The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tag: Happiness

Avoiding Added Emotional Suffering (Buddha’s Second Arrow)

When I say in this post to imagine something stop and imagine it, or you won’t get the necessary effect.

First, imagine falling. You catch yourself on your hands, you’re not seriously injured, but your hands are abraded and you’ve wrenched a muscle in you back.

Next. Imagine that you fell unavoidably: there was a small bit of ice, but you were walking carefully and there’s nothing you could have done.

Third: imagine that you were careless. There was an obvious piece of ice, you weren’t paying attention, and you knew there could be ice. Feel this.

Fourth: imagine that you feel on a walkway that someone should have cleared (it’s usually the law in places with a lot of snow and ice.) You were careful, but still fell. Feel this.

Fifth: imagine you feel because someone deliberately tripped you. Feel this.

If you’re a normal person and you took the time to actually feel, these felt different. Either number three (carelessness) or number five (someone tripping you), feels worst: you’re angry at yourself or someone else.

But even with the first one: it just happened and no one is responsible, you may be upset: it’s not just the pain you’re feeling, but your upset.

This anger, upset, hatred, sadness, etc… is what Buddha called the second arrow.

There is pain and nauseau and itching and so on. They feel bad. But unless you’ve got drugs or advanced meditative skills, they just happen, and there’s not much you can do about them.

Everything else is added by your emotional reaction. That’s the low-hanging fruit. That’s the stuff that’s (relatively) easier to control or choose.

Different people have different ways of doing this, but the first concept is simple enough “adding a negative emotion doesn’t help the situation, and it makes me feel worse.”

As someone who spent a lot of time beating themselves up for mistakes or not living up to my ideal self, I eventually realized that not only did it make me feel bad, it didn’t drive long term changes in behaviour. It had no benefit.

As for getting angry at other people, my experience, as someone who spent years and years not just angry, but enraged (long term readers will know I speak the truth), is that it didn’t help the situation, and it made me miserable (and eventually had negative health effects.)

As Mark Twain said, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

This doesn’t mean you have to forgive them, though sometimes that brings relief. It doesn’t mean you can’t take the person who didn’t clear the sidewalk to task, even to the police or court. You don’t need to be angry or to hate to act.

Which leads to a point I’ve made before: a lot of our emotions happen because we believe we ought to feel them. We ought to be sad, or angry or hate or love or be sympathetic. (Forcing yourself to feel positive emotions rarely works well, though learning to bring love or happiness or relaxation up is useful.)

If you think you should have an emotion, you probably will and if you don’t, you’ll feel bad because you aren’t being the person you think you should be. So kill the idea that you must feel certain emotions in certain circumstances.

You do this, in my experience, by carefully examining the question “does this emotion help and is it worth it?” Examine it now, and examine it next time you get upset.

If the answer to either question is “no”, stop believing you should have the emotion.

This is as true for simple things like dropping a plate on the floor. It’s done, and being upset makes the situation worse. Sometimes a display of remorse is necessary socially, but in my experience a rueful laugh and apology works fine with anyone who isn’t an asshole.

The second arrow is the low lying fruit. And remember, people who deliberately fuck with you usually want an emotional reaction from  you. They like it when you get angry or upset.

So don’t. If you need to hit them or otherwise retaliate to make a point, do. But don’t bother with the anger or upset: you’re just giving them what they want. They love your anger, especially if you don’t do anything: your powerless rage makes them feel strong and in control.

Give your enemies nothing but hell. Never let them see you sweat. And as for the internal censor who think you should be upset and miserable, dump that guy.

And when you forget or fail, that’s when you forgive–yourself. Just try and remember next time.


The Essential Spiritual Insight About Happiness (Part I)

Virtually everyone wants to feel good. Perhaps they want to be contented, happy, blissful, or something else, but I’ve never met anyone who wanted to feel awful.

The problem is that most people don’t know how to be happy. If they are happy, they don’t really understand what they have, and how others could get it. What works for one, rarely works for most other people.

So, how to be happy?

There are a lot of books about happiness. Most of them have a simple formula, varying in details:

Do/Get/Be X to get Happiness.

