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  • Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom of property

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    By the time the British government set out to arrest John Locke, he'd set out for France, fleeing his native country under suspicion of conspiring to kill the British king, Charles II.

    Yes, that's the same Charles II whose reign Thomas Hobbes went to so much trouble to legitimize. Hobbes wanted him to take his father's throne, and Locke wanted him to leave it feet first. He faced arrest as one of the conspirators involved in the Rye House Plot.

    This was a plot to trap the king's carriage in a narrow street overlooked by Rye House, a sturdy stone structure, and rain fire down on it with muskets until all within died. Word got out, the king changed his route, and many of the conspirators were rounded up and several executed.

    Locke was the sort of fellow the Department of Homeland Security now calls a terrorist.

    Locke is remembered fondly as one of the giants of liberal theory, the man who made freedom all about property. Students forced to study his Second Treatise on Government (or even, more rarely, to actually read it) are not typically informed that the pamphlet was so inflammatory that Locke never allowed it to be published under his own name during his lifetime. Charles II might not be so sure Locke was trying to kill him that he'd send agents to France to kill Locke for the Rye House Plot, but a pamphlet that said the subjects had a right to remove their sovereign if he did not serve them well might have sealed his fate.

    To understand why property was so important in Locke's thinking, you must keep in mind that at the time he was writing, the voting franchise in England was given only to people who owned real property and paid tax on it.

    During the English Civil War, the Levelers had argued for equality before the law, for popular sovereignty (the idea that legitimacy of the state rests on the consent of the governed) and extending the franchise. They also advocated religious tolerance, a principle that became dear to Thomas Hobbes when he was accused of blasphemy. One way of saying that every man should have the vote (women's suffrage was far in the future) was to claim that everyone owned property in the form of their own person.

    This expresses a conflict inherent in the system of value Thomas Hobbes proposed. Remember, he said:

    The Value, or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power... Which would seem to say that our values must be expressed in the marketplace, with money. Thus, your work must not only be desired, there must be effective demand, that is, demand backed by money. A starving pauper, then, would not be able to express what bread meant to him, and would not have his needs met. But the sentence continues on,

    ...and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependant on the need and judgement of another.Must need and judgment only be expressed through property? The New Model Army, raised by parliament to oppose the royalist forces, had officers who were often difficult to tell from the enlisted men, because they did not possess wealth and rich clothing. The technology of the time relied heavily on foot soldiers with muskets and teams of men working artillery pieces. The age in which a knight wearing armor that cost more than most people would see in a lifetime was nearly invincible when faced with foot soldiers (unless they carried bows and kept their distance) was a distant memory.

    It was an army that relied on the infantryman for its victories, and the people who carry the arms that are decisive in putting the government in power are not to be denied a voice in what that government does, even if they lack property. If the "need and judgment" of moneyed men is difficult to ignore, how much more difficult is it to ignore the "need and judgment" of armed men?

    Yet, in the end, the new king, Charles II was crowned. The property requirement for voting, far from being eliminated, was retained and eventually strengthened. In 1712, the amount of property that was required to vote was changed (it had been set at 40 shillings in 1430, when that was a lot of money) to restrict the franchise more than it had been. In 1832, when the franchise was given to men owning property worth at least £10, vastly increasing the number of voters, only one man in five qualified to vote.

    Locke's radical idea was that we are all born owning ourselves, therefore we all should have the rights of citizens. Further, he asserted that these rights are inalienable, meaning some rich fellow couldn't buy them off you, because you could not sell yourself.

    That last bit caused a lot of trouble. Locke was aware of slavery, and in fact was complicit in it. He was a stockholder in the Royal African Company, which was in the business of purchasing slaves in Africa and selling them in the new world. He also helped draft the constitution of the Carolinas, which established a feudal aristocracy and made a slave owner the absolute master of his slaves. He did this while serving his great benefactor, Lord Shaftsbury, a Whig who should have known better. Locke wrote the Two Treatises of Government at Shaftsbury's prompting, and in the second, laid out his theory that we are all born owning ourselves and cannot be owned by another.

    South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, in its declaration of the causes of secession clearly stating that it had to leave the union because the North was threatening to take away its citizens' property, the slaves, and pointing out that the constitution recognized the legal status of slavery.

    But Locke's subversive notion that we all have some basic rights because we are born owning ourselves resonated precisely because so many didn't have those rights. And the progress toward greater liberty came because he understood that property was central to our understanding of rights, yet strangely, while Locke wrote extensively about what things and people might be regarded as property, he never defined what property is.

    So let me have a stab at it.

    Property is not objects, which exist whether they are owned or not. It is the rights, privileges and obligations society assigns people in regards to objects, and a system for expressing our values regarding objects. One might even say, it is the meaning of objects. We are, after all creatures who create meaning -- it is the essence of human society. Locke changed our understanding of human rights by addressing how humans fit into this system of rights, privileges and obligations.

    But we should not think this is the only system of value and define all human action in the Procrustean bed of property. It is the essence of our political system that we have more than one way of expressing our values. We can express them through property interactions, directing our worldly goods toward some end, or we can express them outside the realm of property.

