Puritanism and How H.L. Mencken Got It Partially Wrong

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The great American writer dubbed the Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, was not completely accurate in his famous definition of puritanism.  

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, maybe happy.”

Mencken’s observation is correct. There is an aspect of puritanical posturing that does take perverse pleasure in denying happiness to others. He is only identifying a symptom of the disease. Puritanism extends deeper than the passive-aggressive jealousy of the bitter and homely spinster or the staid minster.  There is a deeper pedagogy entrenched in the panoply of behaviors and norms encompassing Puritanism. Less obvious implications of puritanism are only apparent to those who have grown up in New England. Even the era of the pilgrim has withered away with the sands of time,  Puritanism has never left Massachusetts. Only the behaviors considered morally criminal and the means of enforcement have changed. The Pillories of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are now figurative. Public derision is now expressed on cyberspace in the comment section of the local paper’s arrest log.

Mencken misses the mark on Puritanism by overlooking is its focus on “education”. Education in New England has historically manifested itself in many forms.  Ranging from the derisive finger-wagging of a  neighbor, the lectures of the schoolhouse, and even rapturous sermons being shouted from the pulpit. The eye of judgment has always been pervasive throughout the region. Education has always been tacitly viewed as served a “civilizing” function. Like a missionary imposing his beliefs and customs on tribal society. The assumption that most sinful transgression is the byproduct of ignorance rather than wickedness. Once the empty-headed fool has been properly informed, they will conform to the norms of adequate deportment. A corollary of the progressive concept of the perfectibility of man.  This lofty goal cannot possibly be attained, but that does not mean quixotic do-gooders will not try. The overarching assumption being that each step forward is unquestionably an improvement. Moving upward towards the next graduation of progress cleanses us of our past sins resulting from our ignorance. Implying that education has a purifying effect that brings us closer to what ought to be. Such idealism runs astray of the fallibility and true nature of humans.

The idea of salvation through social, academic, and theological education shares common ground with statutes that enforce victimless crimes. Both are designed to save people from themselves. This attribute better describes the defining features of puritanism. Many of the “blue laws” still on the books in New England do little to promote the vague notion of “public interest”. Serve as nothing more than a safety net insulating people from making “bad decisions”. The element of choice even to make an imprudent decision is an immutable attribute of a free society. Even in the name of safety and securing the ignorant the practice of enforcing victimless crimes is questionable at best. Some pragmatists may cite the potential of externalities being justification for upholding laws that prohibit victimless crimes.  Spillover effects are never guaranteed. Anticipating the adverse consequences of gambling, adultery, and prostitution is merely speculation. Similar crimes are not going to disappear just because there are criminal penalties for engaging in these behaviors. To pretend that an omnipotent legislator can save people from themselves is at best foolish. For most crimes where the state is the victim, the statute can be regarded as a government-imposed safety net.  A parameter was established to protect people from their unfortunate proclivities.  The human affinity for intoxication, games of chance, and promiscuity will not cease because the law deems it punishable. The illusion that laws prohibiting vice protect people from harming themselves and others are grossly out of touch with reality. The greatest examples of the inherent shortcomings of Puritanism must be the abject failures of the War on Drugs and Alcohol prohibition. Both flawed social experiments served only to further erode the civil liberties of the American people.

Laws regulating intoxicants, sexual activities, traffic safety laws, etc. may act to save people from the perils of dangerous behavior, what does education save the ignorant from? In most cases, being ignorant of arithmetic or history will not present an immediate and overt danger. Nevertheless, New England led the charge on proliferating public education and the nation’s first compulsory education laws. A clear crusade to protect the general public from their lack of knowledge and understanding. From the perspective of the progressive white knight, levitating people morally and intellectually is an ethical quest that is above reproach. Educating the populous hypothetically creates informed voters. A point that Mencken himself was extremely skeptical of.  Despite the increase in minimum mandatory education requirements over the years, the general public has become less enlightened. Distracted by an endless array of entertainment options, no one possesses the attention span to delve into the intricacies of complex political issues. Validating the observations of H.L. Mencken back in the 1930s. Considering how people have become profoundly more ignorant over the years, he must be rolling over in his grave. Yet, the proponents of public education still crusade to fight this uphill battle. Whether their convictions are rooted in a hopelessly naïve optimism or personal gain is difficult to ascertain.