That is, you should get friends, or self-esteem, or money, or make a list of things you’re grateful about every day, or create a story about your life, or…

The great spiritual traditions generally say something else.

Our nature is happiness (well, actually bliss) and getting objects or doing things expecting those actions or objects to make you happy won’t work.

My experience is that this is true.

The research is also pretty clear: You do/get something you think will make you happy–perhaps a raise or a great lover or a lottery win–and a few months to two years later you’re back to your previous level of happiness.

Getting “things” doesn’t really work, though there are some minor exceptions (and this isn’t a book, so I’ll skip those for now).

Now, it is true that if you’re in a ton of pain all the time, you’re going to have a problem being happy. It can be done, but probably not if you didn’t do the pre-work before getting sick.

On the other hand, most chronic illness doesn’t necessarily disqualify you from being happy. I say this from experience.

So then, all the introductions and caveats aside, how should one become happy?

Get rid of the shit that stands in the way of being happy.

I remember very clearly the period after I first actually understood this. Suddenly I noticed that there was all this wonderful food around: Chinese, Indian, good roast beef, cheese!, curried goat, fruits, garlic toast, and on and on.

Everything I wanted to cook, fantastic food was available. If it was food I didn’t know how to cook, I could buy it cooked. And plenty of good food was cheap.


And music! Music. Music. It was everywhere, cheap, and free, and marvelous. The music of hundreds of years of civilization, performed by the best musicians in the world, available to me at the touch of a few buttons.

And the women (and a few men, but mostly women, hey, I have my preferences), were beautiful. There was art. There were fantastic buildings. At night I slept inside, in a warm house in winter, a cool one in summer. I had food, art, entertainment, and beauty available to me everywhere.

I became open to happiness.

So many people walk through life, as I had, unable to appreciate its wonders. I’m the first, as long-time readers know, to note that a lot of life is absolute crap, and yeah, in many ways this is a hell-world, and while this is not the worst timeline (that’d be nuclear war), it’s certainly a bad and remarkably stupid one.

But the world is still full of beauty, the warmth of love is still real, and even simple food is still marvelous.

The first stage of happiness is simply being available to it. Most people aren’t. They are so caught up in their worries, fears, and desires that they can’t see what they already have.

All you need to have this basic level of happiness, which is way more than most people older than ten or so seem to have, is stop letting your fears, worries, and desires get in the way.

This is why early meditation practitioners who’ve made a bit of progress are always dribbling on tiresomely about being present. But it’s not really being present that’s important, it’s not dwelling.

We all have problems. We all have fears. We all have desires.

Fine. Have them. But don’t let them have you. If all you can see is them, you are missing most of what the world offers you ever single day.

So, let them go. Don’t dwell.

Don’t worry about anything you can’t control.

Don’t dwell on anything bad that isn’t happening now. Do what you’re willing to do about it, then put it down. This includes both bad things that happened in the past, and bad things you think will happen in the future. (And which often won’t.)

Don’t spend time castigating yourself because you think you suck. Perhaps you weigh too much, have too little money, aren’t loving enough, competent enough, or any other failure.

Fuck it. Drop it. Do whatever you’re going to do about it, and stop worrying about it.

The formula for simple happiness is just to not be too busy mentally to notice all the happiness available to you right now.

I’m not saying this is easy. When you get down to it, it’s about doing nothing. But before you get to doing nothing, you often have to do a lot of things. Maybe that’s some sort of therapy or maybe it’s meditation or other spiritual practices (genuine belief in a benevolent God does work well). Or maybe you’re one of the very lucky, very few who can just drop everything once you realize it makes sense.

But the core isn’t doing. It’s not doing. Just get out of the way. The human body knows how to be happy, and all it really takes is not being scared, not wanting something to point where you dwell on it, and not worrying, including not worrying about how think you suck.

This is a large part of what is meant by “just drop it all.”

None of this means you’ll be happy all the time. It does mean you’ll be happy a lot and that you won’t tend to dwell on unhappiness. Sufficient to whenever it happens is the crap of life. It shouldn’t destroy your happiness before or afterwards.

