is not. The truth of the matter is that different materials are necessary for different people. (So, as far as soap is concerned, it would be a question, I think, of kind, and not of whether or not one uses it!) To me, having a large pickup truck (to which I will, by the way, never aspire) would be a luxury, but to a hard-working plumber or farmer, it’s surely a necessity. To most people, eating out in restaurants is a frill; but to nomadic workers, it’s a necessity. The short version of this story is that the government is in no position to determine, even for the poorest citizens, what is necessary and what is not. The bureaucrats do not and will never have all the required information to divine (pun intended!) such things. This is a flaw that F.A. Hayek discussed in the context of Central Planning in his fairly good book The Road to Serfdom.

Of course, I don’t expect any Philadelphia tea parties over the State sales tax. After all, it seems that most people regard the absence of the sales tax on certain items to be a favor, like it’s the equivalent to an employer handing out Christmas bonuses. Perhaps this is because most people, having resigned themselves to dealing with what’s right in front of their faces, have not reflected on the manifest injustice that is taxation in all its forms.

And that really stinks.

On learning to stand up straight

I generally have a tendency to think about things too much, and to be too cautious in my decision making. I have, at times, passed up opportunities because of too much risk, or so I thought. In the area of music, which is my profession, this happens a lot. I shy away from projects with indefinite outcomes.

Today, however, I may have turned a corner. During my late night practice session, something clicked in me, and I caught myself being bold, taking the initiative, in a certain way. We have such a tendency to walk around with “the look of the hunted,” as Richard Weaver said, unsure of ourselves, and asking, “Is this right?” or, “What will others think?” I have been plagued by this kind of stupidity for years.

With boldness, however, comes achievement. I got more work done tonight than I’ve gotten done in days. I was operating with less sleep and later in the day, but there it is. The thought occurred to me that our ability to meet our expectations depends upon the posture we take. If we crouch down like the hunted, we will be eaten alive. If we stand up straight and make bold to do something, we have no boundaries.

The first posture is one of safety, the second is one of liberty. Most people do not want to be free, they want to be safe, said Mencken. But only the free will be able to do anything that’s worth a damn. Sure, if things go badly, one tumbles hard, but it sure beats being a cog in the wheel of the “Mediocracy,” doesn’t it?

All of this would seem to advise us to avoid ordinary people. If we spend our time with the fearful and the unremarkable, we too will be unremarkable. It is far better to fill our contact lists with the names of the extraordinary, for the extraordinary man brings out the good qualities of those around him.

F.A. Hayek once remarked that societies which suffer an onerous government are often less virtuous than freer societies. It’s probably true as well that freer societies have more excellent men in them. Indeed, liberty encourages boldness, and vice versa, and liberty also encourages harmony amongst men. And so, if we are free, we can sing along with the Psalmist, Ecce quam bonum, et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum!

Where does an anarchist find order?

We have spent only a little time on this blog discussing the virtues of anarchy and the ways that it would play out in real life. In a previous post, I mentioned that anarchists, far from advocating chaos, promote a system of order that does not make use of the State or of the government.

It would seem prudent, before this conversation goes too far, to distinguish between order and planning. It is truly fitting that “plan” is a four-letter word. Central Planning has become second nature to most people. Barack Obama and John McCain talk about their plans to make America better–as if it is they rather than the hard working citizens who make America what it is. Indeed, to many, “order” cannot exist without a central plan, without someone to boss around and steal from the various entities in a given society.

Order, however, need not–and in many ways cannot–come from above, but rather comes from within. As an analogy, I recall Charles Rosen’s insight that the symmetrical form of Classical era music (Mozart and Haydn in particular) was not imposed from without, like a mold, but rather grew organically from within, as each little detail, each contingency, built upon the work. So it is with, for instance, the free market: the mutual exchange of goods and ideas contributes greatly to a harmonious order in society. What might seem chaotic on the microscopic level turns out to be well-crafted on the macroscopic level. The disorganization is only apparent.

There is more, however. Surely one must grant that a society without a grand discourse will fall into shambles. Grand discourses are not exactly in vogue in these the days of rampant horizontalism. Many, perceiving the ensuing chaos from this, call for more government, or even a theocratic monarchy (Those who don’t know the mistakes of history are destined to repeat them), and few of them ever give serious thought to the idea that maybe the best form of government is none at all. Why, that would be chaos!

I find all this to be strange, not to mention self-contradictory. If government were able to prevent societal collapse, then the cities and towns of the 21st century would be in much better shape than they are. What is missing is the metaphysical. Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not in any way calling for some kind of Christianist State, such as Mike Huckabee might. I’m only saying that a society that is stuck in the sensible world is doomed. Really, the metaphysical is what is needed to maintain society, not governments. An appreciation for the metaphysical, however, comes from private initiative, not from legislative fiat.

F.A. Hayek in his book The Road to Serfdom remarked that the more intrusive a government becomes, the less virtuous the citizenry becomes. Similarly, Richard Weaver warned in Ideas Have Consequences of the encroachments of the State on men who have failed to exhibit virtue. If these two insights are synthesized, the remedy becomes apparent: men must become more virtuous, so that the futility (not to mention the evil) of the State becomes more obvious.

All of this, of course, is up to us. It has nothing to do with electing the right congressman or president, or with gaining a tenuous 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. Rather, it has everything to do with how we view life (Do we even start from the ancient philosophical idea that life is to be loved and cherished?), how we live, and how we interact with each other.