Over the decades, Puritanism has merged with political progressivism forming a secular cadre of moral crusaders. Shifting from saving the average person from evils of the excesses of inebriation and fornication to more abstract transgressions. Some of these initiatives have been integrated into formal education. The lofty campaigns centered around fair-trade produce, inclusion, and diversity, and aggressive attempt viciously stomp out prejudice.  Once again, saving people from the excesses of what is deemed ignorant. If you do not purchase ethically sourced coffee you are complicit in the exploitation of third-world coffee farmers. The education efforts have evolved beyond merely inform the ignorant. Now also encourage the newly initiated to proselytize to their ill-informed peers. Operating with the evangelical zeal of door-to-door Bible salesman. Each new person that you have properly informed has been saved from the darkness of their ignorant ways. Leading bands of crusaders to even police language, placing the First Amendment in their crosshairs. Placing so much strain on the language we use, humor is starting to become joyless. Hollowed out by the sanctimonious finger-wagging of droves of woke-social justice warriors.

Success By Default is Not Truly Success

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In terms of formulating effective rules, one needs to have a panoramic understanding of the potential consequences. Even the downstream outcomes are not easily foreseen. Providing some validation of F.A. Hayek’s notion of the Pretense of Knowledge. No one person, organization, or collection of governing institutions has all of the information required to plan for every scenario. Making it foolhardy to enact inflexible rules that operate as if the definite outcomes can be methodically calculated. Treading down the path of the socialist calculation debate is fruitless as the refutations on both sides of the aisle have already been exhausted. The fall of the Soviet Union alone should serve as a historical anecdote of the fallacy of planned economies.

It should be noted that information asymmetries and unforeseeable outcomes are a natural consequence of having limited information. Explaining phenomena such as cobra effects, because certain repercussions cannot be known until it is too late. These distorted outcomes as the result of flawed rules can happen on a much smaller scale than that of the national economy or a country’s legal system. Something as mundane as a birthdate cutoff to participate in youth hockey can spur some surprise inequities in the trajectory of young hockey players. This example springing from the pages of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers gives us some keen insights into the potential for implicit flaws in rule formulation. Gladwell details the observations of psychologist Roger Barnsley (p.22-23) upon perusing the program of the Canadian national youth hockey championship. Barnsley noticed that the majority of the players had birthdays ranging between January and March. Is it possible that there is a certain qualitative factor distinguishing children with birthdays earlier on in the year? If we examine the zodiac symbols of those born in January and February there are characteristics that are conducive to success. However, there is little scientific merit to astrology anyhow. Barnsley had another explanation for this discrepancy between Canadian Hockey players born in January versus July. 

Barnsley astutely directs us towards the factor of birthday cutoffs for eligibility to play youth hockey in Canada. This fact was substantiated when Barnsley discovered that roughly 40 percent of all elite hockey players were born between January-March, 30 percent between April-June (p.23) Demonstrating the role of the individual player’s birthday in determining success. Having a January first cutoff, privileged prospective players born in the earlier months of the year (p.24). The main difference being that the boys born in earlier months were more physically mature. In turn, received more attention from the coaches lending this dynamic to an early delineation between talented and untalented players (p.25). Due to the difference in age eligibility cutoffs in American youth football and basketball leagues, they did not exhibit the same distortions in the distribution of talent (p.26). Engendering a Matthew Effect or what is otherwise known as an accumulative advantage. Adam Smith even points to the concept of accumulative advantage in The Wealth of NationsExplaining how in a sense the poor pay the price for the poor decisions of their forefathers. 

Many proponents of meritocratic social arrangements may scoff at the idea of making rules that are fair. However, if the rules are providing a lopsided advantage to one group, are the results truly the result of superior performance or the distortion created by the rules? Few would ever view the occurrence of instances of regulatory capture or rent-seeking as a triumph of free-market competition. Rather just the opposite, it is an example of interest groups bending the rules to suit their own needs. Careful consideration needs to be made in how we set and enforce rules to avoid distorted effects that handsomely benefit a few and harm a great many. Gladwell succinctly sums up this point very eloquently: 

“Because we cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all group up and then we choose to write society don’t matter at all.” (p.33)

While variables such as luck, talent, ingenuity, and hard work can all have a role in success, we cannot forget that how the rules are written can also have an inseparable impact on outcomes. Even rules that are inadvertently written in a manner to favor one group over another without consideration of merit is a flawed rule. Marred by an unforeseeable blind spot that nevertheless has generated distorted outcomes. These outcomes are not truly the byproduct of talent or work ethic but by technicalities that create illusory perceptions of actual skill. 