    We express who we value as a political leader by voting, and consider it corruption when votes are bought. Voting, in fact, is meant to be a counterbalance to property rights, a way for the political sphere to correct the imbalances that can occur in property relations. After all, we've accepted Locke's notion that we own ourselves and cannot lose the rights we have as property to ourselves, but where is the effective demand if we have no money? After all, we've seen famine areas exporting food in Ireland during the potato famine and in the Soviet Union under Stalin. One man, one vote is a way of giving effective demand to people who have no power to express their values in the marketplace.

    In the English Civil War, the Cavaliers supported the rights of the propertied nobility. The Roundheads, of which the Levelers were a sub-category, supported the rights of commoners. Our civil war was not so different, and we are still fighting those wars, of the propertied and their supporters against the commoners.

    Links to the rest

  • The Outlaw John Locke is now out in paperback


  • Public versus private, lighthouses, libaries, and medicine

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    One of the more peculiar things about the current state of American politics is that an entire political party devalues all things public (except police and the military) and valorizes all things private.

        Like many Netizens, I spend too much time arguing with idiots on the internet. One exchange involved me and an Australian librarian discussing the need for libraries with a business consultant, who argued that libraries are not needed.

        "Where's the market failure?" he asked, as if no form of human organization was legitimate unless it could not be provided by the market. Markets Über Alles has long been the cry of business conservatives, but other than assuming that markets are superior, they don't seem to spend much time justifying this choice.

        The truth is, we have centuries of experience and thought that help us understand the difference between public and private institutions, but few people seem to avail themselves of this knowledge.

        Markets work very well when used for goods from which people can be excluded, both physically and morally. The example usually cited is lighthouses. Everyone can see a lighthouse and use it in navigation, but because no one can be excluded, it is difficult to collect a fee for the services provided by the lighthouse. In England, private companies built lighthouses, then found they could not collect money from those who used their service, so they got the ports to collect port fees to support lighthouses. Then, the profit incentive was to spend as little as possible on maintaining the lighthouse while still using the power of the state to collect the fees. Eventually it was discovered that only government had the means to collect the fees and the incentive to provide decent service. This is the essence of a public good.

        At one time, excluding people from health care services was considered morally tenable. Physicians served the rich, barber-surgeons served the rest, and neither had an enviable record of curing people, so home remedies were often as effective as medical care in any case. John Locke argued that natural law shows we all have a right to life, liberty, health and property, and he first gained a powerful patron by acting as a physician to Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Ashley, not long after getting a medical degree at Oxford (Locke got the medical degree in 1665 and treated Ashley in 1667.)

        As medical care improved, it became increasingly evident that to exclude someone from medical care could result in them losing their health or even their life. If we are all born owning ourselves, depriving us of such things interferes with our fundamental right to exist and our property right to ourselves.

        In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which said hospitals could not refuse treatment at their emergency rooms for people because of citizenship, legal status, or the ability to pay, in order to end the practice of "patient dumping," that is, discharging patients because they might cost the hospital too much money. It was possible to physically exclude people from treatment, but was in morally acceptable?

        Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 campaigned on a promise of social welfare insurance, including a national health service (he founded the Progressive Party, better known as the Bull Moose Party, for the purpose of running.) Medicare, Medicaid, and the Reagan-era emergency room mandate were all patchwork attempts to deal with the failure of American politics to provide a path to universal access to healthcare when it had ceased to be morally acceptable to exclude people from healthcare. The Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) attempted to solve the same problem more comprehensively while not eliminating the private-sector actors in the insurance and health care industries.

        We have, at this point, spent more than 100 years trying to solve the problem of medicine becoming good enough to be worth having, while private enterprise could not provide the service in a morally acceptable way. Medical care has made a transition from private good to public good.

        Oh, and returning to the business consultant's question, where's the market failure that justifies the existence of libraries?

        First, no market failure is required to justify people's desire to have a public amenity. We are free to organize our society however we want, provided we don't infringe on the rights of our citizens. If we elect a government to build public institutions and keep electing those who found and fund libraries, we are free to spend our money though taxes just as we are free to spend our money in markets.

        Second, libraries provide goods from which it is immoral to exclude people. They provide knowledge, both in the form of non-fiction and in the form of literature, that people ought to have access to in order to realize their potential and to have sufficient knowledge to exercise their freedom of conscience.

  • A brief history of my obsession with plagues

    by Jamie Lutton

    The last few weeks I have been watching the news about eight hours a day. watching Covid 19 spread around the world, the mounting numbers of the dead,and watching doctors begging for medical supplies, to mostly deaf ears. Learning about what a horrible illness and  death it was. And that no one took the warnings from China seriously.

    Like Malcolm in Jurassic Park. I hate it when I am right.  I am horrified twice over, once for the world, my nation, and my city, But also that I saw it coming, and  I said little as I did not think anyone would believe me. This all goes back to when I quit reading SF books for fun. Back in the early eighties, when I was half way through college, I had gone on a history kick, reading about history books that year, besides my school work..I am a speed reader, so I could read a book every day or every two days. 

    Got interested in ancient and medieval history, first off. Several of the books became personal favorites, ones I would re-read.

    A chapter in one book sparked a lifelong interest in disease for me. Chapter 5 of A Distant Mirror by the historian Barbara Tuchman.

