Monday, November 28, 2011

Right to Privilege?

The natural historical state of humans is poverty. Thus, poverty is not what needs to be explained, but wealth.

The natural historical medicine available to humans has been local herbs and magic. Modern medicine is a recent technological development, and it is a wonderful development that has given us longer and better lives. But like all technological advancements that improved our lives, it is a privilege to have it. Does it make sense to argue that one has a right to a privilege?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Justice vs. Social Justice

A good piece on Justice versus Social Justice. Hayek argued that social justice is a non-concept. Leonard Read argued that it's the very antithesis of justice. They are probably both right. It is a non-concept because it is incoherent, yet it is used to destroy justice. Why? Because there is no such thing as collective or social justice -- there are only unjust acts committed by an individual against an individual. There is no excusing "I was only doing my duty" or "It was my job." To knowingly enforce an unjust law (which was conceived of by an individual and voted on by individuals and enforced by individuals) is immoral. To obey an unjust law is immoral. To advocate unjust laws under the guise of social justice, too, is immoral.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Racism

Shawn Darling, a very left-wing Facebook friend, believes I have not spent enough time on this blog discussing racism. I have pointed out to him that I do not do so because race is not something I am particularly concerned with. I am interested in a wide variety of things, and while I consider racism to be evil, racism has nothing to do with many of the things I regularly write about, such as free market economics, so I don't really discuss it that much. But just for Shawn, I will discuss the foundation and evolution of racism.

Humans are biologically xenophobic. Our closest relative, the chimpanzee, goes to war against other troupes, killing all the male members (and even the female ones at times). To the chimpanzee, the out-group chimpanzee is one who can be killed and even eaten.

Humans are similarly programmed. It makes evolutionary sense. Those who were racist killed those not related to them when they saw them, which would include any non-racist people. Since the non-racist people wouldn't kill anyone, while the racist people would kill anyone who was not like them, any non-racist people would have been wiped out. What is left is a fundamentally racist foundation for human behavior.

If this is the case, how did we get to the state we are in, where racism is seen by many as a despicable world view? Well, there are several factors at work. The first is the emergence of trade, which encouraged people to trust others. This probably emerged first between tribes that were related, then expanded to less and less related tribes. The other is not entirely unrelated, which involves the splintering of groups that retained cultural identity. As more and more people had the same cultural identity, it became harder and harder to identify in a concrete way who was not a member of one's tribe. Symbols emerged to facilitate this -- but when expansionist religions emerged, into which people could convert, people were able to become symbolic members of one's tribe. Since there was a shared ideology, racism decreased. What was once racism was converted into more expansive forms of tribalism, such as religious discrimination. (One can see just how much this is true by the absurd accusation of anti-Jew Arab Moslems of being "anti-Semitic" when Arabs are Semites -- what is meant is that the Arab Moslems are anti-Jew, but the religion has been confounded with the race.)

The expansion of the idea of who is in your tribe continued until it reaches its pinnacle in classical liberalism, which considered all people, regardless of race or sex, to be equals. Of course, that attitude took time to spread (as did ideas of expanding tribal membership to those who practice the same religion), but spread it did. Now racist attitudes in places where liberalism has been dominant for a long time are increasingly rare. However, this does not mean that they are gone. In fact, since racism is a kind of collectivism -- where you consider not the individual, but the group -- collectivist thinking has a tendency to lead people down the path to racism. Historically, socialists were anti-Semites, since Jews were associated with the banks and finance. National Socialism, of course, took this attitude to its logical conclusion, making anti-Semitism at least officially unpalatable for the anti-liberal left since the end of WWII.

Of course, none of this addresses specific issues of race. Rather, it deals with the fact that racism is a fact of human psychology and history. Racism is the standard way of thinking of humans, and it takes effort to overcome it as a species. By raising our children among other races, our children learn to see them as "self" rather than "other," and thus is racism overcome. But this does not mean that other "others" may not arise. We distinguish ourselves in a variety of ways, and we do so in ways that are similar to how others do so. Thus, it is possible for collectivists to come along and insist that this or that group is inferior or superior. For Marx the proletariat was superior to the bourgeoisie. We have those who think the poor superior to the rich, the rich superior to the poor; politicians superior to businessmen (or the average person); left superior to the right, right superior to the left, both superior to liberals, liberals superior to both (which would in fact be anti-liberal for a liberal to think); etc. The racism present today may be less obviously racist, since it is not tied to ancient notions of race, but to other groups. But collectivism is collectivism -- such thinking posits "us" vs. "them," with all the consequences thereof.

