“Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out.” — Oscar WildeIn the wacky world of American politics, if you as an employer have a religious objection to paying for your employees’ contraceptives, it is you who is contemptuous of religious freedom.As the New York Times editorial board lectured a judge who thinks otherwise, “the […]
Socialism is the big lie of the 20th century. While it promised prosperity, equality, and security, it delivered poverty, misery, and tyranny. Equality was achieved only in the sense that everyone was equal in his or her misery.In the same way that a Ponzi scheme or chain letter initially succeeds but eventually collapses, socialism may […]
Six months ago, I stepped out from the shadows of the United States Government’s National Security Agency to stand in front of a journalist’s camera. I shared with the world evidence proving some governments are building a worldwide surveillance system to secretly track how we live, who we talk to, and what we say. I […]
I opened a new bottle of probiotics this morning, and it had one of those circular seals on the top. You know, the one that reads, “Sealed for your protection.”And that seal got me thinking… how much protection do we need? How much security is enough?How much homogenization, pasteurization, disinfection, national security, etc…. do we […]
Last spring, Barack Obama told the graduating class of Ohio State University:“Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems… They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because […]
In the Huffington Post last week, Glenn Greenwald, Slate contributor Ryan Gallagher, and Ryan Grim had an investigative piece reporting that the NSA had been tracking the online porn-viewing habits of several Muslim leaders whom it viewed as radicals. A top-secret document shows that the agency was considering exposing these firebrands’ Internet dalliances as a […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
A few months ago at a demonstration against the president of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, a Canadian citizen made the following claim: “We don’t have guns, we are not Americans, we are civilized.” A few days before, in early July, a train of the company had run away and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing […]
From the Tongue-In-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that her committee will hold a “major review into all intelligence-collection programs.” This surprising declaration followed the revelation, through documents leaked by government whistle-blower Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been listening to the […]
From the Tongue-in-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. – The complex negotiations aimed at bringing a long-term solution to the federal government’s expenditure and debt problem have produced an unconventional proposal. “Although the solution only focuses on a tiny fraction of government expenditures,” declared President Barack Obama, “it is a step in the right […]
I’ve just spent a harrowing weekend reflecting on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the pamphlet that came out in January 1776 and turned the public toward seeking independence from Britain. I say harrowing because the distance between the ideals found in this pamphlet and those of today’s America is so vast as to be nearly unrecognizable.The […]
It was a wild ride last week in the world of the Deep Web, that section of the Internet that requires special tools to access. The feds took down the site called Silk Road and claim to have arrested its founder and administrator. The news streams were filled with lurid tales of derring-do in this […]
Want to know just how invasive the state is going to get in the United States?Well, take a look across the pond.In terms of the large, invasive state, we English are way ahead of you guys. We’re a good 50 or more years further down the road to serfdom.Nineteenth-century Britain was about as glorious a […]
A tense drama unfolded this week with the virtual shutdown of vital government agencies: the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Labor Relations Board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as many other such federal agencies. Without them, the Founding Fathers could not have imagined the republic.Even if fewer […]
Three months after Edward Snowden’s leaks began to reveal the extent of the U.S.’ mass surveillance program, “serious people” are beginning to make the case that it’s time for the outrage and indignation to subside and give way to a “national conversation” about the future of surveillance. So has the moment come for us to […]
A sixth-grader has been suspended for drawing an inappropriate picture. The drawing did not include any gun, but showed a checkpoint backed up by a SWAT team carrying flower pots while an unarmed drone hovered above.The suspended girl, whose name is kept secret at the request of her family, said she “just wanted to draw […]
The second part of this two-part article reveals an untold part of the story about how they were stopped last time. And shows how, if not again stopped, how it could lead to a fundamental loss of civil rights and freedom on the Internet.The offending legislation was barreling down the track, seemingly — even in […]
Two years ago, Hollywood, no kidding, masterminded a plot to, in effect, steal the Internet (by criminalizing certain conduct, booby trapping the Web in ways that few non-mega-corporations could cope with). There are signs, as perceptively flagged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that the perps are back at it. We should care.This two-part article reveals […]
It has now been nearly two centuries since French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and compared American democracy to the French variety. The Martian asked his Earth correspondent to redo the comparison.The typical Frenchman thinks that Paris is the center of the universe, life without a baguette is not worth living, France is […]
I was at the Canadian border, headed toward the freedom that exists a few feet beyond the last security check. I was gently waved down a side corridor.Ninety minutes later, I was let go, but not before something truly alarming happened. I’m pretty sure that the Canadian government captured a mirrored version of my smartphone […]