    The book's thesis was that the 14th century was  a 'distant' mirror to our own time. The years 1340 to 1390 was her main focus {she left out the great horror of 1312 to 1318, where due to a climate cooling down 10% of Europe died of starvation. The cooling was caused by a large volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Reference THE GREAT FAMINE by William Chester Jordan.) This was a time of two Popes,  wars about the schism, political rivalries that shed a lot of blood, and worst of all, the Black Death killing as much as 40% of the population, mostly but not limited to the poor.  And it came back, every 10 to 15 years, for centuries. 

    I bought and read as many books as I could on that first beakout, then went on to read about the plague outbreak of the 1660's, and the ones in the classical world, esp the one in the 7th century that led to the final collapse of the Roman Empire. 

    When I opened a bookstore in 1987  I was looking for a theme for the shop t-shirt. In 1993 I hit on the idea of a shirt with partying rats on the front, and the motto 'Celebrating 650 years of the Plague,' with the name of the store on it. Part of the logic was that the Black Death had made more rags from clothing available for paper-making and raised the average income, which helped make the printed word viable as a medium. And with the chronic labor shortage, the struggle for human rights for the mass of people began. 

    A decade later, the shirts were still popular, but the 650 year anniversary was long gone, so my business partner, John Watkins, came up with a design celebrating the next significant anniversary, 666 years, To make the shirt relevant for a longer period, he listed the history of the plague's passage on the back, like a band's tour t-shirt.

                       Plagues Progress

                          1331 China
                       1339 Central Asia
                        1340 South Asia
                         1345 Crimea
             1347  Constantinople, Genoa
             1348 Marseilles, Bristol  
             1349 Oxford, Dublin Bergen 

    The front had a rat, or two rats (the design change year by year) on the front either in a party hat or drinking champagne together: with a modern city background.  The shirts were, of course, black, with white lettering.   I had to defend that shirt from time to time, but it always sold well to people who worked in the hospitals around me.  I kept thinking about other diseases, and reading more, and worrying more.  That shirt for me was warning everyone, through making at a macabre joke

    I began to collect books on the history of disease - books on cholera, a 19th century pandemic from India that swept the world then (( one last holdout was Haiti, which got its first cases I know of after their earthquake, when UN soldiers introduced it there)

    In England in 1854, there was a waterborne  cholera epidemic killing hundreds of thousands of their poor.  The outbreak in Soho, London was stopped when a brilliant doctor, John Snow, convinced the local council to disable the public water pump there. There are many doctors who were unsung  heroes fighting disease before the germ theory, even the journalist Daniel DeFoe, in his novel Journal of the Plague Year speculated that the 'creatures'  discovered using the newly invented microscope, 'might' be causing the disease.

    Other books on smallpox, the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790's,  Polio, Typhoid, measles. rabies, syphilis, gonorrhea, A lot of these books were older,  focused on historical outbreaks, ending up with the discovery of the rat-flea-disease link with the plague, and Dr Jonas Salk and his Polio vaccine. Some spoke of Penicillin and the conquering of Syphilis at the end of World War ll. which had ruined millions of lives.  Third stage syphilis and the birth defects from syphilis are nearly unknown now.

    They nearly all implied that we knew better now, with the advances in medicine, we would never have
    a rampaging pandemic. Even the flu was conquered, with vaccination. 

    Then in 1995 a book that sounded the alarm about new diseases on the horizon was published, The Coming Plague: Newly emerging diseases in a world out of Balance, by Laurie Garrett. 

    This book and others that came after  linked the ravaging of the Earth's environment, with eating wild animals and cutting down ancient forests letting lose new disease on humanity. 

    Doctors had thought in the 1960's, 1970's that that battle was over, and that studying epidemic disease as a specialty was foolish, as humanity had conquered all the major diseases that afflicted people, with only malaria, and mopping up the last of polio left, with venereal diseases as a rather minor problem.  

    They had not thought about, or did not know yet that our biggest scourges jumped from animals to humans, nor realized that the wild held scourges to come, such as AIDS from wild apes,  etc that arrived in the mid 1970's. AIDS woke  up the world of medicine
    that there were scourges just waiting to emerge, the recklessness in ignoring a small breakout.  AIDS was ignored in the US
    until a friend of the POTUS of the time, Ronald Reagan died from it - Rock Hudson.  But then it was far too late,
    AIDS was sweeping the world.

    There are several books on this theme. Spillover, by David Quammen starts out with a mysterious disease jumping from the  environment of Australia, killing horses there, then killing veterinarians.   His focus also was the jump from wild animals, to domestic animals to humans. The book is more academic than, say, The Hot Zone, but has frightening accounts of what was on the horizon.  It is also very well written.  

    Those books, and many others stressed that an virus of some kind, new to humanity, would arise and sweep the planet, causing many deaths and great anguish. 

    The more I read, the more alarmed I got. I had wanted  to be a doctor, long ago, but I was not a good enough student of chemistry. I had been reading paleontology for pleasure, along with books on the history of disease, but The Coming Plague got me focusing on what was could be on the horizon, just waiting for a chance encounter to sweep the world. 

    I began to read all the books I could on mysterious diseases, like the 'sweating' illness that killed the children of 
    Thomas Cromwell, a minister in king Henry Vlll's court; the fictional biography of whom was Bring Up the Bodies, by Hillary Mantel. That disease came and went, killed thousands, and has not been named yet. It is an unknown illness of an unknown nature.