Romeo and Juliet – A Story About Wanting What We Can’t Have

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After watching the documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth V. Michelle Carter I came to a fairly superficial conclusion. I initially chose to watch this HBO mini-series for potential legal analysis. I plan to address those concerns in a later blog entry. Oddly, from a legal standpoint, this case is quite interesting. There wasn’t any previous case precedence in Massachusetts state history. Making this case one that explores uncharted waters.  However, my observations are not about the legal facts of the case.

Conrad Roy III and Michelle Carter were two Massachusetts teens who had a highly toxic and co-dependent relationship. Both suffering from various forms of mental illness. Carter lived in a quasi-fantasyland. Blurring the line between romantic comedies and dramas with her relationship with Roy. Drawing parallels between their relationship and the ebbs-and-flows of numerous works of fiction. Even drifting down the perverse road of suicidal ideation. Hence, here aggressive attempts to coax Roy into killing himself. Carter almost took glee in the concept of the attention she would receive in the climatic event that Roy or Roy and herself had committed suicide. Her vision of being showered in attention was almost like a linear plot twist in play. The act of Roy killing himself was the divine Deus ex Machina to free him from the deepest depth of depression. Having the potential to satisfy the psychological pathology of both teens.

In one text message string, Carter details the romanticized depiction of the climatic end of Shakespeare’s Rome and Juliet. As we all, know both of the star-crossed teens end up dying in the end. Lying dead, right next to one another in the ultimate display of catharsis. Demonstrating to the quarreling families how petty their disputes truly were. It would be quite likely Carter saw some highly embellished similarities between the protagonists of the play and her relationship. Upon the documentary reviewing this string of text messages, my mind began to wander. I started to realize that the story of Romeo and Juliet if we strip all the emotional entrapment of romance is nothing more than an extended narrative detailing the Forbidden Fruit Effect. This phenomenon is also known as the Paradox of Temptation. Essentially, we desire what we cannot have.

This has economized instances of prohibited commodities. This principle is not confined merely to the illicit drug trade. During the cigar boom of the late-1990s and early 2000s, the U.S. demand for Cuban cigars skyrocket. To the extent that there was a major slump in quality. The one centralized tobacco producer for Cuba had to resort to using green tobacco and inferior quality control procedures to keep up with demand. It should be noted that the United States has had a trade embargo with Cuban since 1962. It’s hard to believe that much of the mystique of Cuban cigars to Americans isn’t influenced by them is a restricted product. We have seen a similar phenomenon with the legalization of recreational marijuana. What has been referred to as the “Green Rush”. A surge of sales for a product that has been legal and demonized in America for decades, that is now finally legal. To the naïve Cannabis user, the mystery behind its pharmacologic effects is enough of a draw to purchase Marijuana-related products. Would this romanticized image exist to the same capacity if Marijuana use was as ubiquitous as drinking beer? Most likely not. Most of the buzz and hype is levitating around pot because we have treated it as an unholy and deplorable vice for so long. Has only recently become fashionable (in the mainstream sense).

The story of Romeo and Juliet is if reduced to its most base level, a story about wanting what you can’t have. Due to the fact we steeped the narrative in a cloak of riveting romanticism, we forget that this isn’t purely a love store. Would Juliet be as appealing to Romeo if she was a member of a rival family? Couldn’t the same be said for Romeo? Granted, most of these pointed questions are a mix of a priori reasoning and loose conjecture. However, considering the flaws of human nature and the unfortunate fact we are attracted to what we can’t have. Analogous to a moth witlessly fly towards a flame. This seems to be an enduring characteristic of the human condition. Doesn’t matter whether it is two lustful teenagers in the Shakespearean-era or a 1920s Flapper enjoying an illicit gin-and-tonic. We want what we can’t have. Getting beyond the compelling drama of the vibrant and rebellious love affair between two teens, what are we left with? An engaging allegory fixated on desire. The drawbacks of pursuing everything we desire to possess.

Bootleggers and Baptists: Part XI: Workplace Diversity

Diversity awareness programs on their surface appear to be noble endeavors designed to provide equal opportunity employment to historically disadvantaged groups.  Over the years, there has been some controversy over the conclusive impact and application of workplace diversity programs. Due to claims of only marginal success in increasing the diversity of the workforce. One major shift has been to couple diversity with “inclusion”, having a diverse workforce is not enough. The company now needs to also provide a welcoming environment.  This is a profoundly difficult task considering the subjective evaluations of what is defined as “welcoming” may vary wildly depending upon the perspective of the individual employee. There is a growing prevalence of what is known as “diversity fatigue”. Many managers and H.R. personnel succumb to the stress of attempting to fulfill lofty and unstandardized goals.  Making the achieving the goals of diversity and inclusion an ever-present uphill battle. Especially with the hyper-dynamic and ever-changing trends in what is deemed as being politically correct by the intellectual upper crust.