So… be happy. I’d like to see more of that. Misery serves no one. It doesn’t serve us when we’re miserable and it doesn’t harm our enemies. Might as well be happy.

(This is the first stage of happiness. More on the happiness in Part II.)

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

The Difference Between Compulsiveness and Happiness

One of the most striking bits of research lately has been that every study I am aware of of social media finds a correlation between unhappiness and social media use. The more social media people use, the less happy they are. It’s really extraordinary.

I’ve been thinking about this recently. While ill recently I played some Civilization VI (the worst version  of Civilization in its history.)

I found it compulsive. I’d be sitting there, not enjoying myself, yet found myself playing “just one more turn.”

Social media feels much the same. You tweet or put up a Facebook post or comment, or an Instagram picture, or whatever, and then you wait to see if people respond. The responses are intermittent: you can’t entirely predict them, so it’s very strong reinforcement.

The feeling of posting on social media is compulsive. Like one has to check to see if there are responses: like on has to post something new.

It’s not a happy feeling, usually. Instead it feels like addictive behaviour. Perhaps mildly addictive in some case, perhaps seriously in others.

I find happiness, right now, for me, happens most often while listening to music. It isn’t compulsive at all. I enjoy it, I stop when I have something else to do. It’s relaxed.

Dopamine hits aren’t particularly enjoyable. They’re just demanding: compulsive. “Do more of this.”

Happiness is something else. Not compulsive. Optional.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

A Note on Happiness

I live in a single room, in a downscale neighbourhoood. I sleep on some pads on the floor. I am in debt, and I have a couple serious health problems.

I am also happy most of the time.

I’ll be sitting in my garret and thinking, “God, life is amazing. This is wonderful.”

And I’ll laugh and mock myself, “What’s good about this? You’re poor, sick, overweight, and broke.”

All that is true, but I’m happy (and my health is improving, no worries, I don’t expect to die soon, though who knows).

So I’m going to give some unsolicited advice on how to be happy even though your life sucks, because, well, I’m pretty good at it.

The first step is to not be unhappy.

(Insert head smacking motion from readers.)

Seriously, though, start there. Or, as I like to say: “The whole of the path is not giving a fuck.”

Run out of fucks. Do not restock. Life will seem a lot better.

Start with not giving a fuck about how other people you don’t know are doing. Just stop. You’ve been happy many times in your life, and while you were happy, nasty people in the Congo were gang raping men and women, people were dying of starvation, people were being tortured. It was fucking horrible.

There are always people who are suffering; suffering unbelievably. Agony one can hopefully only imagine; shame, terror that rises to the level of insanity. There are people in the burn wards of the hospitals where you live begging for death, praying for it earnestly. (I’ve been there, though not with burns, thank God.)

You’ve been happy, really happy, while all these horrid things were going on. You didn’t give a fuck then, don’t give a fuck now. When you start thinking about how horrible things are for people you don’t know, STOP. Think to yourself “I’m not helping them or me,” and focus on something good.

I recommend imagining a young child you love, and seeing them running into your arms. Failing that a puppy. Stand up, open your arms wide, and imagine what it feels like. If you’re imagining a puppy, imagine yourself kneeling and it licking your face.

Or find something else, but do it. Every time you feel miserable for people you don’t know, redirect.

Next, do this for your future self. There’s a future you fear: Perhaps you’re afraid of losing your job or of Trump becoming Hitler and cackling wildly as the ovens roar, perhaps you’re afraid of something else.

STOP. Whatever it is hasn’t happened yet, and it may not happen at all. As Twain quipped, he was an old man who had known many bad times, but most of them never happened.

Even if they are sure to happen, they aren’t happening now. Why are you wrecking today over something which isn’t happening now?

Redirect. Or learn not to care. A couple summers ago I was very poor and I thought there was a good chance I’d wind up on the street. Given my health, that would be a death sentence, and not a pretty one. I looked it square in the face, just sat with it, and asked myself, “Is there anything I could do to stop this which I am not doing which I am willing to do?” The answer was no.