    I got a subscription the CDC magazine to Emerging Infections.I tried to read every issue, they all had alarming/ interesting articles in them. Some diseases just last year jumped from Africa to the new world, the mosquito borne illness called Zika which would make fetuses damaged, giving them microcephaly, i.e. severely small heads and other brain damage. This spread to Central America and even Florida, and is endemic there now.

    In 2014, I called up an ex employee ''Joe''  who  and told him in May that year to start watching the news out of Africa.  I watched the Ebola epidemic. in May or so there was only about 100 cases and 30 or so deaths, but having read The Hot Zone, I knew that this would go bad fast.

    It had sprung up in a completely different part of Africa, where it had never been seen before.  The death rate and spread went up week by week, until by August thousands had died, and it had spread to three countries on the West Coast. I would call Joe and give him briefings, as I was worried that, like Zika later, it could jump and spread to other tropical nations.

    I  but did not think America was in any danger, as it was  spread by blood and bodily fluids and would not get far in the West.  The experts that year kept saying that we did not have to be ''that'' alarmed as it would not spread easily in the West. I watched the struggles of Doctors Without Borders in Africa, as they were accused of spreading the disease, were threatened, as they went and tried  to quarantine and treat the sick and dying, some of them catching it themselves and dying.  The local doctors and nurses died in great numbers, they put their own lives at risk by exposure to Ebola from the sick and dying. I got into the habit of reading international news for stories like this after that. 

    In fact, the world missed a worse threat than Ebola, when in Madagascar in the fall of 2017, a form of Pneumonic Plague akin to the Black Death  -- spread by breath -- broke out there.  The local government is a dictatorship, and did not care about the health of Madagascar's people. They had been in power so long, the health infrastructure was in shambles. So, there the Plague was 'endemic' -  Black Death there for decades. The island had a lot of non native rats that carried it.  Every fall there would be an outbreak around the time of the harvest, when the rats would multiply in great numbers, spread the disease to the population, who would catch the rats to eat them.

    So that country had ''minor'' Black Death outbreaks every year for decades. Turns out that if you ignore a Black Death outbreak, especially a moderate sized one, it can and will make the ''jump'' to change it's nature and be spread by breath. A case would settle in the lungs, and be expelled in the victim's breath. Pneumonic Black Death is a real threat. Not spread by rat-flea-human link, but just by breath, as contagious as a cold, symptoms like a bad cold, but untreated the fatality rate is 80%.  And it kills quicker, sometimes in 24 hours.

    Doctors Without Borders went in and did a big cleanup, medical exams, got rid of a lot of rats, tested thousands, 
    and after a month or so, stamped that epidemic out.  We were very lucky  -  - that time.

    I read the news every day that fall, reading the local news in English coming from Madagascar as I knew how bad the Pneumonic version could be. Planes leave Madagascar going to at least 5 countries, and it could easily 
    have 'jumped' to Africa, India, Saudi Arabia , Australia in one flight. All it would take would be people not paying attention, ignoring a disease breakout in a poor country like Madagascar.

    So what with those two outbreaks, I read a lot of international news. About this time I read up on SARS and MERS.  The fatality rate for both is very high, but both seem to only be contagious when symptoms are showing themselves, so it didn't  spread very easily. Also, people went in and suppressed it, mostly again Doctors Without Borders. And other worried epidemiologists who saw the threat and acted right away.  One expert at least died trying to treat the patients. One thing I learned from my reading about SARS and MERS then that some of our 'old' diseases, like the measles, smallpox, etc jumped from domestic animals pigs, cattle, sheep.  Sheep may be the origin of measles - as in the modern era MERS jumped from camels.  The more I read, the more alarmed I got. It became a minor obsession.  I would take customers aside and suggest they read books on plagues of all kinds, when they said they liked nonfiction.  I looked for these books for my shop as well.  Whenever I had a customer who did not  know what they wanted to read, I pushed  The Hot Zone,  books on the plague, books on Yellow Fever, etc.

    I realized that I had made a career mistake, I should have gone into public health.  I kept discussing this subject with customers, as  I was alarmed, and I wanted others to be. The shop T Shirt was my way of making people think about disease, and maybe, like me, start paying attention. The aftermath of the Black Death pushed the West towards a better world.  But at what human cost.

    Now up to the present.

    I am used to not being believed.  I am bi/polar, and an old woman, who does not 'nice' clothing, heels -- I have these two strikes against me being believed.

    Also, I am not a medical expert, just a bookseller.

    In early February,  I went to my kidney specialist, who I like a lot - he cracks jokes about Trump -- in mid January 2020  I told him I was worried about my own health -- but everyone's health. I was getting very alarmed. by the news out of China. also,  I had a kidney transplant a year ago,and was worried about catching this.  I am high risk of getting very sick.  I asked him - I cornered him, speaking earnestly - - What did he think? Could someone raise an alarm?? No one in America seemed to be worried enough .  . . I thought that this was going to get really bad.

    But, He patted me on the head, told me not to worry, and handed me some face masks. laughing just a little. He thought I was being amusing, again.  So worried about nothing.


    I had a phone conference with him three weeks ago, about my health, I have to check in with him every 2 months or so.  I did not come in as the Covid was raging by then, and doctors were only doing phone conferences. After the usual visit, I said ''I hope you can admit I was right'  Silence, then he laughed again.