The move for diversity for its very sake is not without adverse consequences. Beyond merely making aimless strides towards an arbitrary and idealistic goal. If mismanaged minority employees may feel alienated or there may be an increase in the incidence of conflicts between employees. Two downsides are often not accounted for in the application of diversity programs. Neglecting these variables not only determines the purported objectives of diversity programs but the inevitable flaws of human nature.  The old expression “… you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink…” comes to mind. Prejudice cannot be eradicated by the edict of corporate policy nor by the stroke of a lawmaker’s pen. Freewill and personal perception have a massive role in fostering and maintain prejudice. A naively wide-eyed and idealistic diversity awareness program provided by an employer will not inculcate the virtue of tolerance into their employees. These are conclusions that the individual must independently arrive at deep introspection.

These lofty expectations mirror the Holier-than-thou virtue signally exposited by contemporary Progressives. Modern Progressive has firm ideological roots dating back to the early 20th century. A careful examination of history will lead any thoughtful observer incredulous of the true aims of the diversity movement. Many of the moral objectives of the Progressive Era were nothing more than circuitous means of rent-seeking. Making the whole notion of workplace diversity truly about diversity dubious at best. Few employees ever question how their employer benefits from promoting diversity programs. A business enterprise exists to provide a product or service not to proliferate the virtues of tolerance. What do they stand to gain through attempting to cultivate a culture of hyper-tolerance?

What emerges from this situation is a potential example of  Bootleggers and Baptist coalition.  An internal coalition between the human resources department and upper-management. Typically, the individual representing the moral argument for a diverse workplace is the “Diversity Ambassador”.  A role within the company that carries quite a bit of prestige, yet how this position direct benefits day-to-day operations is questionable at best. Even when employees who are crucial to daily business are laid-off the Diversity Ambassador gets to keep his job.  Although such a role is nothing more than a luxury. This actor is undoubtedly our Baptist due to his incessant persistence in exalting the values of diversity and inclusion. His rhetoric comes just short of mirroring a political propaganda campaign. Boldly asserting that everyone possesses some degree of prejudice or implicit bias. His obtuse repudiations make countering his claims (regardless of the accuracy of his claims)  a futile endeavor. Below details a scenario witnessed by the author that demonstrates the zero-sum nature of the accusatory discourse of the typical Diversity Ambassador:

Diversity Ambassador:

“ I have conducted this exercise for over twenty years and not once has anyone ever mentioned that I was black. I told you all to list the inferences you can make from just looking at me. No one even mentioned the most obvious characteristic of me. I am black. Why is this? None of you have followed my instructions! Why?!

Audience Member (Attempting to answer his question):

“ Because none of us see color.”

Diversity Ambassador:

“ Don’t ever tell a diversity and inclusion coach that you don’t see color!!”

The above conversation between a corporate Diversity Ambassador and an hourly employee exhibits the perverse quiddity of this wanton advocating for diversity. This is not the tone of a man who wants to educate, but rather who wishes to indoctrinate. Pedagogically and condescendingly force-feeding us the moral imperative of admitting our own biases. Versus attempting to foster understanding or attempting to provide us with the genuine precepts for being more tolerant. The man was simply describing our sins without truly prescribing a means of reconciling them. Paralleling the fervor of an Evangelical preacher, we can do no right. We must fully accept that we are in the wrong with no hope of ever being right. Presenting a situation where the participant can only lose. Generating such a compelling moral narrative for the imperative to proselytize the virtue of diversity that it also doubles as an impenetrable smoke-screen that insulates the company from accusations of discrimination.

The Bootleggers in this dynamic are the individuals in upper-management.  There are two main benefits of this variety of moral rent-seeking are deflecting the possibility of having a hostile work environment and social currency for appearing to be forward-looking. Over the years the United States has become quite a litigious society. Considering the increased sensitivity towards various minority groups, the opportunities for discrimination lawsuits have only become expanded. Providing a sizable incentive for those at the helm of the company to avoid any transgressions against their employees that could be viewed as discriminating in nature. By painting the opposite picture, even if this image is illusory, diverts, or weakens claims of discrimination. Not only does promoting diversity and inclusion have monetary incentives, but it also fosters a positive image for the company. It creates the facade of being open, progressive, modern, and may lead to the company to earn accolades for their culture. All of which will benefit the company and make the jobs of the CEO, CFO, etc. more secure. The reputation of the company for inclusive will attract talented young professionals that will only add value to the organization. One only needs to look at the example of Google to see how company image matters when it comes to acquiring skilled employees. Work culture almost operates as a form of non-monetary compensation. It is another variable that may sway top-notch young professionals towards one company versus another. Merely operating to the benefit of those in the top-tiers of management.

