Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Freedomain Radio - The Free Will Series

My new three-part series on free will versus determinism...

The Supercharged Stock Market: An Object Lesson in the Perils of Coercion

A central reason for the instability of the stock market is the hundreds of billions of dollars being forced into it by endless government programs.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Libertarians and Taxation: To Pay or Not to Pay?

As libertarians, the question of participation in a statist society can be a great challenge. How can we claim to be resolutely anti-state, anti-war and anti-violence while at the same time driving on public roads, consuming public services, and paying the very taxes that make the coercive power of the state possible?

If we are anti-state, is it moral hypocrisy to send our children to state schools? If we are against the redistribution of wealth in society, is it two-faced to accept government loans or grants in order to attend university? If we are against the monopolistic power of unions, does it violate our integrity to pursue and accept tenured professorships?

If we create a spectrum in order to frame this question, it would start with two extremes at either end. At one end is the proposition that it is impossible to morally participate to any degree in a society ruled by a government. We may call this the “Walden” position, in so far as it generally requires fleeing to the woods, building our own shelter and subsisting on nuts, berries and bitterness. However, by taking this position, we are certainly not surrendering any resources to the state.

At the other extremity is a total disconnect between values and actions – the “Rambo” position. At this end, it is considered morally virtuous for a libertarian to join the army and take up arms against the “foes” of the state – in other words, to morally oppose statist violence while being paid to lavishly enact it.

Coercion and Moral Responsibility

Few ethicists would argue that coercion has no effect on moral responsibility. If you force me at gunpoint to jump off a cliff, my resulting death could scarcely be termed a “suicide.” If the threat of violence had no effect on moral responsibility, there could be no such crimes as rape, theft and murder, because there would be no difference between voluntarism and coercion. If we do not accept that violence changes the moral nature of an interaction, then “theft” becomes indistinguishable from “donation,” just as “rape” becomes a redundant synonym for “lovemaking.”

Using this distinction, we can reasonably say that a man who is drafted into an Army has a different moral status than a man who volunteers.

However, the judgements involved in these moral situations can be highly complex. The man who is drafted into an Army does have the option of taking the “Walden” exit (AKA the “Canadian” option), and simply disappearing from society rather than be forced to fight and kill for the state.

On the other hand, a man who voluntarily joins an Army may have been told from infancy onwards that the life of a soldier is heroic, noble, brave etc. It is hard to imagine that the basic reality of military service – the willingness to use violence on the whim of politicians – would ever have been clearly explained to him. He genuinely believes that he is serving his fellow citizens, not joining a costumed gang of guns-for-hire. Even the source of his pay check is probably unclear to him – he imagines that he is protecting his fellow citizens, without grasping that they must pay for his upkeep through their taxes, or be shot.

The question of ethics in the absence of knowledge is highly complex. We would scarcely call a medieval doctor a poor physician if he failed to prescribe antibiotics, since they had not been invented yet. “Morality” is a form of technology, like navigation – it is harder to blame a man without a compass for getting lost, since he lacks an essential tool for staying on the right path. Similarly, it is hard to call a man “evil” when, for his entire life, vices have been portrayed as virtues. If I teach my children that chocolate is good for them, and that vegetables and exercise are bad, they cannot be held solely responsible for their resulting ill health.

Children – particularly those in public schools – are told over and over about the nobility, courage and heroism of the military. Movies, books and popular culture generally reinforce this propaganda, as do the endless streams of yellow ribbons adorning cars. Does the average child have the capacity to clamber out of this bottomless well of statist propaganda? It is unjust to expect him to reinvent the entire science of ethics from the ground up – opposing endless cultural norms – and thus it would be unjust to assign him sole responsibility for signing up.

On the other hand, there can be no ethical progress if no one is ever held accountable for errors. To take the example of antibiotics again, when there is no such thing as antibiotics, a doctor cannot be condemned for failing to prescribe them. When a doctor first hears of antibiotics, he should not start handing them out like candy, until more information became available about their long-term efficacies and risks. However, at some point along the “adoption curve,” a doctor does become negligent if he fails to prescribe antibiotics.

In essence, libertarians are cutting-edge ethicists striving to redefine the concept of morality. We are researchers at the radical edge of moral understanding, and our central goal must be to bring our new knowledge to bear against the historical and irrational prejudices of existing moral illusions.

We are like doctors in the midst of a terrible plague, who have discovered that the plague is transmitted through drinking water. However, the common medical wisdom is that the plague is prevented or cured by drinking more and more water – the very action that exacerbates the spread of the disease.