As for the specific racial problems of the present day in the United States, one can certainly begin with slavery -- as one should. Afterwards, we had the rise of racist laws to prevent racial minorities from competing with the majority. (Anti-competitive laws are of course anti-market.) These laws were designed to keep a variety of groups from competing, be they black, Hispanic, Irish, Chinese, etc. Unions in particular pushed for these laws, to protect white union members from competition. They no longer do this explicitly, but instead push for increased minimum wage laws, which have the same effect, negatively impacting youths and minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics. Their push for trade and immigration restrictions are similarly motivated. (It is ironic, then, that the unions do not support the GOP more, since the GOP wants immigration restrictions that would benefit the unions.) Anti-immigrant and anti-trade attitudes have their source in humans' residual racist attitudes. Even well-intentioned programs, such as affirmative action, are based on a racist belief that minorities cannot get ahead without the good, wise white man ensuring their path on the race is all downhill. (This is also based on the primitive belief that the world is a zero sum game, that where there are winners, there must be losers.) Welfare falls too into this category -- less so in places like Europe, perhaps, but certainly targeting blacks and Hispanics in this country. The more our government has tried to "help" minorities (outside of eliminating racist laws -- which amounts to the elimination of an evil once perpetuated by the government), the worse off they have typically become. Those who have refused the help and rather chose to participate in what little bit of a free market economy we have left are those whose lives have in fact improved. In fact, this situation is so apparent that those who have chosen the economy over government -- people like the Chinese, Indians, and Japanese -- now face discrimination by our government against them and in favor of those who have turned to that government rather than to the economy. Of course anybody who knows anything about public choice is not in the least surprised by this fact. Of course, "benefit" is a generous term, since the only way the government can ensure a group continues to support them is if they make sure the group thinks they need the government. Keep them poor so they still need to be helped. (This is why I would never vote for anyone who considered the poor to be their constituent -- it is in the best interest of any politician to expand their constituency!)

Notwithstanding the occasional return to fundamentally racist collectivism, the trend has been away from racist attitudes precisely because we have been expanding our ideas about who is in our tribes. This has been driven the most by free markets and free trade, which make people have to interact with each other to such a degree that they learn that the other is in fact a person, just like them. Thus, those who are anti-market oppose this development.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Culture, Markets, and Patterns in Psychology, Society, and History

I have written previously on Gravesean psychology, most recently here (at which there are links to more of my musings on the subject). To recap the theory: individuals' psychologies undergo increasing complexity -- when there are enough with that level of psychological complexity, a new kind of society emerges -- those new life conditions allow for the emergence of yet more complex psychologies -- etc. The theory further states that these psychosocial states go from collectivist to individualist to collectivist, etc. Collectivist tribalism to heroic individualism (think Homeric heroes and society) to collectivist authoritativism (think Medieval European society) to individualistic liberalism (pro-market, etc.) to collectivist egalitarianism (Marxism, etc.). There are more psychological levels beyond this, but these do represent the societies we now see. Further, there are mixtures. The transition from Medievalism to liberalism passed through the Renaissance, the guild system, and mercantilism. One could see fascism/crony capitalism/corporatism as the Hegelian synthesis of liberal and egalitarian economics (proving that the dialectical movement is not necessarily progressive), once egalitarianist economics proved untenable (at best).

I am now reading Arthur Pontynen and Rod Miller's Western Culture at the American Crossroads, in which they discuss Philip Rieff's idea from My Life Among the Deathworks

that there are three ontologically distinct modes of culture, each with its own methodology. What he calls FirstWorld cultures are pagan, in which human struggle to reconcile knowledge with fate and the gods. SecondWorld cultures seek via reason and faith to obtain wisdom, the realization of which results in a sacred order. ThirdWorld cultures center on power and self-interest. Rieff associates postmodern cultures with that view. (46)
Rieff thus seems to argue that there are three cultures, which I would argue map onto each of the collectivist social levels. But what, then, do we make of the individualistic social levels?

Let me restate the situation. The collectivist social levels are social orders approaching equilibrium/stasis (note I say "approaching," as true equilibrium is impossible). The individualist social levels are in fact far-from-equilibrium states that emerge in the transition from one equilibrium to another. As Stuart Kauffman points out in The Origins of Order, though, such states are in fact stable. One can see this if one understands life itself as being in such a state. Among the features of the far from equilibrium state is that it is both individuating and creative.

This then brings me to another book I am reading, Keith Roberts' The Origins of Business, Money, and Markets. Roberts' book is about the earliest evidence of economic activity -- which happens to have emerged during the heroic individualist era. More, his story ends right when the Medieval world emerged. Why? The final chapter's title says it all: "The Downfall of Ancient Business." I would argue that it is no coincidence that ancient business ended in a real sense when the Medieval world view became dominant. Stasis is anti-economic. More, the very feature of a market economy is that it is creative. That requires it emerge during creative periods, which I have already identified with far from equilibrium states. The dream of socialism is the dream of stasis, of equilibrium. Nothing new is created, only what has already been invented is produced.