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Substance over Style

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Just a random thought. As I have gotten older I have begun to realize how you arrive at your answer is more important than what your answer is.

Anyone can get lucky with incidentally contriving a profound insight. However, your method of arriving at such a conclusion cannot be the byproduct of chance.

Rather, it would be the byproduct of sounding thinking. Replicating the feat will eliminate the potential it was a happenstance fluke.

Bootleggers & Baptists VIII: Can The Bootlegger and The Baptist Be The Same Person: A Drive-Thru Revelation

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This morning I felt particularly stir crazy from being cooped up in the house, so I decided to go to pick up some coffee. When I finally reached the drive-thru window, I was met by one of the employees. He began to detail to me how several local restaurants had employees who had contracted COVID-19. Even blatantly pointing out the window to the adjacent establishment. Claiming that the franchisee owner was going so far to cover it up to prevent a loss in business.  Naturally, I was initially shocked by this individual’s candor. However, he made one fatal error which led me to start questioning the integrity of his accusations. He revealed the fact that he was a former employee of the adjacent building.  Informing me that he knew both the owner and the manager well. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why this individual would have the incentives to levy such claims against the other business. For anyone out there that has been fired or layoff, you aren’t going to have too many kind words for the former employer that released you.

 

The employee I was conversing with stated he obtained this information from speaking with the present manager of the neighboring eatery. As implausible it may seem for the manager to disclose such information to an employee of a competitor will have to be dispensed with. It degenerates into nothing more than he said/ she said scenario. There isn’t enough evidence on either side to make a definite claim. So I will be charitable and give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that his statement about the other establishment was true. There may have been multiple motives for him informing me of this development in the local culinary scene. He may have felt some unbridled compulsion to inform of the potential hazard of dining at the other restaurant.  He may have had personal moral code that would not allow him to withhold such information from innocent parties. Such as adhering to Kantian morality or having strong religious beliefs. Perhaps he is an admirer of George Washington. The conviction to want to shield innocent parties from exposure to COVID-19 is certainly a laudable objective. I would perceive this as the behavior of a Baptist.

 

Assuming the information was true and he possesses pure intentions for proliferating this news, he can be considered a Baptist. However, it is also possible for him to simultaneously be the Bootlegger as well? I would argue yes. As individuals, we can have multiple motives for engaging in an action. It isn’t outlandish to assume that he had subordinate motives for detailing to me that the neighboring establishment’s staff had tested positive for COVID-19. How does he benefit from disclosing knowledge to me? What are his incentives for doing so?

 

There are two potential self-seeking motives for his actions. The first reason would be attempting to enact vengeance on a former employer. Doing so by creating a rumor that damages their credibility in the community.  If the purported facts are completely fictitious the Bootleggers and Baptists dynamic dissolves. Any pure intention is no longer present. The second reason for his shocking candor that sways into the territory of defamation would be increased job security. The pandemic has likely chewed into the profits of his current employer. To avoid getting laid off for budgetary reasons, he is attempting to divert business to his restaurant. Done out of self-interest and exhibiting behavior that is in line with that of a bootlegger.

 

Bruce Yandle’s concept of Bootleggers and Baptists was intended to demonstrate how unlikely coalitions are formed in the political arena. Considering we as humans can have multiple reasons for advocating for a policy or engaging in various forms of rent-seeking, it is possible for an act to severe in both roles. Providing they are being honest about their moralistic motives, but also stand to benefit from their attempt to influence public opinion.  For instance, I could advocate for a ban on smoking in public parks. Truly feel that I am attempting to save others from the health effects of secondhand smoke. At the same time also be advocating for a smoking ban because I dislike cigarette smoke.  The roles of Bootleggers and Baptists are not always mutually exclusive.

 

It is analogous to the ID and Superego allying. Both are satisfied with the cause and both are the deep-rooted psychoanalytical manifestations of the Baptists and the Bootlegger. When an individual strikes a balance between their hyper-moralistic inclinations and darker impulses they can assume both roles. When avarice and morality align themselves in the intentions of one person this phenomenon becomes possible. Yes, this application of Yandle’s trope does exercise a bit of artistic license. However, Yandle never said that individuals couldn’t form coalitions within themselves.  Doing so by combining various rationals for advocacy and then vocalizing them. Typically under the guise of concern for the moral imperative of the situation.