Most people, of course, listen to the vast majority of the doctors and drink like fishes in the hopes of preventing or curing their disease. In the same way, libertarians know that state violence and fraud creates great evil, corrupts society and destabilizes the economy – but the solution put forward by most experts is to use more violence and fraud to combat these evils.

As doctors in a plague who know the true cure, what are our real options?

We can vanish from society, of course, taking our wisdom with us and living out our lives in a Thoreauian wilderness. This solution will doubtless reduce our frustration – and create a fruitless kind of integrity –but it will also leave millions of people in great suffering since, if all the truth-tellers vanish, liars alone inherit the earth.

On the other hand, we could speak out against drinking impure water, but still drink copious amounts of it ourselves. This level of hypocrisy would scarcely serve our cause, since it would be highly evident that we were acting in total opposition to our prescription.

The most fruitful action, it would seem, must lie somewhere in between the “Walden” and “Rambo” positions. Fleeing society abandons the world to liars, cheats and murderers. Fully immersing ourselves in a system we know is evil undermines our credibility to the point where virtue becomes indistinguishable from hypocrisy.

If the water is impure, but we must drink it to live in society, then the most sensible course – if we wish to help our fellow men – must be to drink as little of it as possible, and convince people of the value of that course by making our case – and displaying our health – at every opportunity.

To bring the metaphor back to earth, we cannot live in society without paying taxes, consuming government services, and contributing financially to actions we know are evil. You cannot even read this article without using data protocols first developed by governments, and funded through coercion.

Since anyone reading this article must by definition have accepted some level of interaction with coercion, the question thus becomes not “should we pay our taxes?” but rather “to what degree should we participate in statism?”

Participation and Sanction

First of all, we must understand that participation is not sanction. Dragging an atheist to church does not make him religious. Locking a man in your basement does not make him a houseguest. Paying protection money to the Mafia does not make you a cheerleader for organized crime.

Secondly, ideas are judged by logic and evidence, not by the perfect consistency of those who hold them. The fact that Hitler did not believe in leprechauns does not make the existence of leprechauns any more likely. A fat man may be a perfectly valid source of effective diet tips. All too often, libertarians are attacked as hypocrites for any form of participation in a statist society. Yes, we use the roads. Yes, we use the Internet. Yes – some of us even use libraries, teach in public schools and take out student loans. That has zero bearing on the validity of the nonaggression principle as a moral standard. A kleptomaniac is perfectly capable of advancing a flawless theory of property rights, just as a lung doctor can smoke.

Furthermore, if hypocrisy is to be the standard by which moral arguments are judged, who is more hypocritical – the libertarian who is forced to participate in statism, or the statist who advocates the use of government violence to resolve disputes, but debates without pulling out a gun?

Reasonable Limits

This is not to say, however, that all forms of statist participation are equally valid. The fact that no water can ever be perfectly pure does not mean that we should throw up our hands and drink nothing but seawater.

Twenty years ago, I considered taking student loans and grants to go to university. The way I framed the problem was thus: if a man steals my bicycle, then leaves it standing somewhere, I am perfectly entitled to “take” it back. If my employer unjustly withholds my salary, I am perfectly entitled to take a quantity of goods from him equivalent to the salary he owes me.

Imagine that a local Mafia Don extorts money from you for years. One day, he falls asleep on a bench, with a large bag of cash by his side. If you happen along and find him in this position, is it theft if you grab “his” money? What if, over the years, you really have no idea exactly how much money has been extorted from you? What if you know that the amount of money in the bag is far less than what has been stolen from you? Certainly you would be perfectly justified in grabbing everything – especially since you know you will be paying extortion money for the rest of your life.

This is analogous to the situation that we find ourselves in with governments. I have paid an extraordinary amount of taxation over the course of my life – particularly since I have been an entrepreneur, and co-founded a company which paid millions of dollars to the state. The amount of money I received for university tuition through government subsidies was equivalent to the amount I later paid in personal taxes over a few months. (Being kept in the mental gulags of state schools for fourteen years was an even more egregious form of robbery!)

Knowing in advance that I would be stolen from for the rest of my life, was it wrong of me to take some portion of that money for myself in advance? It hardly seems so. In a statist society, taxed money exists in a state of nature, like fish in the sea. It can never be returned to its rightful owners, since those can never be reasonably determined – and of course the national debt blurs it beyond any capacity for unravelling. Morally, what happens to money after it is stolen is far less important than the fact that it should never be stolen in the first place.