I sat with it, I decided I didn’t care, and from that day to today I haven’t worried about it. That doesn’t mean I haven’t done anything about it, I have. But I haven’t sat there torturing myself with visions of it; nor have I tormented myself with all the things I might do which, frankly, I’m not going to do.

People spend vast amounts of time wishing they would do what they won’t do and feeling guilty that they aren’t paragons of hard work and virtue and blah, blah, blah. You are who you are, and while you can change that, it will change slowly. So stop beating yourself up over who you are, because mostly you don’t control it.

And that’s the next step: Just stop caring that you aren’t everything you think you should be, that you aren’t who you wanted to be when you were 20, and so on. A little introspection is useful here. Watch your thoughts, experiment with controlling them, experiment with controlling your actions. Or just remember the last time you tried to change yourself and failed. And the time before that. And the time before that.

Right. If you were really in charge, if you could easily change yourself, you would have already done so. You haven’t, and you aren’t. So stop beating yourself up, you (mostly) aren’t to blame for who you are, and you sure as hell can’t change what you’ve done in the past. Don’t do regret.

Now, let’s say you’re suffering now. Right now. Sit down, lie down, stand, go for a walk, and just look at whatever it is. Dive right into the pain, observe it, feel it, watch it. Just let it be. After a while (and a while may be weeks of doing this), you’ll find that you just don’t much care. The pain doesn’t go away, but most of the suffering does. And, one day, if it’s the sort of pain which is self-inflicted through thoughts, well, that may go away, because you aren’t reinforcing it.

As you do all of this, you will suffer less and less, and you will be happy more and more. Your energy will recover, and you will then be able to make changes. I will suggest that making changes mainly means changing habits, and that changing habits (which includes what you habitually think about) is mostly about doing what comes easily. Make it easier for yourself. If you want to exercise, start by doing one minute. One minute. Increase it as you feel like. Do most things this way: Start easy and ramp up.

On the positive side, do what you enjoy and look particularly for those things which feel good not just when you do them, but afterwards.

Stop making heroic efforts and using willpower. Instead, relax, and do what you like doing.

There will be a time for pushing out of your comfort zone, yes, but first, make your life basically decent. If you don’t want to do something, don’t do it unless you must, and make must a small list: Do you need the money? Is someone going to hurt you if you don’t do it?

If your life includes doing things you hate which you can’t avoid because you need to eat or someone will hurt you, or a dependent needs to eat, that is what you need to spend any energy you have on changing.

Get it out of your life, or learn not to give a shit. Is your coworker or boss an asshole, but not an asshole who is actually physically harming you or threatening you? Mentally tune out their bullshit.

The whole of the path may be not giving a fuck, but sometimes there are things you don’t have the detachment to wave away, at least right now. Those are the things which should be removed from your life.

As you stop the bad thoughts, as you stop worrying about the future and regretting the past, as you stop self-harming by doing what you hate or by locking yourself in situations you despise, you will find something very surprising: Humans are naturally happy.

You almost certainly don’t believe that, but it’s true. Get rid of the shit, relax, and you will find that you are happy most of the time, that it takes very little to make you happy. A simple meal makes me happy. I listen to music and I smile. I hear a bus’s brakes squeal and I am happy because I don’t have to walk. It’s insane, really, how little it takes.

Humans are made to be happy most of the time. They have to learn how to be unhappy. Stop being unhappy, and the upside will probably take care of itself.

Unhappiness isn’t a choice: You didn’t really make it. It’s not your fault. You fell into it due to the circumstances of  your life and your history. Nor can you choose, by an act of will, to stop being unhappy. But you can, over time, learn not to be unhappy, to not dwell on the bad, and to let your natural happy nature take the fore.

Imagine that puppy licking your face, and when bad shit happens redirect. If you can’t redirect, simply sit with the badness, not judging it, till it loses its power. And refuse to let other people’s unhappiness make you unhappy, except as required by immediate circumstances. If your friend is sick, commiserate and feel bad for a bit, but don’t take that with you, and never let the suffering of complete strangers or imagined futures wreck you.

The whole of the path is not giving a fuck. Run out of fucks and don’t restock, and the sun will rise again and light your world up in a way it may not have been lit since you were a child.