Fort Meade, MD – The United States, the least unfree country on Earth, is fighting a major invasion of the Blueshirts.The most visible Blueshirts constitute a 50,000-plus army that occupies all the airports in America. Recognizable by their blue shirts and their inquisitive eyes and hands, they search and humiliate all Americans trying to leave […]
Sometimes, the news of the day causes me to say, “Huh?” The New York Times revelations last month about NSA programs and activities to enhance the agency’s ability to spy on ordinary citizens prompts today’s “Huh?” Who knew that our every phone call, Internet post and tweet is being recorded by the government?I have operated […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Oh, how the media love a good strike. Look at these fast-food workers and peasants standing up to the owners of capital! They aren’t going to take the oppression anymore. The suits in the boardrooms had better shape up and stop hoarding all that money. They need to give it up to the men and […]
Like all great historical ideas, the project of licensing journalists so that they may benefit from the First Amendment was born in a very modest place. In fact, it began in the most modest of all places: the brain of Dianne Feinstein, U.S. senator from California.The new law, which was just adopted by Congress and […]
The position that there need be a state is too often taken for granted.The main body of Sartwell’s book Against the State is dedicated to destroying the arguments for a state from the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel. In fact, one thing that becomes crystal clear in reading Sartwell’s book is how bad the […]
Crispin Sartwell is someone you should know. He is doing important work in recovering forgotten greats in America’s anti-authoritarian tradition. Among other works, he’s put forward a lean and powerful book titled Against the State.In what follows, you’ll see why he’s my favorite living philosopher. Sartwell will take you on an intellectual tour de force […]
“Launch” has been the watchword this week in the world of Laissez Faire Books. It’s been on everyone’s mind since the brilliant idea of a club first emerged in the early weeks of 2012.
When the launch finally happened, I experienced one of those moments: “Pinch me so that I know I’m not dreaming.” I was, at that very moment, flying through the air on an airplane, logged into the Internet with my portable laptop, running about five different applications that allow real-time interactions with the mortals on earth.
This was not even possible a few years ago. It’s like a dream world, a miracle that is part of our daily lives, a gift to us from the entrepreneurial class working within a market framework. It has produced results no one could have expected only a few years ago.
I was reflecting on this amazing reality when suddenly, there was a stillness that I detected from those doing the work at the home office. The texts and chatter had stopped. I texted Doug Hill, who has worked so hard on this project from his position at Agora Financial.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Rockin’,” he said.
I pulled up the page to see what he meant. Rockin’ indeed. The Laissez Faire Club was live. We existed. It finally happened. The thing that was a dream only a few weeks ago was suddenly a reality.
Here is the proof of a notion that has consumed me for years, a theory I gleaned from my years of reading the works of Ludwig von Mises: The world we see is the realization of the ideas of the past; the world of the future will consist of the ideas we hold today. We need only to dream, create and act, and the course of history is changed.
I don’t doubt that there will be books written in the not too distant future about the early days of the Laissez Faire Club, this history-changing idea. The future of this venue, the combustible mixture of commerce and intellectual work, might determine the future of human liberty itself. It is a reinvention of the whole project of creating and distributing the best ideas.
This short account is just the beginning. There are so many moving pieces, so many creative minds and talented people involved, so much extraordinary drama. Had this launch been made in a reality television show, it would be bigger than The Office.
The genesis stretches back in time before I got involved. Agora Inc. has long had an interest in the acquisition, preservation and refurbishment of undervalued assets. Look at the properties it owns in Baltimore, Md., the historic buildings that it has made its own. Look at the land in Nicaragua now becoming a luxury resort. Look at the way this company has changed the lives of so many people around the world by giving them the tools to manage their own lives.
Laissez Faire Books was one of those undervalued assets. It had a mighty history stretching back to 1973, but since the digital age, there was a wide perception that it had been in decline, changing hands every few years and never quite able to change with the times. Addison Wiggin and Bill Bonner decided to take it on with the goal of doing for this company what Agora had done for so many physical properties.
I came into the mix in November 2011, and the first task was to migrate to a modern Web space. For those who have never attempted this, you would be amazed at the work here. We were talking about a large inventory that had to come to life in a new way. Building a commercial space from the ground up takes time, but it is doable; migrating a giant store from one space to another is not unlike moving a city from one state to another.
But it finally happened, and in a relatively short time. The release came the first week of January. It was thrilling and wonderful, a perfectly beautiful website. Yet we all knew the truth: We had just begun. There had to be something else. There was something wonderful waiting to happen; we just had to discover what that thing was.
The pieces came together gradually in late January. It began with Joe Schriefer from Agora, who said that we really need small set of great books that offer a total economics education in one small package. Brilliant! Addison Wiggin and I talked it through, and it was rather obvious what these had to be: Hazlitt, Hayek and Garrett.