    Wish I could have seen his face.

    I am very sorry I did not call the local media - at least the Seattle Times?? The Stranger?? and say 'you should write about this, this is going to be very bad. This is going to sweep over us!' But  I did not expect to be believed.  I could not even get my step son to move Stock Market money around to protect our savings. He thought I was an alarmist. FYI I had been trying to get him to read the old books about Market crashes, some of which are hilarious, as well as informative (THE GREAT CRASH 1929 by J.K. Galbraith. Read the Second edition where he talks about the death threats he got around the time he wrote the book. I have read it in excess of 15 times. It is a penny and postage on ABE Books. Go order it - it is a must read. very good writer.)

    It is my nature to get excited about a lot of things, and  try to get others excited. Most people can't be made excited by such ''dry'' stuff. This has discouraged me from years of me getting excited by this book or that    - but I should have seen this time it was an emergency, that I should have been yelling about this outbreak. .

    So, I apologize for not making a bigger fuss.

    I am sick at heart.  Even if I had started yelling in January, I do not think any one would believe me. I should have tried harder, but like the 2017 Pneumonic plague outbreak in Madagascar. I still thought- well maybe it wont get here. . . I was wrong about that one. I had been really alarmed by that outbreak, as pneumonic plague is so easy to catch and has such a high mortality rate.

    Doctors Without Borders reigned that outbreak in.  And surely the experts in charge of worrying about this has it well in hand . . .right? The experts know what they are doing, right?  They will tell us what to do. This is not my job to raise the alarm.  So, I only bugged my doctor. And talked to a few customers, employees.

    I did not want to be Horton, trying to get hostile people to see something invisible and to take it seriously.  Horton was laughed at by everyone over something they could not see.  Dr. Seuss can be quite profound about human nature.

    But - the people who did know better -who tried to brief Trump in early February about how bad it would get - the ones who also saw, and had the credentials - the people who run this country, the POTUS blew them off.  He thought doing anything would 'spook' the Stock Market. He called Covid 19 a 'Democrat's Hoax' etc for weeks.

    And here we are, locked down, and the people we hired to look after us failed us. Let us never forget the experts knew months ago but could not get our leaders to act in time.  To create hundreds of thousands of Covid 19 tests, find people infected, and trace their contacts - - isolate the infected, before the disease was everywhere, like South Korea did.  We now have the worst pandemic of Covid 19 in the world, and  will lose, according to Trump, if we are lucky, ''only'' 200,000 American lives. 

    We have a terrible time ahead of us. We must remember the spring of 2020,  the stay at home orders, the deaths of our family and friends, the overrun pleading hospitals, tent hospitals, hospital ships, Governors who laughed and refused to issue the orders for a quarantine that would save the lives of their citizens, saying it was 'bad for business'.

    We can prevent, finally and forever being run over by epidemic, pandemic  disease. Listen to experts and act - and teach our kids to love science, and believing experts over wishful thinkers.  To not think of money first, when bad news comes. Ever see the movie Jaws? The mayor refused to close the beaches, chose money over the safety of the people on the beach.   That movie is still a favorite - not so much for the shark, but of everyday fighting for reason over avarice, shortsightedness  in the modern world.


    Here is a list of books I liked, read more than once, about pandemics and plagues. This is in no way complete, I probably left out some very good tiles, please tell me if you read some I missed and did not list here. For fiction, I recommend JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR by Daniel DeFoe,  He fictionalized stories his uncle had told him, who had lived through the Black Death pandemic of 1666, that swept through London and killed 40% of the population. The Norton Edition has very good notes, points out that DeFoe references the microscope, and seeing creatures in it, remarking  that 'perhaps they cause this plague'  . . . then moving on.  We were very close to seeing the connection centuries before we did, the evidence is in DeFoe's book.   Fiction sometimes teaches better than nonfiction.

    Also -  THE BLACK DEATH, A PERSONAL HISTORY -- by John Hatcher -- Set in a market town in England. this title is about 15 years old. you follow the fates of several characters in that town. Touches on the fact that citizens of England saw Black Death coming for months before it reached England, the news carried to them by fleeing people gave the word.  Very good novel, lots of small details of the time, what it was like to live then. written by a Black Death expert.

    YEAR OF WONDERS is pretty good, following a woman's fate in the Black Death year of 1666.

    For non-fiction  

    THE BLACK DEATH 1346 to 1353, by Ole J. Benedictow, This is the best modern book on the 14th century Black Death. It the raises the possibility that there was an anthrax outbreak at the same time. Lots of math in it. Very long.  I read it twice.

    Other modern books:

    THE BLACK DEATH a chronicle of the plague. All original sources like Petrarch, DeFoe, Boccaccio, and Machivelli.
    Am re reading this one right now

    THE COMING PLAGUE- I mentioned before,

    SPILLOVER  by Quannem - same


    DIABOLICAL VIRUS  by Bill Wasik  this disease is carried

    primarly by bats, like Ebola, do not miss this book.

    The horrible days before a vaccine - really worth reading.