Human nature is happy. Clear the detritus out, and it will bloom.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Happiness and Freedom: East German Version


Picture: Fall of the Berlin Wall

Picture: Fall of the Berlin Wall

Many East Germans remember East Germany favorably:

Today, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 57 percent, or an absolute majority, of eastern Germans defend the former East Germany. “The GDR had more good sides than bad sides. There were some problems, but life was good there,” say 49 percent of those polled.

The state with the Berlin Wall, which people died to get across, is remembered fondly?

Some of this, as the article points out, is nostalgia.  Some of it is from people who were children or not even alive when East Germany fell.

But I’m not surprised, because the happiness and life satisfaction data for East Germany showed a precipitous fall after unification, as it did in Russia after Communism fell there. (That drop has been made up since, but it was huge.)

I’m further not surprised because there were things that East Germany, in particular, did well. To start, it did community and civic association brilliantly: There were clubs for everything, people joined them, and they enjoyed them.

Happiness is strongly correlated to community: The sort of anomie which capitalist societies encourage, where you know hardly anyone well, destroys happiness.

Second, there wasn’t a great deal of inequality compared to modern capitalism. The research on happiness and equality is robust–the more equal a society, the happier people are.

Third, everyone was more or less taken care of. They may not have been taken care of with the finest consumer goods, but they had enough food, shelter, and so on.

Fourth, they didn’t have to move much. Labor force mobility in Germany today isn’t terrible, but the sure knowledge that you can stay where you were born and grew up can be as much a comfort as anything else, and it means that you don’t leave behind your community–your friends and family.

Capitalist transitions are brutal. The data from China is unambiguous: People moving from their ancestral villages to the city generally are never, personally, as happy as they were in the village.

The people interviewed in Der Spiegel’s article on East Germany tend to acknowledge the East German Stasi police state as bad, then wave it aside.

How badly has your life been affected by the fact that your government spies on you 24/7? East Germany may have had huge numbers of informants, but London has cameras everywhere and “anti-social disorder orders,” which make virtually any behaviour cops want to call illegal, illegal. Nor was East Germany’s incarceration rate nearly as high as America’s is now, and so on.

Sure, “the police state” was bad, but that wasn’t, to people who lived there, necessarily the most important thing about being an East German. Westerners believe this because of relentless cold war propaganda. Then the USSR and the Warsaw Pact fell, and our lords and masters started building their own surveillance and police states.

Still, it’s a bad sign when you aren’t even considered a better place to live than East Germany, with its Stasi. The failures of the post-Soviet era are making that period look better and better. In Russia, there is a surge of nostalgia for the USSR, for reasons which are are remarkably similar. People are discovering that, as wonderful as Levis jeans are, there is a cost to the modern consumer society in terms of anomie, corruption, and economic precarity.

Though I think I like the bitter joke from 1990s Russia best:

Everything they (Communist authorities) told us about Communism was a lie. Unfortunately, everything they told us about Capitalism was the truth.

And so the wheel turns. When capitalism, in a large region in one of the most successful countries in the West, has half the population thinking communism wasn’t so bad, something has gone off the rails. Triumphalism of the “we’ve won, so we don’t have to treat the population well” variety may well yet bite capitalists, and all of us, hard.

If you enjoyed this article, and want me to write more, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Creating a Prosperous Society Where People Love Their Work

Are you most productive doing what you love, or doing something you are indifferent to or hate? If you could try your hand at doing anything, would you be doing what you’re doing? Are you on track to eventually spend your life in the work of your dreams, or is it clear that will likely never happen?

There will always be lousy but necessary jobs that few people want to do. The garbage must be picked up, the toilets must be cleaned and the bed pans must be emptied. But a society is a better society when more people are doing what they love, or at least working for themselves, out from under close supervision. Almost no one likes being micromanaged, and normal jobs are called wage slavery for a reason.

We want people to stretch themselves, we want them to reach for their dreams, we want them to get up each morning looking forward to the day’s work. We want that for the cold hard calculated reason that such people are more productive, and we want it for the warm soft calculated reason that we’d rather live in a society with as many such people as possible because they’re a lot more enjoyable to spend time around than people who hate their jobs.

