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Why do people think hierarchy is bad and equality is good?

. . . as answered  on Quora. . . .

This is one of those questions that one might consider conducting a poll to find out the answer. But how would we word the questions, prompt the answers? And how would we know if and when the people themselves actually know why they value abstract conditions like inequality and hierarchy as they do? Many people have beliefs and values that they cannot articulate. Arguably, many basic values and attitudes are not possible to articulate accurately, with certitude.

Which is why we theorize, and then compare theories.

So, I’ll take a stab, then read others’ answers.

Everybody knows that people are unequal in different ways. You are superior to me in one way, I’m superior to you in another. This is a fact of life. And most sane people have no problem with these forms of inequality — and one reason some hyper-egalitarian ideologies drive people nuts is that they seem to rub up against the reality of multiform inequality.

But when contemplating hierarchies, we are not really talking about the diversity of inequalities, issue by issue, capacity by capacity, outcome by outcome. Hierarchies are recognizable by being persistent in human organization.

So, “other things being equal,” why would we grant others special positions of inequality that persist? Why would we organize patrols, work gangs, sports teams, etc., with established hierarchies that continue over time and extend over space beyond the natural outcomes of different capacities and talents and efforts, etc? Hierarchies are somewhat rigid in their persistence, and . . . what is the point of that added rigidity?

But take a step back, first. As most of us see human interaction and differences, all our inequalities tend to wash into a rough parity at a general level. Why should one person be exalted above others except on a piecemeal basis, according to each endeavor?

Equality makes sense to many of us even acknowledging extensive and diverse inequalities because, as I state, the inequalities are diverse But, generally, the idea that some people are better overall than others needs to be proved. And that general case requires some extra data.

When we establish hierarchies for a social function, we are trying to match capacities to task — we are trying to make it easier to accomplish some task. So the best berry-picker might be in charge of the berry-gathering group, and the best hunter in charge of the hunting party, and the best organizer in charge of selecting the special hierarchies, and so forth.

The reason many balk at hierarchies is that the rationale for selection of special status seems arbitrary or ill-chosen, or, if not arbitrary, chosen according to standards irrelevant to the function.

Which is why general hierarchies are challenged more often than specific, small-organizational hierarchies. Do I care to challenge the hierarchy of the local fire hall? No. But I may express more concern about the head of the county commission. It is the general, over-arching positions and hierarchies that get the most push-back. Part of this is the difficulty of determining merit, and part of this is that hierarchies are more questionable and challengeable the more basic they are — for, as I stated above, our many inequalities wash out into a rough parity at the basic, general level.

To restate: hierarchies are usually accepted and even demanded on the basis of some merit. But where the merit is harder to figure — and where multiple standards might not unreasonably vie for prominence in judging merit — then equality seems to be the de facto standard.

This is why we have ideological differences regarding hierarchies: leftists generally do not understand how merit works relating to property and markets, and they do not see property-ownership hierarchies as acceptable; or, sometimes if not always, the distribution of property is so obviously orthogonal to normal rationales for (and explanations of) social function. Rightists are generally more accepting of hierarchies, in part because they are more accepting of diversity of hierarchies, realizing that family hierarchies and church hierarchies and business hierarchies are not the same, and the same person high in one may be low in another.

One problem with political hierarchies is that they are based, originally, on the use of violence, so hunters and fighters tended to be conquerors and thus kings, not necessarily on wisdom or justice and the like. Which is why monopoly governance has generally been replaced with socialized governance in modern times, but limited at first to the core services of violence: defense of law and order, for example.

So the idea of socialized/democratized equality grew into dominance of the State because the hierarchies of old-fashioned class and royal monopoly privilege became too tangential to the administration of justice.

And then the idea became to spread this manner of hierarchy revision (by recourse to a baseline equality of citizenry) to other areas where the idea seems (to many of us) less relevant and much more problematic.

Obviously, I think both equality and hierarchy are natural to man, and quite relevant to many aspects of social life. Hierarchy is inevitable in any organization, and becomes more so the more one scales up the size of the organization. The more people in the organization, the more compelling is the case for establishing hierarchy. It’s a matter of efficiency and how decision-making and leadership work. Among equals, there’s a lot of argument to come to a consensus; the more the people, the more the argument. But in a hierarchy, the many have outsourced decision-making and inspiration to a few.

Or, should I say, upsourced?

It is my experience that people generally — and by this I mean normal people — really want leadership. Hierarchy is not a problem for most people. It is only when hierarchies fail to deliver on organization goals and social functions that questions of equality become over-riding. And hierarchies fail to deliver when the standards of performance and goals are diverse and when it is hard to figure the standards and the relevance of inputs to outputs.