    NO TIME TO LOSE  by Peter Piot, the discoverer of Ebola

    VIRUS by Frank Ryan - Tracking the new killer plagues.

    other older titles  

    BRING OUT YOUR DEAD   J.H. Powell 1949 history of 'The Great

    Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793

    VIRUSES, PLAGUES, & HISTORY  Micheal B. A. Oldstone

    A good Ebola book about the first big outbreak in the 1990's is


    the huge outbreak of Ebola in 2014, 

     DEMON IN THE FREEZER  all of these are by Richard Preston  -- the second book is about the history of 

    Germ warfare. Not to be missed!!  There has been a lot of paranoia that Covid 19

    was release as 'germ warfare'.  This book covers real germ warfare of the 20th century,

    including accidents with a virus in Russia in the 1970's that killed thousands.

    The first book  I read on the 14tth century outbreak alone was Philip Zegler's 

    THE BLACK DEATH,  written in 1969.

    PLAGUES AND PEOPLES wrtten in 1976 by William H. McNeill, covers 

    classical plague outbreaks, the post Colombian disease exchange, with

    a chapter on the history of fighting plagues, diseases from 1700 on.

    RATS LICE AND HISTORY by HANS ZINSSER written in 1934.

    Also  Pepy's diaries of that year, as he stayed in London.

    ((There is a book with just extracts of that, could not find the title))


    good background to what London was like then, the backdrop of so many of Shakespeare's plays.

    and how the Black Death was a scourge that would sweep through Europe every 15 years or so

    for nearly 400 years. 

    One last thought.  The only way the Black Death and other diseases  after that were stopped was quarantine.  Thought up by the Venetians, they would make ships wait for 40 days before unloading, the term quarantine' comes from the Italian word 'quarantine", or '40'.  It worked to stop epidemic Black Death in 1740s, when all nations in Europe finally  quarantined houses when they had a case of the disease in that house. The practice was being tried in the plague of 1666 in London. In cities, people would hang out of a window, lowering baskets with money in it, and food would be put in it, and the basket would be hauled in.  If they left that house, they would be killed. .

    As we hide in our own houses, One last thought.  The only way the Black Death and other diseases after that was quarantine.   .

    As we hide in our houses in 2020, with a 'shelter in place' order to stop or at least slow down Covid 19,

    the methods we use today have not changed much since centuries. 

    Our basic weapon against pandemics have not changed that much - 

    with all the advances in science, we have only added masks and washing our hands - germ theory.

     . The front doors would be marked

    in red, the doors were boarded up, and guards put in place.

    At least we dont have our doors boarded up.  Yet.

    On Passover, I remembered the Jews surviving the hand of God by staying inside
    as Egypt lost their first born, and have never forgotten that night.

    I always thought that might be a memory of a plague, waiting inside, till the disease was stopped.
    It always was strange to me that being inside, staying inside, saved the Jews, thousands of years ago.

    Please stay inside  - have patience - 

    and keep washing your hands.

    And remember this horrible time when you vote in the fall.

    PS saw this online "Why is it that every disaster movie starts with people
    in charge not believing the scientists?"

  • Meet the new cat

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    We have a new cat. Our large luxury cat, Bea Geste, is slowly adapting to the presence of an interloper, and if you come in, please offer him reassurance that people still love him, don't just heap love on the small new sports cat, Joan Jett.

  • Patriarchy versus liberalism, a war of tradition and reason

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    The most remarkable thing about patriarchy is that after millennia of organizing societies around it, we have now become uncomfortable with it.

    A remarkably large number of human societies treat people as things. It is a foundation  patriarchy, a system in which dominant males treat women and children as property. There is even a debate about whether such behavior is innate or socially conditioned (full disclosure, I come down on the socially conditioned side of the debate.)

    Abraham Lincoln was rented out as a laborer by his father for 10 cents to 31 cents an hour, and wages earned by him were paid to his father. "I used to be a slave," is the way he described the situation in an early political speech.

    The legal situation that allowed this was part of what we now call patriarchy. While American society never allowed men to buy and sell children or wives, fathers and husbands have long held a dominant property position in the family. Under the doctrine of coveture, when a woman married a man, they became, for purposes of property, one person, and that person was the man. Any property the woman had passed to the man, and in event of a divorce, would remain property of the man unless there were an ironclad prenuptial agreement. This meant that for a very long time, divorce meant ruin for a woman.

    Being, essentially, property, meant that you were not treated as fully human. Neither slaves nor women got to vote until they got property rights, and the first property right is to own yourself. And who would not want to own themselves? I'm not aware of any slaves that wished to remain a thing used by others. I am aware that a few women prefer traditional gender roles. Perhaps it is comforting to know your place and not have to invent your own place in the world, but it seems to be a comfort few wish to avail themselves of.

    Patriarchy played a role in the justification of monarchy, and is perhaps part of what attracts people to all autocratic forms of government. No one needed to justify the right of kings to rule until it came into question, but when it did, some of the justifications founded the king's authority in parental authority. In fact, a book some considered the definitive defense of the divine right of kings was titled  Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings. In it, Sir Robert Filmer argued that Adam had complete power over his descendants, including the power of life and death, and it was from this basis that kings could trace their power. Filmer had a son, who seems to have survived his parenting.

    John Locke, who never married or had children, seemed to have a better understanding about how families work. He pointed out that the father shares his authority over the children with their mother, and his power is not absolute. Locke argued that we are all born owning ourselves, and that fathers do not have the power of life and death over their children, because such authority is not needed for the purpose of the relationship, which is to care for and nurture children until they reach the age of reason, and can be responsible for themselves and embrace their freedom.