It’s not hard to create a society which makes it more likely that people can do what they want. It’s not hard to create an economy which encourages people to start new businesses or to launch new careers. But such a society cannot exist if we prefer to be mean, if we want to punish people for failure. It cannot exist if we see someone else’s success as our failure or if we allow envy to infect our public policy.

People fail to pursue their dreams because they fear failure or because the opportunities aren’t available. Fear of failure is rational: pour everything into a new business which fails, and many businesses fail, and you can be left with no money, no source of income, and lose everything. In a country without universal health care, you could even lose your life if you lose your insurance and become ill or have an accident.

So the first thing a society needs to do is have in place a basic social net: a basic income below which people cannot drop, so they will not become homeless if they fail. Universal health care so they can pursue their dreams without being chained to a health insurance premium. Bankruptcy laws which allow most debts to be wiped away in the event of failure, not just so that people don’t lose everything, but so they can try again. Many entrepreneurs fail more than once before they create a business which works, and we want that, we want bankruptcy. We also want bankruptcy because it is important that lenders do their due diligence and accept the real risk of lending, rather than insisting that the government act as their bill collector. It is not in the government’s interest for people to become impoverished, as impoverished people cannot contribute to society nearly as well.

Credit and calculable law are needed for entrepreneurship. People must be secure in the title to their property so they can borrow against it. They must know that contracts are generally upheld and that basic physical safety is taken care of. Taxation must be calculable, though it doesn’t have to be low. Eras with top marginal income tax rates in from 80% to over 90% have had far more growth than our own low tax periods, and much higher corporate tax rates do not correlate with low economic growth either. After all, first you have to make a profit, or make so much money you’re in the top bracket. As the saying runs, it’s a good problem to have.

Credit in in the modern era is ultimately a product of government. Banks create money when they lend, they do not lend money they have on deposit, though the amount of money they can lend may be some multiple of what they have on deposit. Since the ability to create money is a government grant, and since a government grant is a grant from the people of a nation, the government has the right to influence or even set interest rates. This ability is already used, with central banks setting overnight rates, treasuries influencing bond rates at different durations, and so on. Mortgages in many countries will simply not be issued if they do not meet requirements set down by governments, and so on.

If we want people to do things, we have to make sure the money is available for them to do it. This can mean credit, or it can simply mean the government paying for or subsidizing what is needed. In many countries health care is provided out of taxes. At one time, post-secondary education was virtually free for those who qualified, because governments understood that educated people make more money, create more jobs and contribute more in general. With progressive taxation a government can easily provide free or very cheap education knowing that it will take a portion of every extra dollar earned as a result of that education. Rationing education is short-sighted and foolish, even on a pure cold-cash calculation.

A basic income is another thing governments do and can offer. In the modern day this is generally done through a complicated hodge-podge of systems, from welfare to unemployment insurance to student loans and tax breaks. This is vastly inefficient, and should be simplified. If we aren’t willing to let anyone go without basic lodging and food we should simply guarantee the necessary level of income to anyone over the age of 18 or whatever age children usually leave home. It is simple enough to do it in a way so that everyone is still better off working, it is vastly cheaper than paying an army of social workers to determine who is worthy, and it assumes the most basic tenet of liberty: that adults have the ability to know what they want to do. Nothing is more counter-productive than policies which, say, restrict welfare recipients from going to university, so they can’t improve themselves and have a better chance to contribute to society.

Knowing that they will always have enough to keep a roof over their head and food in their belly people are far more likely to pursue their dreams, to do the work they really want to and to start new businesses. It is true that some people will take advantage of such a system, it is also true that such a system will have much lower administrative costs than current systems. And since the basic income will not be a great income, but only basic, it will not be attractive to many.

It will also put pressure on businesses to treat their employees better. If a business cannot make a job more attractive than living at barely above subsistence then perhaps that job shouldn’t exist. Do all the fast food jobs really make our societies richer? If a job really needs to be done, like janitorial work or garbage collection or cleaning the bums of our parents and grandparents, then does it not deserve to be compensated well? If your CEO doesn’t show up for work, or if the janitor who cleans the toilets doesn’t show up, who do you miss most? And do you really want the person looking after your parents in an old-folks home or hospital to hate their job?