But is that really all? Surely not. Let’s talk e-books. What if we gave them all away for free with the purchase of the physical books? Sounds great to me: I love nothing better than free books. And how many of these free books can we actually give away? Dozens, hundreds, thousands. How about one per week, forever? Perfect. It can be done. Each will have new editorial notes, new introductions, amazing art, the best possible functionality.
Still thinking. What if we provide a way for people to discuss these books? There are public forums everywhere, but I knew from experience that their value is limited and unstable. What if we make them private, a members-only deal, so that everyone has a stake in keeping them as civil and intelligent as possible? We were all beginning to see how this works. Big ideas, a community of discussion, reckless generosity, practical effects.
And what is the context in which this appears? The government is growing and wrecking the physical world in every possible way. Standards of living are slipping. Despair is growing. Politics provides a nice diversion of energy, but no real answer. Ah, but the digital world is different: It allows us to create our own civilization.
Now the fullness of the possibilities is emerging. We need our own private city, not so that we can hide, but so that we can think and discover in peace. This new world should be a place where ideals rule, where friendships blossom, where we can all learn together. We can disagree without being nasty or argue, and expect to learn at the same time, checking our experiences and ideas against others.
The time between the period in which we had only glimpsed this and when it all came together was no more than a few days. Then it was born: the Laissez Faire Club. Now we have it. Here, we combine the magic of the commercial marketplace with the thrilling uncertainty that comes with a free thinking society of ideas.
Having the model is one thing. Building the software infrastructure is another. This where the fun began, and this is when I really got know the inside culture of this place called Agora. There have been so many times when I wished that everyone could see what I’ve seen in this place. It represents the very best of what modern commercial life has to offer, an institution that is a great servant of the market that drove its creation and growth.
Every employee has something to contribute. The diversity of the cast of characters is real kick. Regardless of their official title, they are all interested in ideas. They might be technicians or accountants or customer service people or database managers, but they care about so much more than what they do. Any topic is fair game.
As an example… On my way out of the office one day, the mastermind behind the database infrastructure of a Agora’s Web family gave me an inspired painting that he had done. It is a treasure, a scene from a graveyard in France in which a 500-year-old statute is brought to life amid spring blooms.
Another example… A book author was talking about how she anticipated with fear and joy an open performance she would attend the following night. The opera is Charles Gounod’s Faust, and she is right: scarier than any modern movie.
A cover designer was looking for inspiration. It was provided by a payment systems operator who knew the book in question very well. He pounded out a great paragraph explanation for the designer while I was still thinking about the question. The result was genius.
I wish I could write a personal tribute to each one. They’ve all made contributions to making this dream come true.
The place can be quiet and solemn one minute, and then, just as quickly, become a place of frenzied fun and wild laughter. Employees work to the point of exhaustion, all in the service of the customer, but somehow never seem exhausted. At the end of the day before launch, I was slumping over a desk, holding my head up with my hands, feeling as if the last ounce of energy had been drained from me. I picked myself up and went out into a large room on the second floor where the copywriters and editors work. They had all been through what I had been through. But there were no long faces. They were still brimming with energy and excitement about what was coming. They were smiling and joking. Instantly, I felt a change come over me. The inspiration came back, as did the energy.
In any office like this, in which everyone cares so intensely about the results, there will be arguments, and even explosions and strong words. Everyone is used to differences of opinion, passionately expressed. They are allowed. No one holds back, even in a manner that disregards the company hierarchy. There is nothing phony about the culture here. If you are going to explode, bring it on.
But what is truly wonderful is that even the most-tense moments, even following sharp exchanges and argument, normalcy and collegiality returns with ease. At one point before launch, things were getting pretty tense in the conference room. Suddenly, the head of media affairs showed up with a box of “Agora Financial stress balls” and dumped the whole contents on our heads. Balls were bouncing everywhere. The whole place broke up in laughter.
These moments pass quickly. There is no grudge. We all want the same thing. We are on the same team. Each day is new. Each hour is a chance to do something great.
Reflecting on how this could be, and why this culture of honesty, innovation and collegiality is so sadly lacking in other sectors of life, it finally hit me. The gaze of this institution is always outward and upward, toward the North Star of the commercial marketplace: the consumer. At Agora Financial, he even has a name: Bob. Bob is the archetype of the person we serve. He is smart, searching, inquisitive and hoping for a better life through better ideas.
Well, Bob has a new home. A happy home of ideas and friendship. We made it for him. We are developing it every day. We invite him in so that we can serve him generously and for as long as he finds benefit in what we do. Bob might be you. Join us and see.