Of course, the more complex a society, the more likely there are to be many people of different levels, and the more likely there are to be subcultures of different social levels. This in fact makes it more difficult to have a pure system -- socialism is impossible for many reasons, among which is the fact that not everyone is at the psychological level necessary for its acceptance. Nor will everyone be, since we have to pass through each level to get to the next. There is no jumping levels. More, the egalitarian level is not the final one, meaning people are going to evolve beyond that, further disrupting the stasis such people desire. Thus society is increasingly in a state of disequilbrium, with areas of equilibrium and far from equilibrium. The complexity is growing more and more.

To return to Pontynen and Miller, their thesis is that the SecondWorld culture is preferable to ThirdWorld culture, so we need to return to it. However, they modify this recommendation by also recommending the Anglosphere's emphasis on society as a spontaneous order -- which really results in a culture somewhat closer to that which emerged in the Liberal era (though they complain about this era, and identify it as the beginning of the problems we now face culturally). I argued that this model describes the eras of stasis -- which in essence seems to argue that times of business are times we move away from culture, while moves back toward culture are times that are anti-business (suggesting Nietzsche was right to criticize the market economy in his consistent support of culture). Of course, this only applies if we are talking about culture as a stable social condition. If that is how we identify a culture as being a culture, then far from equilibrium eras are culturally disruptive and are thus not cultures in this sense. They are periods of transition from one culture to the next. Many have discussed the current state of the arts, observing that nobody is doing anything new. Well, that's the main feature of a stable culture. Not many people were doing much "new" during the Medieval era in Europe, either. The transition -- which is in a far from equilibrium state -- is going to result in many new things, a proliferation of new forms, styles, etc., until a new stasis is achieved. We are now in that stasis, and thus have achieved culture in the sense being discussed.

In integrating the ideas of these writers, I think I have discovered some interesting historical patterns. They are patterns however are more like those found in a spontaneous order, meaning they are complex and not really predictable in a real sense. We can predict kinds of patterns -- the emergence of collectivist and individualist thinking -- but not how they will be realized. Further, we can predict whether there will be pro-market or pro-culture attitudes, and see why. These are mostly preliminary thoughts, but I think I'm onto something.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

We Should All Observe the Sabbath and Keep It Holy

I am reading a wonderfully dense, incredibly complex and difficult book ostensibly on art, but which lays out such a through philosophical world view first that they have yet to get to art per se (by pg. 45, Ch. 3). It is Western Culture at the American Crossroads by Arthur Pontynen and Rod Miller. I will probably write more on this book as I'm reading it (and as soon as I pin down exactly what they are arguing -- they have managed to first make me sure of where they are going, only to then make a statement that makes me no longer sure, a sufficient number of times that I know better than to say what they are saying until I am finished with the book), but I wanted to note something that has particularly struck me for some reason. Consider the following:

culture is the product of leisure and the object of our thoughts.

The Puritan refers to such leisure as the Sabbath, a day not just of rest but of reflection as well. The Sabbath, or leisure, is associated with the rise of culture because it permits us the time to reflect on the world and our place in it. The Puritan thus democratizes participation in the liberal arts, once the privilege of the aristocratic class. Active reflection on the purpose of life makes possible responsible freedom by the exercising of conscious deliberate choice as such it is deemed the finest activity humans can engage in. Such reflection is self-conscious, a realization that we think, we live, we experience death---and perhaps more. Between life and death occur guilt about the past, boredom with the present, and anxiety about the future. Self-conscious reflection has an object: to understand what meaning, what hope and joy, transcends guilt, boredom, anxiety, and even death. That transcendent goal is the ground for the liberal arts, the arts of the Sabbatical mind, and responsible freedom. (26-7)
Several things come to mind. First, their point about the Sabbath democratizing culture -- the arts -- supports my contention that the arts are now a spontaneous order in their own right, since equal access is an essential feature of spontaneous orders. Second, the point about the importance not just of leisure, but of a particular kind of leisure -- one that allows for contemplation -- is very suggestive. How many of us have that kind of leisure? We fill our time with work, "leisure activities," family, friends, noisy protests, social networks, endless chatter. We keep busy, busy, busy, and thus have no time to sit and think. As a culture we no longer have a day of contemplation. Thus, we are moving back toward more elitist culture -- only the elites are in many ways self-selected. It thus becomes aristocratic, but not necessarily in the sense of aristos meaning "the best" (though those with Ph.D.'s in the humanities may think otherwise of themselves). Rather, the ones who rise to the top are the ones best able to parrot what everybody already knows -- thus is true contemplation discouraged, lest one come to different conclusions. Better to fill one's time with endless chatter, avoid contemplation.