    It is fashionable to study the ethics John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant, who addressed the question of how we may know right from wrong directly, attempting to codify behavior that was already accepted. But Locke's ideas changed the way we conceive of people, and changed the way we treat them. He changed what we regard as ethical in a way no ethicist could.

    Once we encounter Locke's idea that we are all born owning ourselves, and cannot sell the rights to ourselves as property, it seems intuitively obvious. A pot has no mind to care who cooks with it, or whether the food is good or bad, a chair cannot resent the weight it bears, but we cannot help but care how we are used. Once we understand this about ourselves, we cannot escape a natural human empathy to others who are used as objects are used, and we sympathize with their plight. Slavery, an institution probably as old as war, becomes an abomination. Coveture, and parallel institutions in other patriarchal cultures, becomes absurd.

    The process of the logic of liberalism spreading through human institutions has not been terribly rapid, but it has been inexorable, and the effects of its logic continue to change traditional elements of our society.

    Consider Locke's theory of property. We apply our labor to nature, and this makes property. Now consider the patriarchal way of life. A man plants his seed in the land, and makes it fruitful, he plants his seed in a woman and makes her fruitful. In each case, the land and the woman, both the thing he plants his seed in and the fruit of his planting becomes his.

    Clearly, this is more a founding myth than how the world has ever worked, but myths are the way we understand the way the world is supposed to work. The patriarch is supposed to build a little world in which he owns the land, governs his family, and provides for all. This is a model for the larger society, as well.

    Not all men could do this, particularly in a world where most of the land was already owned. One solution to this was to have disenfranchised men who had little or nothing, and wealthy men with many acres, cattle, chattel, and wives. The entire system was based on perpetuating little empires of property, and the relationship to most of the things in a household was one of the patriarch's ownership. Traditional institutions of law and government existed, to a great extent, to adjudicate and enforce this system of property, and thereby bring order to society. Men of property wielded great power in such societies. Women of property, and therefore women of power, in many societies did not exist. Instead of owning property, they were property.

    Not owning yourself, of course, has a spiritual side, but more obviously, it has a physical side. If you do not own yourself, you do not own your body, and you do not control what is done with your body. When Ohio Republicans blocked an amendment that would have made it illegal to rape one's spouse while they are drunk, drugged, or incapacitated, this was part of the same philosophy that caused them to pass a law banning all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest, if a heartbeat can be detected (usually around six weeks after conception, often before the mother is aware of the pregnancy.) In either case, the object is to keep women from having control of their bodies.

    I'm not sure to what extent there is a conscious realization among the people doing these things about the connection between women controlling their bodies and and women owning themselves and having agency and power in the world. One would think that people who find abortion abhorrent would favor availability of birth control, which makes abortion less necessary, but this is not the case. Nor is it the case that they consistently advocate for society to provide better prenatal care for the unborn or for children after they are born. The logic of their actions does not support the notion that what they care about is mainly children. However, in matters of birth control, abortion, and marital rape, the same group of people act on a unified theory that women should not control their bodies.

    Granting them control of their bodies grants them ownership of themselves, which in turn means granting them agency and power in the world. Changing who owns the woman's womb challenges the entire traditional edifice of a society based on a system in which women and children were property.

    And if men of property really should wield great power in a society, power over women, over those who have less property, and over those who previously were property, that at last explains the mystery of why poor whites have been voting for a political party that gives benefits mainly to those who have a lot of property. They are voting for a traditional society in which patriarchs run things, because something deeply embedded in our society tells them this is how it should be.

    Locke's idea that we are all born owning ourselves is deeply subversive, even more subversive than he realized in his lifetime (and Locke knew it was explosive enough that it could cost his life or liberty, which is why he never allowed his Treatises on Government to be published under his own name during his lifetime.) Property, after all, is not things, it is the set of rules about how we use things, about our rights and responsibilities in relation to them. When you decide that a person is not property, you change a great deal about how that person is to be treated. And when you do that, you change the very structure of society.

    We are in the midst of a slow-motion revolution that is changing first our minds, then changing everything else. We must not underestimate the disruption this is causing, or the resistance it will engender. The imperatives of a society in which we each own ourselves are very different from those of traditional societies, and we will find ourselves reinventing ourselves and our societies.

    Liberalism, therefore, is not for the faint of heart. There is no certainty that what the logic of liberalism leads to is even possible. This reinvention of society is a product of the enlightenment, and it will require courage and persistence to avoid sinking back into the dark age in which we were governed by force, faith, and custom.

  • The Outlaw John Locke is published!

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Long-time followers of this blog will know that I've been working on a book about liberalism for several years. It is now available on Kindle.

    This is a book on political economy, about the most successful large Utopian experiment ever attempted, liberal democracy.

    None of America's founding fathers would have called themselves capitalists, because capitalism was in its gestation while liberalism was already producing revolutions. The Ur text of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, was published in 1776, and I would say that capitalism was not fully developed as an ideology until the marginal revolution of the 1870s, when it finally got a working value system. Liberalism became complete as an ideology with the publication of A Letter Concerning Toleration and Two Treatises of Government, both by John Locke, in 1689.

