On Selflessness and Nation Building

The other day I learned that David Sedaris, one of my favorite American essayist and public speaker, does a very peculiar thing. These days he lives in England, which is not particularly peculiar. His peculiarity is that every day he spends five or six hours picking up trash along the roads around his home.

Why does he do that? Because, he says, he just likes doing it. He does not do it for some greater good or public service, according to him. Does it make him a public-minded person? Not necessarily. Doubtless, his actions result in a cleaner road than otherwise, but his motivation is not to do good — he merely does what gives him personal satisfaction and which does not harm anybody.

I believe (perhaps mistakenly) that people who are primarily motivated by doing “good” for others often see themselves as morally superior to those who let others alone. If you like to pick up trash, good for you but slipping into the role of a person who is selfless tarnishes the enterprise. Worse, it can persuade the person that he has the moral authority to force others to do one’s bidding. Continue reading

Thomas Sowell on Intellectuals and Race

Prof Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University is an American institution himself. He is arguably one of the finest contemporary intellectuals. An economist by training, his output of books and articles is prodigious. A brilliant mind and an indefatigable warrior against the forces of unreason, ignorance, bigotry, tyranny, the controlling state, and so on and on.

Here are a few quotes from Dr Sowell.   Continue reading

Miscellaneous Quotes

The 3-legged stool of understanding is held up by history, languages, and mathematics. Equipped with these three you can learn anything you want to learn. But if you lack any one of them you are just another ignorant peasant with dung on your boots. — Robert Heinlein in Expanded Universe (1980)

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. — Upton Sinclair

There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Ask Me Anything — The Silicon Valley Founders Edition

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard

This is inspired by  my friend Rajan Parrikar’s post “Portraits of Success.” He references Carolyn Caddes‘s book, Portraits of Success – Impressions of Silicon Valley Pioneers (1986), which is a photographic tribute to the pioneers of Silicon Valley.

Among those featured in the book is Prof Terman (1900 – 1982) of Stanford University who is identified as “the Father of Silicon Valley.” Two of his students, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, were the first to follow his advice to start up their own electronics company. Thus was Hewlett-Packard Company formed in 1938 in a garage in Palo Alto, CA.

As it happens, I worked at HP in Cupertino, CA for a few years starting in the mid-1980s and even saw Bill and Dave in the facilities.  Continue reading

Economic Principles and Immunity from Silly Ideas

A reasonable way to think about any subject — science, engineering, technology, economics, etc etc — is to base the analysis on fundamental principles. It’s like using maths, starting with axioms and logically deriving theorems that can then be said to be true within that axiomatic system. If you know the underlying bits, you can work out the rest yourself — or rely on the work of others who have worked out the maths.

We know that there are fundamental principles, whether we know them or not. Some people do know, and they use that knowledge to make stuff that we find useful. I know precious little fluid dynamics but I know that those who design airplanes understand fluid mechanics, and I fly around in airplanes that are the result of various people’s understanding of various different scientific principles or truths.

Economics also has discovered certain “truths”. These relate to property, division of labor, exchange and subjective theory of value. These ideas are not generally known by people, and understandably so. They don’t need to. They get by very well without knowing them, thank you very much.
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The Decline and Fall of Bengal

A long time ago, maybe a thousand years ago but certainly a little over a hundred years ago, Bengal was remarkably prosperous. Something happened that led to its transformation from past prosperity to present destitution. What was it? A natural disaster, meaning something that was not humanly caused but something had natural causes? Or was it something that humans brought about by choice?

Let’s be very clear about one feature of this universe we inhabit. That is, nothing stays the same. Ceaseless change is unavoidable. The great, the seemingly invincible invariably decline and are replaced. The Buddhist call it anicca — impermanence. If you expect a changeless world, you are guaranteed to be disappointed.

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Role of the Government in a Free Society

Merely because governments routinely undertake to do a large number of things, most people tend to assume that it is not only legitimate for governments to do so but also believe that only governments can, should and must do them. This is a mistaken attitude that has enormous social costs that in the worst case impoverishes nations, and in the best case prevents nations from being as rich as they are capable of.

Free Society

Why do we need a government in any case? The answer could lead us to an understanding of the proper role a government in a free society. But what do we mean by a free society? A society is a collective comprised of individuals, and a free society is one in which every individual is free to do what he or she pleases provided that he or she does not impinge on the corresponding freedom of other individuals.

This freedom of the individual comes with a constraint, namely, that the individual does not initiate force against others, and respects the private property of others. The primary injunction can be stated as, “Do not harm others, and don’t take their property.”  Continue reading