Of course, there are different kinds of contemplation. The average person needs time alone to think. No T.V., no radio, nobody talking to him. Someone like me needs time alone to think, with a pen and paper at hand. The scholar should be contemplative in this active sense, writing down the thoughts, thinking those thoughts through, revising thought thoughts, revising revisions. The scientist, the scholar, the artist all need time to contemplate if they are going to do anything other than what has already been done, if they are going to think new thoughts, if they are going to add to the world. And we need to be joined by everyone else. Everyone needs to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy -- in thus contemplating, one will find oneself, improve oneself, and, improving oneself, find the energy and virtue to understand and improve the world.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Failure Is Not an Option

John sat in the visitation area across from his father, Carl.

"Well, son, was it worth it? They're going to execute you tomorrow. Was it worth it?"

John leaned forward across the table. "I think so," he said. "You know, I was doing what I loved, and if failing at it resulted in this, then so be it. I was doing what I loved."

"That seems an odd thing to say. You were greedy, son, and that's what got you here."

"No, not greedy. Ambitious. I was ambitious. I wanted to be in charge, and I was in charge. I wanted to succeed, and I succeeded . . ."

"Until you didn't."

"Yes, until I didn't." John leaned back and looked at the gray ceiling. "But until then, it was glorious. I was the best, and that's why I made it. I was the best. I have no regrets."

"What about your family? Your wife? Angela and Adam? Your mom and me?" A tear ran down Carl's cheek. "You were selfish. You are selfish. They're going to lose their father."

John leaned across the table and almost whispered his reply. "Dad, I'm not the one who made the law that if you fail, you lose your life. Everyone supports you so long as you succeed. Nobody, not even you, accused me of being greedy or selfish for as long as I was succeeding. You said you were proud of me when they made me coach. As well you should have been. You don't get to take all that back now that I'm in this situation. You knew as well as I did the consequences of failure. We lost. We lost, so here I am. And tomorrow . . ."

"And tomorrow I can't even bury you, because they won't let you be buried."

"I lost the championship. I failed. That's how it goes. You know you can't fail in this country. You succeed, or else. No do-overs. Ever."

"It's not fair."

"I suppose not. But would it have been fair if I had won and been declared a national hero? I surely wouldn't have turned down the trophy, the accolades, the parades, and lord knows what else. Refusing to turn down all that, how can I turn down the consequences?" John sat up straight in his chair. "It is my destiny. It is the consequences. I did not enter this ignorant of the consequences. I can't complain now."

A guard approached. John looked up at him.

"Well, dad, looks like I have to go. Give my love to mom, Barbara, Angela and Adam. I understand why they couldn't come."

John stood. Carl remained seated. The guard grabbed John by the arm and led him out of the visitation area, the first to leave. The room echoed with continued murmuring. Carl watched in silence as he watched John disappear with the guard through the iron door.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

FSSO 2011

This weekend I presented a paper, "The Theater of Tensions," at the Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders. It was a fantastic conference, with a wide variety of ideas and world views -- it was a broad swathe of classical/traditional liberal thinking. The people were great -- it is nice to be able to have discussions with people with whom one disagrees where the level of respect nevertheless remains high. This doesn't mean that there weren't heated arguments, or that there weren't misunderstandings of positions or arguments, but even if someone unfairly misattributed an argument against, say, socialized medicine, as an argument for the current system, such misattributions were quickly and clearly settled, and thus the real argument was able to take place. (This is something we all do: we meet someone who is against X; we know people who are against X and for Y; therefore we assume that new person is for Y, even though it is possible to be against both X and Y.)

Respect. It was observed at the conference that respect is an ur-value, underlying rights. We respect our friends. We respect our family (in healthy families, anyway). We extend respect to strangers -- and in so doing, extend rights to them. We have moved from a species that killed strangers to one that traded with strangers, and thus extended respect to him. Respect was central at the conference, both topically (unstated and, later, stated) and in our disagreements. Sadly, we see less and less of this in civic society -- if you disagree with me, you aren't just wrong, but evil! (and I of course could never be wrong!). One should be able to get into even a heated discussion of ideas, and at the end of the day, shake hands, wish each other well, and be happy to see each other next time around. But of course, this also requires people to be more interested in learning what the truth really is rather than in being seen by everyone as right, whether you are in fact right or not. And that is one of the advantages of such a conference, where everyone there was a scientist first, and an ideologue second (though sometimes a close second). We were there to try to understand spontaneous orders better, and to try to understand whether they are in fact better for humans to live in than other social systems. Such questions are of course going to raise questions and result in heated debate (such as whether or not spontaneous orders were "natural," and if not, why we were "advocating" them). Naturally, our arguments resulted in some convergence, divergence, greater certainty, and greater uncertainty. Which is as it should be. If you don't come back from a conference without all of those things happening, it wasn't very valuable for you.