The Middle Ground

However, the fact that the Mafia steals your money does not make it OK for you to become a hit man. Since stealing money is wrong, but stealing it back is not, becoming directly involved in the initiation of force is still immoral. Joining the police force or signing up for the military turns you from victim to enforcer, which is quite a different moral category. It is one thing to steal a husk of bread from a concentration camp guard – it is quite another to voluntarily become a guard yourself.

Thus, although participation in a statist society has great value, and keeps the most rational people in the crucial debate about society’s future, joining the ranks of the oppressors is morally indefensible. Like most ethical continuums, there is a small personal aspect to the “right” action, but the moral perils of the extremes are clear.

Stay in society, keep fighting for the truth, but never sell your soul.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Why Does Anybody Get Federal Farm Aid?

An article Wilt Alston and I wrote showing the terrible effects of government 'aid' to farmers...

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Friday, August 17, 2007

The Supercharged Stock Market: An Object Lesson in the Perils Of Coercion

Imagine that a farmer comes to you for advice.

"My chickens keep dying," he complains, "and I have no idea why!"

"What do they die of?" you ask.

"Oh, the usual – diseases spread like wildfire, and they often get crushed to death – or just asphyxiate."

"Asphyxiate?" you reply, rather startled. "How so?"

"Well," says the farmer, "they never seem to be able to get enough air. I think that their lungs must be very weak."

"Where do you keep them?" you ask.

"Oh, in a shed of course. About 10' x 10'."

"And how many chickens are in the shed?"


Your jaw drops. "12,000! How on earth do you get 12,000 chickens in a shed?"

"Oh, at this point, I just jam them down the chimney, but it's really full. Nowadays, I have to use a broom stick."

“What? Who on earth told you to put 12,000 chickens in a little shed?”

The farmer blinks. “Oh, the guy who sells me the chickens, why?”

At this point, it would be fair to say that the mystery was solved. Complex theories about the lung capacity of chickens and the mystery of disease transmission would be quite unnecessary.

This analogy is very useful in helping understand one central reason why modern stock markets tend towards instability.

We all know how the government messes up the stock market through printing money, inflation, hyper-regulation, controlling interest rates, defense spending, deficit financing and so on – but there is another factor at work that is less obvious.

The Causes

As we all know, the stock market is designed to allow companies to raise money by selling shares to individuals. Individuals should ideally only invest in companies that they understand – investing in unknown companies or markets is more appropriately termed "speculation" rather than investment, and is generally indistinguishable from gambling.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with gambling, as long as you risk your own money, and at your own discretion. However, particularly since the Second World War, governments around the world have been increasingly forcing us at gunpoint to put our money into the stock market, much to the delight of money managers, corporate executives, stockbrokers – and politicians.

There are many examples of how we end up being forced to speculate. 401(k) plans only exempt current income from taxation if it ends up being invested – putting the money into your bank account or under your mattress will not save it from the tax man. The amount of money that 401(k) plans have herded into the stock market is truly staggering – rising from $105 billion in 1995 to over $14 trillion in 2005.

Of course, some of that money would have been invested even without 401(k) coercion, but how much? 10%? 20%? Half? Whatever the number, it is far less than what is currently being forced into the stock market through government regulation.

Let's look at some other sources. Hundreds of billions of dollars are currently being invested by unions – particularly in the public sector. The US teachers' union, for example, along with other non-profit groups, has an estimated $607 billion invested through 403(b) accounts. The very existence of these unions would be questionable in a free-market – there is almost no chance that they would end up as investment vehicles for their members' money. At present, however, trillions of dollars of forced union dues in state-protected monopolies are flooding into the stock market.

Let's not forget the surpluses of various government programs as well, such as unemployment insurance and some pension plans. This surplus, which is stripped from you at gunpoint, is also often invested in equities. Various government agencies also directly invest in companies – in Canada, the state agency HRDC recently had to write off over $5 billion in bad investments, out of an annual budget of over $70 billion.

The Effects

Around the world, governments are forcibly injecting trillions of dollars into stock markets. What are the effects of this "supercharging"?

First and foremost, it creates enormous instability in the stock market itself. Too much money ends up chasing too few stocks, creating a subtle shift in the concept of "value."

