Learn Liberty

Category Archive: History

  1. How They Beat the Oregon Trail IRL

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    How did more than 300,000 people avoid bloodshed and chaos when they crossed the American plains between 1840 and 1860? Trappers used to say there was no law west of Leavenworth, Kansas.

    No one established a government to rule the wagon trains — it’s true. But they governed themselves instead. They signed contracts that worked like voluntary constitutions. The contracts anticipated disputes among the various groups of travelers and laid out how to resolve them.

    Imagine the red tape if the government had gone with the settlers. Marvel at the ability of people to innovate rules and order in a most unlikely setting. That’s what Hill advises. Tune in to hear more.

  2. Why Does 1% of History Have 99% of the Wealth?

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    For nearly all of human history, most people were very, very poor. But something happened after 1800. Average wages began to rise. For example, in the past 200 years, the average wage in the United States has gone from $3.00 per day to over $120.00 per day—and that’s adjusted for inflation.  Why the sudden change? Prof. Deirdre McCloskey explains her theory.

    Some argue that it is exploitation. Perhaps the wealthy are accumulating more at the cost of the poor. The problem with this argument is that exploitation has been occurring in the world throughout history, but it never caused economic growth of the kind we’ve seen after 1800. Others argue that the key was investment. But Prof. McCloskey says that’s wrong too. Instead, she says this incredible amount of economic growth has been brought about by new ideas & innovation.

    That still leaves the question of why innovation didn’t cause great growth prior to the 1800s. Prof. McCloskey argues that two changes in Holland and England gave rise to the incredible burst of innovation we saw: first, an increase in economic liberty for trade and commerce, and second, the possibility of social honor for inventors, merchants, and manufacturers. These professions had previously been considered dishonorable. These changes resulted in the tremendous burst of innovation that had earlier been discouraged because innovators weren’t free and they weren’t honored.

  3. Is Katniss a Modern-Day Spartacus?

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    Literature and legend often reflect their culture. Some themes, like that of rulers imposing coercive power, or of individuals rising up against tyrants, are as relevant today as they were in antiquity. Suzanne Collins drew on Greek mythology’s story of the Minotaur and on the legend of Spartacus in ancient Rome as she created the Hunger Games series. Her hero, like the heroes in these stories, does not seek her own power or profit but is standing up against a violent and tyrannical government. “People everywhere yearn for the freedom to pursue their own goals and dreams,” says Prof. Amy Sturgis. Even though the themes are ancient, stories like the Hunger Games resonate with readers because the anxieties and fears they portray are real and relevant. “These stories aren’t just entertainment,” Sturgis says. “They are reflections of who and what we are.” Do the themes in these stories resonate with you? Why?

  4. When Capitalism Fails (Why Won’t Anyone Think Of The Children?)

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    The question of how to address poverty in the United States is complicated. Steven Horwitz, chair of the department of economics at St. Lawrence University, and Jeffrey Reiman, professor of philosophy and religion at American University, debate the level of government assistance that should be given to help the poor.

    In this clip, professors Horwitz and Reiman discuss how children who are poor can best be helped. While adult poverty may, in many cases, be due to some fault of the adult, should children have to suffer their parents’ mistakes? Both argue in favor of improvements in the education system, especially in creating more choice. While Prof. Horwitz suggests this can be done outside of government, Prof. Reiman argues that government will still have to be involved, even if only to create the vouchers.

    Prof. Reiman also turns the question on its head, suggesting that perhaps the children of successful parents should not benefit from the parents’ success any more than children of poor parents should not be punished for their parents’ failings. Should all children start out on an equal footing, financially as well as educationally? What should be done to improve education opportunities for the poor? Is the government the best provider of education? What are your thoughts?

  5. This Prof. will Challenge your Perspective on Free Speech

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    Everybody loves free speech, right? It’s in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But Prof. Deirdre McCloskey complicates the picture of free speech by associating it with the Greek word for persuasion: rhetoric. Free speech and advertising go hand in hand. Advertisements and rhetoric both have a negative connotation, but they are essential to the functioning of a free society. The only alternative to persuasion by speech is persuasion by violence. Clearly speech is a safer and superior alternative. And perhaps advertising plays a helpful role in society. What better way is there to make decisions about what to buy or what to believe except by people trying to charm us? What do you think about the role of advertising in a free society? Should advertising fall under the first amendment protections? How do you like to be persuaded about things?

  6. Why Are So Many Violent Criminals Walking Free?

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    In 2011, fewer than half of all violent crimes found any resolution. An alarming 59 percent of rape cases and 36.2 percent of murders in the United States are never solved. Why are so many violent criminals walking free? Prof. Alex Kreit suggests that perhaps U.S. police forces have their priorities out of order.

    We would save $41.3 billion every year by ending the war on drugs. Prof. Kreit argues that those resources could be better used trying to solve violent crimes and prosecute criminals who leave victims in their wake. Millions of people who are under correctional supervision in the United States never restrained, assaulted, killed, or abused another person but are in prison for simple possession of a drug. Despite all of the money and time spent, it has never been easier to buy drugs.

    Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs for personal use 12 years ago, offers an alternative that is working. Drug use in Portugal has dropped, along with other measures, like the number of drug-related HIV cases and drug use among children. We should be directing more resources to investigating murders and rapes—not drug use. Whatever your stance on the legal status of drugs, shouldn’t we make a guarantee to help victims first? Prof. Kreit asks, “Who are the real victims of the government’s war on drugs?”

  7. What Surfing Can Teach You about Ownership

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    To understand ownership, it helps to understand something about surfing. Surfers employ a system of ownership over waves so that everyone gets a turn. Prof. Dan Russell describes a scenario in which three friends are surfing but none wants to be selfish. As a result, the good waves pass by and no one has a good time. If they had prescribed a system of ownership instead, they would all have their turn to the waves. Among people who are not friends, a lack of ownership often leads to pushing and shoving. People who want peace need to instead determine whose wave is whose—or who owns property.

    Although many people conflate ownership with selfishness, this is not accurate. Ownership plays an important role in a functional society for several reasons:

    -          Ownership allows for more creativity and enables us to do the things we want to do.

    -          Ownership puts a check on selfishness and greed because it gives the owner the right to say no. This also makes conservation possible.

    -          Ownership fosters greater civility and fairness. Respecting ownership is a way to respect each other, and when ownership isn’t protected, the most vulnerable people usually suffer most for it. As Prof. Russell says, “If we care about fairness for everyone, we have to care about ownership.”

  8. Freedom Requires Whistleblowers: The Importance of Transparency

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    Are you concerned about the activities government agencies are engaging in? Does it bother you to think the government is spying on you? If not, what reason do you have to be complacent? Professor James Otteson says we may feel secure today because we know we haven’t done anything wrong. But this is short-sighted.

    The powers we give to the people in office today will transfer to the people who are elected tomorrow. Maybe you trust, support, or voted for the current president. But what if the next president were someone you couldn’t agree with? Would you still want that leader to have the same powers?

    The government should have to get permission from citizens for everything it does, not the other way around. The government must be accountable to citizens, transparent, and unable to act in ways the citizenry would not condone. This is why we need whistleblowers. We need people to take a stand and point out when the government in not acting in the people’s interest. We need the government to answer to us.

  9. No Means No: The NSA, Edward Snowden, and Privacy

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    When Edward Snowden revealed to the world that the National Security Agency (NSA) and other agencies were looking into the lives of every American, many people were shocked. While claiming to protect us from crime and terrorism, says Professor James Otteson, the government has been recording every digital transmission we make. They are keeping a record of every email, tweet, phone call, Facebook post, and online purchase. Things we may have thought were private are not safe from the government’s watch.

    Should we be alarmed? Some say they don’t care that the government is spying on them because they haven’t done anything illegal. Prof. Otteson disagrees. He says the reason we should worry about these invasions of privacy is because they rob us of the right to say no. When we are able to say no—when a slave can say no to the slave-holder or a serf can say no to a lord, or a child can say no to a bully–we establish a boundary of freedom. This is why privacy is important.

    Have you thought much about how you value your privacy from the government? Did Snowden’s revelation cause you to think differently about what the government is doing? Is privacy a bigger priority for you today than it was before Snowden’s revelation? Why or why not?

  10. A Professor’s Argument for Same-Sex Marriage

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    Should same-sex couples be permitted to marry? Are civil unions or domestic partnerships sufficient? What kind of effect does same-sex marriage have on heterosexual marriage? Do the children of same-sex couples face undue challenges because of their parents?

    These questions have all been raised in the ongoing debate about gay marriage. Professor Dale Carpenter makes a compelling argument in favor of same-sex marriage from a philosophical, rights-based perspective while presenting data to answer these questions and others.

    Marriage imposes obligations and confers rights on a couple. It does this from a legal standpoint, but even more in the sense of social expectations. Every person has a fundamental right to marry, says Prof. Carpenter. And marriage is good for families and for society—whether a couple is straight or homosexual.

  11. Capitalism Is NOT Imperialism

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    Many people believe capitalism and imperialism are the same thing, or at least closely related. Professor Stephen Davies explains that this is not the case. While capitalism is based on voluntary exchange that benefits all parties involved, imperialism is based on exploitation and the exercise of political power, generally backed by a military force.

    We can see that capitalism and imperialism differ by looking at the history of empires in the world and examining trade patterns. Empires have existed for the whole of human history, long before the development of capitalism. Imperialism has led to the impoverishment of people and bears the blame for terrible famines, especially during the Victorian period in India. Under capitalism, we would expect to see global free trade between many countries, not just from world powers to less-developed countries, but also between less-developed countries. This does not happen under imperialism.

    While capitalism and imperialism have been closely linked in the minds of many, the truth is that the two systems are at odds with one another. Where one system flourishes, the other cannot. Many negative things, such as political corruption, the exploitation of the poor, and mass famines, have been blamed on capitalism, but that blame is misplaced. Real capitalism should work to improve circumstances for the poor by voluntary exchange, but imperialism hurts the poor by political or military domination that enables countries or government-backed businesses to profit at others’ expense.