    Locke fled England in 1683, a wanted man. He had been implicated in the Rye House Plot, a plan to kill King Charles II. He was unable to return to England safely until he could do so in the company of an invading army, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

    We don't teach this much anymore, but Locke argued for the right to revolution, when a terrible leader could be removed by no other means, and apparently he practiced what he preached.

    His ideas continue to change our society. In his day, many people were treated as property, not just slaves, but wives and children as well. He introduced the notion that we are all born owning ourselves, and cannot ever stop owning ourselves -- that's what 'inalienable' means, as in 'inalienable rights.' This idea upended such ancient institutions as slavery and marriage.

    The notion that government should rule for the good of the people would have been an unfamiliar notion to leaders through most of human history. Kings served God (or Gods) with the blessing of whatever church they belonged to. Many parts of the world are still ruled by force, faith, and custom.

    And while liberalism has held sway in much of the developed world, industrialization has changed the way we live, and with industrialization has come capitalism. It used to be that increasing wealth required controlling more resources, such as land, minerals, and labor. Under capitalism, the key to increasing wealth is wealth itself. Capitalism has shown it can function under dictatorships and kleptocracies, but it seems to produce the most wealth in liberal democracies. The relationship between the ideologies has always been an uneasy one, with democracy often acting as a check on capitalism.

    These are some of the themes I explore in The Outlaw John Locke & why liberalism is worth fighting for.  I've priced it low -- $2.99 -- in hopes at least a few people will read it.

  • The move is under way!

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    We have now been working on the move for one full week, and we've made great progress.  The books are at the new store, and we've got some shelves up, and we're getting books up.

    Those of you who have volunteered, thank you! Those who haven't, you've got a standing invitation to help out. Just give me a call on my cell, two O six, nine three one, thirteen thirty one.

    Beau is coming with us, but he's very nervous right now. As near as he can tell, the world is slowly disappearing around him. I believe he is contemplating going feral.

    Soon, we will move him, and all will be well.

  • We have found a new spot for the store!

  • A society without money

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    In this post, we explored what money is. Short version, money is a sign that the holder of it is owed favors. But what if you had a society that didn't have money?

    Money is an ancient institution, Standardized coinage goes back almost 3,000 years, commodity money, representing a given weight of a commodity such as copper, further than that. But most people living in ancient civilizations never saw money. Most were peasants who paid their taxes in commodities and labor, or slave who labored without pay and we given what little they had by their masters, or serfs who were in some cases little better off than slaves.

    Some societies, such as the Inca civilization, had no money system at all. The Inca had a centralized system of government, and people worked for the government and were given what they needed by the government. Ancient Egyptians paid their taxes in grain and labor. While we use money to track almost all of our economic obligations, these societies kept track of peoples' obligations largely without the use of money.

    The problem is, if you don't have money, you have to keep track of peoples' obligations somehow, and that's easiest to do by defining their obligation very rigidly. If you were an Inca, you labored, and all you produced went to the state, and all you got back came from the state. If you were an Egyptian, you labored on land surveyed by the priests, your obligation depended on your relationship with the state, in time of famine you looked to the state for sustenance, and when the country needed a new pyramid, you got in the harvest, then worked on the pyramid.

    There wasn't a lot of freedom in a society like this, because freedom made it hard to know what your obligations were, whether you had met them, and what was owed to you. It was just simpler to have a regimented society in which you were told what to do.

    Perhaps most people in these societies liked it that way. They had a place in the world, and they didn't need to go through the business of inventing themselves.

    But then, the world started changing too fast for this system to thrive. The late bronze age collapse started about 1200 BCE, and the first standardized coinage showed up on the Anatolian Peninsula about 600 BCE. Instead of the unchanging life promised by the Egyptian Old Kingdom, the kingdom of Lydia, which occupied most of what is now Turkey, arose during the chaos of the late bronze age collapse as one of the new iron age kingdoms. The Lydians needed a system that worked better than barter and could deal with shocks better than the system of bondage to the land that Egypt used.

    Trade goods such as grain or copper are not ideal media of exchange, although their use is sometimes referred to as 'commodity money.' We see something similar in prisons, where tins of tuna or packs of cigarettes have been used as media of exchange. Real money is a much more abstract, and has not got the value for use that a bushel of grain or a tin of tuna has. Eating hundred dollar bills might be extravagant, but it would hardly be nutritious.

    Using coinage allowed for a much more flexible system, in which trade could follow whatever patterns the current harvest suggested was best, and a stranger could do business in a new town without building the kind of relationship the Egyptians had to their god-king and his representatives.

    It also made it a lot easier to cheat. Pirates who stole grain could eat, but pirates who stole money could have whatever they wanted. Instead of conning people for a meal, you could con them for enough money to buy many meals.

    Institutions had to adapt. The rule of law had once dealt mainly with stolen animals and such, now it had to deal with new ways of stealing the more abstract thing that was money. Some even said money was the root of all evil.

    That saying gives too little credit to the inventiveness of the ancients, who I'm sure found plenty of ways of being evil before money came along. Human beings have never been angels.

    The evil of concentrated wealth and power was as much a part of the pre-money civilizations as of those that used money. In fact, without the regimented systems many of these civilizations employed, and the centralized power of the god-king, it would have been impossible to have a large civilization.

    So, let's count our blessings. And our money. The concentration of power and wealth that we decry is as old as civilization, and much, much older than the humble coin.

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