Ideally, "value" represents an actual and potential demand for goods and services. In a supercharged stock market, however, "value" tends to devolve into "whatever I can sell the stock for," which is a subtle but essential shift in perception. When the assessment of price becomes more based on the demand for a company's stock, rather the market demand for a company's products, a subtle and corrosive corruption enters into the equation.

When too much money sloshes around the stock market, chasing incremental and short-term changes in stock prices, the focus of chief executives begins to change. Rather than building corporate value for the long-term, they end up chasing stock prices in the short term. Since excess money jumps from stock to stock at a moment's notice, the temptation to misrepresent earnings and sales projections – as well as pursue short-term "pump and dump" strategies – becomes far greater. Executives who tell the truth about shortcomings often get punished; those who cover them up are all too often rewarded.

Skilful manipulation of a supercharged stock market thus creates rewards measured in the billions. Since enormous "value" can be rapidly created through the manipulation of perception, executives can become rich in months or years, rather than decades. The long-term value of "good character" thus goes down, while the short-term value of flashy marketing goes up. Executive salaries continue to rise, as the "value" they can provide increases. In 1970, US CEOs were paid28 times more than the average worker. By 2005, this had jumped to 465 times more.

Ambitious executives do not take very long to figure out that they are punished when they tell the truth, and rewarded when they prevaricate. Since "speculation" has largely displaced investment in the stock market, and the constant supply of additional capital is guaranteed through government coercion, an amoral feeding frenzy has taken over.

Naturally, the problems which arise from coercion are inevitably ascribed to voluntarism. State manipulation of the stock market is ignored; the resulting instability is invariably blamed on the free market – thus paving the way for additional (and ridiculous) regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley. Executives can now be sent to jail for a single mistake by a single accountant – but no government executive loses his job over the slaughter in Iraq!

One reason that politicians like this setup so much is that it gives them enormous power over the financial sector, which has become largely dependent on the money that the government "sends" their way. If the government were to abolish 401(k) plans, for instance, and simply refrain from taxing the associated income, the financial services industry – one of many that depends on this violence – would largely collapse. Were we free to make our own investment decisions, the landscape of what is now currently called "stock market" would change almost beyond recognition.

Of course, this is highly unlikely to occur. Governments almost never reform themselves from within; they only change under the threat of fiscal collapse.

In other words, a whole lot more chickens will have to die before the farmer changes his ways.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion - new book

Below, please find the first few pages on my new book: On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion, available at lulu.

From a short-term, merely practical standpoint, you really do not want to read this book. This book will mess up your life, as you know it. This book will change every single one of your relationships – most importantly, your relationship with yourself. This book will change your life even if you never implement a single one of the proposals it contains. This book will change you even if you disagree with every single idea it puts forward. Even if you put it down right now, this book will have changed your life, because now you know that you are afraid of change.

This book is radioactive and painful – it is only incidentally the kind of radiation and pain that will cure you.


There are really only three kinds of relationships in the world. The first kind is the one we all dream of – joyous, mutually beneficial, deep, meaningful, fun, a real pleasure to have and to hold.

This kind of relationship is extraordinarily rare. If this kind of relationship were an animal, it would not even be on the endangered list. It would be by many considered extinct.

The second kind of relationship is mutually beneficial, but not joyous, deep, or meaningful. This is the kind of relationship you have with your grocer, your banker, and perhaps your boss. It is voluntary, defined by an implicit or explicit contract, and can usually be broken or allowed to lapse without guilt, regret or remorse.

This kind of relationship is not uncommon, but also not very important. We do not lose our lives, our happiness or our very souls in the pits of these kinds of relationships. They are, as the saying goes, “dry calculations of mutual utility.” We are not obligated to go to the deathbeds of our bankers; our grocers do not force us to attend church when we do not believe; we rarely get into fights with our bosses about whether or not we should baptize our children.

No, it is the third kind of relationship that we are most concerned with in our lives. It is the third kind of relationship that so often tortures us. It is the third kind of relationship that undermines our joy, integrity and independence.

The first kind of relationship does not involve obligation, but pleasure. There is no need for guilt or manipulation, bullying or control, demands, tears or passive-aggression. We do not need obligation to draw us to that which gives us pleasure, any more than a child needs to be cajoled into eating his candy.

The second kind of relationship does involve obligation, but it is voluntarily chosen, for mutual advantage. We pay our mortgage; the bank gives us a house. The relationship is contractual, and thus does not need guilt or manipulation.

It is the third kind of relationship that this book will focus on.

It is the third kind of relationship that is eating us alive.

The Third Kind

The third kind of relationship has three main components. The first is that it is not chosen; the second is that it involves obligations, and the third is that it is considered moral.

The first and most important aspect of these kinds of relationships is that they are not entered into voluntarily. You are born into them. You do not choose your parents. You do not choose your siblings. You do not choose your extended family. You do not choose your country. You do not choose your culture. You do not choose your government. You do not choose your religion. You do not choose your school. You do not choose your teachers.

Sadly, when you are a child, the list is nearly endless.

You are born into this world without choice, into a familial, social, educational, political and geographical environment that is merely accidental. And for the rest of your life, everyone will try to convince you that you are responsible for this accident.

Your parents decided to have a child – you were in no way involved in the choice, since you did not as yet exist when the decision was made. Even if you were conceived by accident, or adopted, your parents decided to keep you.

Thus your parents’ relationship with you when you were a child was essentially contractual, in the same way that when you buy a dog, you’re obligated to feed it. Naturally, it is preferable – and certainly possible – for your relationship with your parents to be loving, mutually enjoyable, respectful and great fun all around.

But as I said before, this kind of relationship is, sadly, all too rare.

Entire generations of children have grown up with the idea that the act of being born creates an obligation.

This is entirely false, and one of the most destructive myths of mankind.

First, I will tell you what is true. Then I will tell you why it is true. Then I will tell you how to change.

What Is True

It is true that your parents chose to have you. It is true that by making that choice, your parents assumed a voluntary obligation towards you. That obligation consisted of two main parts: the first was physical, the second was moral.

The physical part of that obligation was clothing, food, medical attention, shelter and so on – the base physical requirements. I am not going to spend much time on that in this book, since the vast majority of parents succeed in providing food and shelter for their children – and those who fail in this regard are so obviously deficient that a philosophical book is scarcely required to illuminate their shortcomings.

The moral obligations that your parents assumed by having you were twofold. The first part is more or less understood in society, and consists of all the standard virtues such as educating you, keeping you safe, refraining from physical or emotional abuse and so on.

The second part of your parents’ moral obligation towards you is much more subtle and corrosive. This is the realm of integrity, and it is a great challenge for societies throughout the world.


The greatest failings of parents are in the realms of integrity. Integrity can be defined as consistency between reality, ideas and behaviour. Consistency with reality is not telling a child that daddy is “sick” when he is in fact drunk. Consistency with behaviour is not slapping a child for hitting another child. The value of this kind of integrity is also well understood by many, even if imperfectly practiced, and we will not deal with it much here either.

It is consistency with ideas that causes the most problems for families – and the most long-term suffering for children throughout their lives.

When you were a child, you were told over and over that certain actions were either good or bad. Telling the truth was good; stealing was bad. Hitting your brother was bad; helping your grandmother was good. Being on time was good; failing to complete chores was bad.

Implicit in all these instructions – moral instructions – was the premise that your parents knew what was right and what was wrong; what was good, and what was bad.

Do you think that was really true? Do you think that your parents knew what was right and wrong when you were a child?

When we tell a child that something is wrong – not just incorrect, but morally wrong – there are really only two possibilities. The first is that we actually know what is right and wrong in general, and we are applying our universal knowledge of right and wrong to a specific action committed by the child.

This is how it is always portrayed to the child. It is almost always the most dangerous lie in the world.

The second possibility is that we are telling our child that his actions are “wrong” for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with morality whatsoever.

For instance, we might tell a child that stealing is wrong because:

  1. We are embarrassed at our child’s actions.
  2. We are afraid of being judged a poor parent.
  3. We are afraid that our child’s theft will be discovered.
  4. We are simply repeating what was told to us.
  5. We enjoy humiliating our child.
  6. Correcting our child on “ethics” makes us feel morally superior.
  7. We want our child to avoid behaviour that we were punished for as children.

... and so on

Assuming they are not terrified, most children, on first receiving moral instructions, will generally respond by asking “why?” Why is stealing wrong? Why is lying wrong? Why is bullying wrong? Why is hitting wrong?

These are all perfectly valid questions, akin to asking why the sky is blue. The problem arises in the fact that parents have no rational answers, but endlessly pretend that they do.

When a child asks us why something is wrong, we are put in a terrible bind. If we say that we do not know why lying is universally wrong, we believe we will lose our moral authority in the eyes of our children. If we say that we do know why lying is wrong, then we retain our moral authority, but only by lying to our children.

Since the fall of religion, we have lost our way in terms of ethics. As an atheist, I do not mourn the loss of the illusions of gods and devils, but I am alarmed at the fact that we have not yet admitted that the fall of religion has not provided us an objective and rational moral compass. By failing to admit to the fact that we do not know what we are doing ethically, we are perpetrating a grave moral error on our children.

Basically, we are lying to them about being good.

We tell them that certain things they do are right or wrong – yet we do not tell them that we do not know why those things are right or wrong. If our child asks us why lying is wrong, we can say that it causes people pain – but so does dentistry – or we can say “you don’t like it when someone lies to you” – which would be an incentive to not get caught, not to refrain from lying – and so on. Every answer we come up with leads to more questions and inconsistencies. What do we do then?

Why, then, we must bully them.

This does not mean hitting them or yelling at them – though sadly all too often this is the case – because as parents we have a near-infinity of passive-aggressive tactics such as sighing, acting exasperated, changing the subject, offering them a cookie, taking them for a walk, claiming to be “too busy,” distracting or rejecting them in a million and one ways.

These kinds of innocent questions about morality represent a kind of horror for parents. As parents, we must retain our moral authority over our children – but as citizens of modernity, we have no rational basis for that moral authority. Thus we are forced to lie to our children about being good, and about our knowledge of goodness, which transforms virtue from a rational discipline into a fearful fairy tale.

In the past, when religious mythology was dominant, when children asked “Where does the world come from?” parents could reply that God made it. Despite the superstitious ignorance of those who even now make the same claim, most modern parents provide the scientific and rational explanation of where the world came from, or at least send their children to the Web, an encyclopaedia, or the library.

There was a time, though, when the question of where the world came from was very difficult to answer. When religious explanations were becoming less and less credible, but scientific explanations had not become completely established, parents had to say – if they wanted to speak with integrity – “I don’t know where the world came from.”

By openly expressing their lack of certainty, parents not only acted with honesty and integrity, but also stimulated their children to pursue a truth that was admittedly absent from their world.

Alas, we suffer similar difficulties today, but about a far more important topic. The religious basis for ethics has fallen away from us, and we lack any credible or accepted theory to replace it. For a time, patriotism and allegiance to culture had some power to convince children that their elders knew something objective about ethics, but as government and military corruption have become increasingly evident, allegiance to a country, a state or a military ethos has become an increasingly fragile basis for ethical absolutes. Even our cherished theories about the virtues of democracy have come under increasing pressure, as gargantuan governments continue to separate themselves from the wishes of their citizens and act in a virtual “state of nature.”

Religious explanations of virtue have failed not just because we no longer believe in God, but also because it is now completely self-evident that when most people refer to “truth,” they are really referring to culture.


Think about a father in a Muslim country. When his child asks him: “Daddy, what is goodness?” he will generally answer: “To obey Allah, and obey His Prophet.” Why is that his answer? Is it because he has had direct experience with the Prophet, wrote the holy books himself, and has a deep understanding of morality direct from the original creator? If he had grown up alone on a desert island, would his answer be the same?

Of course not. He is merely repeating what was told to him as a child.

However, there is much more to it than that.

This Muslim father knows that his child is going to have to survive – and hopefully flourish – in a Muslim society. If he tells his child that he does not know what is right and wrong, not only will he lose his moral authority in the eyes of his child, but he will also be setting his child up for endless conflicts with everyone else in his society.

In other words, if everyone else lies to their children, what are the costs – social, romantic, economic and so on – of telling your children the truth?

My neighbour has four lovely children – the other day, his son came and showed me a drawing he’d made, a decent representation of Jesus Christ sitting on a rock and praying to the heavens. In all innocence, he asked me what I thought of the picture. Naturally, I knew that his father had told him that Jesus Christ was a real and living man-god who came back from the dead, floated up to heaven, and will free him of sin if he telepathically communicates his love to this ghost. This is no more or less horrifying than any other cult of guilt and control.

But – what could I say to this child? Could I say that this was a very good drawing of a fictional character? Could I tell him that it was an excellent representation of a fairy tale? Could I see the pain and surprise in his eyes? Could I imagine the conversation that he would later have with his father, asking why the nice man next door told him that Jesus Christ was a fictional character? Could I imagine the coldness that would then descend upon the cordial relations between our two houses? Could I imagine his father telling all of his children to stay away from the nice man next door, who wants to take God away from them? Could I stomach the chilled looks that I would receive every time I saw his family for the next few decades..?

On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion
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