Most money from a basic income, assuming high progressive rates on the rich and the same corporate tax rates as were the norm in the 50s and 60s, will wind up back in the government coffers in any case, after it goes through multiple hands and supports many jobs.

These are the first two thing required to increase the number of people who do work they want to do, or at least don’t hate—freedom from fear of devastating loss and the availability of opportunities to gain the necessary skills, education and credit.

The third thing is to reform laws so people can do what they love.

Consider Silicon Valley in California, one of the greatest entrepreneurial hotspots in the world. New tech business after new tech business has been started there, from Hewlett Packard to Apple. Millions of jobs have spun out from Silicon Valley to the rest of the world. What made Silicon Valley possible? Well the first thing is government money, both to buy products like early computers and to support Stanford University, which histories of the Valley put at the heart of its culture. But another reason Silicon Valley happened in California and not in Massachussets, say, around MIT (though there is a tech corridor around MIT) is this: California law makes non-compete agreements illegal.

A non-compete agreement is a legal contract which states that someone can’t work in a business which competes with their current employer, generally for a few years. So if you have a great idea for a new product in the same line of business you can’t quit and go set up a new company.

Silicon Valley’s history is of startup after startup directly competing with the company the founders left. There would be no Silicon Valley as we know it if California allowed non-competes.

This is a general principle. If law does not allow people to do what they want, well then, they can’t do it. Barriers to entry, barriers to the creation of new businesses are too much to deal with in this article, but just note that what is good for a specific business is rarely good for business as a whole. If I own a business I don’t want my employees to leave and compete against me. That’s bad for me. But it’s good for whatever business I’m in for their to be more competitors and new products and it’s good for society as well.

Likewise laws on protected works and intellectual monopolies in terms of copyrights and patent law can stifle the creation of new businesses. If a person or company is forbidden from creating a product or must pay overly high licensing fees, the business will not happen. There is a balance here, some protection for actual inventors and creators is needed, but in our current society we are very far from the correct balance, and much law that seems to protect creators in fact only creates intellectual rents, stifles the economy and inhibits competition. To cover intellectual properties properly would take another huge article, so I won’t go into it futther here. The basic principle is simple: if it’s illegal to start a business or engage in a career, or it costs too much to be worth it, people won’t. Every time we pass a law which protects incumbents from competition or which protects the work of the past, we ossify our economy and make it harder for people to do the work they want to do, sticking more and more of them in jobs they hate.

The more people who are both free and able to work in jobs they enjoy; who are able to start new businesses; who are able to pursue professions they prefer, the better off everyone will be. This is true both in pure economic terms and in softer terms: happy people are healthier and they are far more fun to be around than unhappy people.

In economies which are running cold, people turn mean. Seeing scarcity all around, they feel that they are in competition for scarce good jobs, scarce good education and scarce happiness. They start blocking other people and insisting that everyone pay upfront intead of behind. Bosses, knowing that there aren’t enough jobs, become mean as well, treating employees badly, knowing they have nowhere to go and confident that if they lose one, or a hundred, or a thousand employees to mistreatment, more will be ready to work, impelled by fear of hunger and poverty.

We can’t all be rich, but we can all be prosperous, and we become prosperous as a group, as a society, not blocking each other, but by opening up opportunity for all, treating everyone as adults, and understanding that other people’s success is our success in the broadest sense. It is certainly true that in a competitive market environment there will be losers and if your closest competitors win, you can lose as a result, but for everyone else in society, the success is beneficial so long as those who succeed to not shut the avenues to success behind them. And if failure does not mean disaster, if there are second and third and fourth acts in life and those who try are allowed to try again, then the fear that both stops people from trying and makes those who are successful try and stop those behind them is greatly reduced.

Societies are prosperous together. Individuals are rich separately. Let us remember this, and remember that fundamental economic success for societies requires generosity and kindness, not parsimony and cruelty.

If you enjoyed this article, and want me to write more, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén