It was last year when I was invited to address a dinner party. I arrived to find a copy of this book at every place setting. I was momentarily mortified: this is surely not my best material. What even is in this book? This attitude does reflect my outlook: I tend not to like anything I wrote yesterday, preferring only to think about what I will write tomorrow.
Still, I sat down at my place and started to read. My eye fell on one of the silliest pieces on a time when my drain was clogged and I spent the better part of the afternoon unclogging it. I’m not sure the piece has a point at all, but I surely did laugh while reading it. Then I read my reflections on pet funerals and slightly teared up. Then I read one other piece on pound cakes and liked it too. I remembered too why it is that countless people have thanked me for saving them from modern shaving cream; my essay on this topic appears herein.
So by the time I was ready to address the dinner party I had a different sense of this book. Yes, I’ll always be known for it. But there is nothing wrong with this: I do think it holds up.
For this edition, I’ve tried to keep things as they were ten years ago, which means that some of the data and events seem dated. But that is fine. In addition, I do find that the ten years since I wrote this book have seen much development in some of the nascent ideas in this book. I became more sophisticated about intellectual property and information economics. My understanding of Hayek’s work has increased vastly. Bitcoin had already been invented when I published this book the first time but I ignored it then; since then I’ve written one-thousand plus essays on the topic.
Perhaps my biggest development was to make a much more robust case for some of the ideas in the essay on Mark Twain. I had vaguely discerned his liberalism and its historical meaning. But this focus on liberalism has since occupied vast amounts of my thoughts, realizing since then that my libertarianism is nothing more than a precise working out of the implications of the liberal idea; indeed, I’ve since discerned that there are grave dangers of divorcing one from the other.
Learning from the liberal tradition has made me want to add footnotes to the periodic dualism you find in these pages (state = evil; any but the state is good). I see now more clearly than I did then that holding in one’s mind a historically informed liberal aesthetic can serve as protection against falling into what I came to call the brutalist school of libertarianism. I had even thought about writing a postscript called “Champagne for Brunch” but I think I’ll leave it here.
The title of this book is drawn from one of those defining moments in life in which a small phrase shatters the social-cultural convention and reveals completely new possibilities. I tell the story herein in the essay on morning drinking.
A great scholar and Southern gentlemen—a man who had written the ultimate guidebook to the writing of the King James version of the Gospels—invited me for an early breakfast, 7:00 a.m. and then offered me coffee.
I said, “yes, thank you.”
He then added: “would you like bourbon in that coffee?”
What is revealed in that sentence and the shock it elicited? We believe, for whatever reason, that drinking hard liquor in the morning is unseemly, contrary to social norms, something to hide, a habit of the lower classes that is dangerous or even evil.
But are any of these assumptions true? A new form of prohibitionism has swept the country, imposed on us by our government masters and their cultural backers, even as alcohol consumption rises and rises. Evidently, we live two realities: the one the government imposes on us and the one we adopt in our real lives.
What struck me about this man’s phrase was how it presumed that he and I were among the rebels against the prevailing ethos—that together we would reject the government’s edicts and create our own norms and reality. This is a wonderful model for living a full life. This book is about seeing that just because government mandates certain things and forbids others does not mean that we must follow or even tolerate the official roadmap for our lives.
The seed of truth to the morning-drinking taboo is that doing this every morning would contribute to a less productive life. But on the weekends or when it is not necessary to be at your sober best, or when you are celebrating some special guest, there is surely nothing wrong here.
In any case, there must be some lost aristocratic tradition of adding a splash, else this highly cultivated, highly educated and scholarly Southern gentleman would not have suggested it. In doing so, he was revealing some lost history with a sense of freedom and possibility. To contemplate the suggestion is to imagine a world that does not exist, one that breaks from the status quo and plays with the pluses and minuses of adopting a new way of living.
Most of the essays in this book do just this. They imagine radical new possibilities of living outside the status quo. Or perhaps we should say “statist” quo because it is the state that is responsible for shaping our world, in brazen ways and also subtle ones that we do not fully realize.
Examples from the book include how and why the “hot” water in our homes became lukewarm and what can be done about it, how our toilets stopped working properly because of legislation that reduced toilet-tank size, how traffic-law enforcement became a racket for extracting wealth from the population to feed the overlords, how copyright and patent legislation is depriving us of cultural and technological innovation, and how politicians who we think are protecting us are really just taking away our own rights to protect ourselves.
To see the costs of statism is to see what Frederic Bastiat called the “unseen.” It is about imagining the existence of some possibility that the state has forbidden from existing, playing with that possibility in your mind, and then acting on what has previously been an abstraction and making it a reality. Art helps us accomplish this mental feat, which is why many of these essays deal with literature, movies, culture, and the arts.
But seeing what is wrong with the world—Chesterton’s phrase—is only the beginning. Finding the solution, the workaround, is the next necessary step. I try not to highlight problems without also offering a solution of sorts, simply because there is nothing productive or enlightening about despair. Hope comes from imaging a better future that does not yet exist.
Most of the essays in here deal with what are often considered trivial or light topics. But the trivial is quite often very serious, while what we think is serious is often quite trivial, as I try to show. At the same time, I deal with topics that libertarians of my stripe don’t often write about, like the ghastly reality of jail (yes, the article is autobiographical) and the problems connected with intellectual property. I make no apology for the fact that the topics are all over the map. Maybe that will make this book more interesting.
An underlying apparatus here is my own formation in economic theory, drawn from my many years of work in economics research institution, and the way that the friendships I’ve formed in this connection have gradually led me away from the poison of politics as a viable means of social and economic management.
A parallel part of my life involves the study and practice of music, with a particular focus on what is called “early music.” Exploring the interaction between culture broadly speaking and political economy is something that happened inadvertantly as I’ve been plugging away on thousands of articles over the years, of which this book represents only a sample.
We all need to be part of the project of reimagining freedom—of living outside the statist quo—else we will go the way of many societies and civilizations before us: host to a massive apparatus of power and imposition that strangles the growth and ingenuity of people, leading to a stasis that hardly anyone notices until it is too late.
I would like to offer a special note of thanks to Edward Stringham, president of the American Institute for Economic Research, where I serve as editorial director. I’m so grateful to be today surrounded by great friends, excellent minds, and constant inspiration to be creative, passionate about ideas, and always focussed on integrity in exposition. In many ways, I’m wildly optimistic about the future of this institution.
The first edition came out ten years ago, and the people who were there at the time will notice incidents, ideas, and phrases in here that draw from shared experiences and conversations; indeed, there are many senses in which this book is not my own but the result of a community enterprise, one that extends both back and forward in time. All my influences, especially those who have inspired me to feel again an innocent love for life, should all know of my gratitude.