Of course, there is another and more pernicious opposition to hierarchy that often masks as this completely legitimate preference for equality: envy and sub rosa competitiveness. One reason to oppose a hierarchy is because YOU want to be on top, and aren’t. So, to increase the likelihood of your own rise, or to punish another for holding a position you desire, you pretend to be for equality.

It is not always easy to determine whether the opposition to a hierarchy is born of desire for group achievement or passion for self-advance. But our literature gives us many clues to this. Shakespeare, especially, was good at dealing with this aspect of human nature.

twv

Is libertarianism anything more than a rich man’s way of getting out of taxes?

. . . as answered on Quora. . . .

It isn’t even that. Most rich people have ways to get around paying all the taxes that other people want them to pay. Now, many of the super-wealthy like talking about increasing tax rates, and how “the rich” should pay more in taxes, though rarely do they freely contribute extra funds to tax revenue pool. Few of the very rich support libertarian program. Indeed, the very wealthy can often be counted on to push regulatory schemes and wealth transfers that somehow benefit themselves at the expense of other (often less successful) business people, and which libertarians generally oppose. It is an open secret. The business class is not libertarian. While small businessmen tend to lean conservative and libertarian, big business is a very corporatist culture, and most political billionaires support Democrats in America.

Concentrating on one or two or three anomalies amounts to a psy-op, a way of leveraging availability bias among a population of envious news consumers.

The question itself shows a prejudice about liberty that is unknowing; it is evidence of a bizarre set of assumptions that have little to do with reality and much more to do with the fantasies of statist ideology.

Libertarianism is the promotion of liberty as the most peaceful and cooperative form of justice. Liberty is the freedom that can be had by all. It is where coercion is limited to defensive purposes. It limits coercion universally — and equally — disallowing the initiation of force as a means of establishing policy as well as for private gain. The State is an institution that marshals initiated force for the benefit of some at the expense of others, usually with much ballyhoo purporting that all are being benefitted. It runs like a scam. Its most ardent proponents operate as con artists. Most are True Believers — but among the very wealthy exist elite cadres who knowingly promote b.s. political theory to gain the upper hand. To gain private or sectoral advantage. The assumption that the libertarian idea is purveyed by the rich as a class to get a lighter tax load is preposterous: factually untrue and resting on a failed understanding of actual classes of people.

Oh, and liberty is about a lot more than opposition to taxes. As should be obvious from the above.

twv

N.B. In the above answer I assumed that by ”the rich” the querist meant what Bernie Sanders calls ”the top one percent.” But an important point, often made by libertarians in such conversations, is that in America, today, even the poor are rich by world-historic standards. And this fact puts several important wrinkles to questions like this. But not this question specifically. The answer to ”Is libertarianism anything more than a rich man’s way of getting out of taxes?” remains the same, even if we stipulate that we are all rich: It isn’t even that.

How is the Libertarian Party different from the Democratic Party in America?

…as answered on Quora….

The Democratic Party is the oldest organized political faction in the United States. It has been wildly successful.

The Libertarian Party is the oldest minor party in the country to have maintained an active and culturally significant presence on the margins of politics. By major party standards, it has been wildly unsuccessful, but by minor party standards, it has been bizarrely persistent. On the face of it, it is a testament to a segment of Americans desperately trying to bear witness to the possibility that freedom, and not “equality” or “security” or “nationalism,” might matter most.

Yet, ideologically, the Libertarian Party has some fascinating historical links with early Democratic Party ideology.

Libertarians sport more similarities to the ideas of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Clubs than to the nationalist ideas of the so-called Federalists. Libertarians are anti-nationalist, free-trade, limited-government activists, not Big Bank-supporting, big-business-subsidizing protectionists in the manner of the mercantilist Alexander Hamilton, the chief theorist of the early Federalist Party.

In the 1830s, an anti-establishment faction grew out of the Democratic Party, greatly influencing (if for a brief time) the Jacksonians. The faction was active in many northern states, especially in New York where its activists, led by newspaper editorialist William Leggett, set up a minor party, the Equal Rights Party. While the party was short-lived, the movement was quite influential, and a challenge to the establishment. In a memorable incident where these “workingmen” partisans attempted to gain control of the New York Democratic Party, the establishment turned off the lights to prevent the political change. Yes, deplatforming, 1830s-style. The Equal Rights activists who had gathered en masse were not to be dissuaded, though. They struck their matches — a new self-igniting device sold as the “Loco-Foco” — and lit their candles and carried on with the election of officers decidedly not in line with the insiders of Tammany.

The New York Times mocked them, called them “Loco-Focos.” The monicker stuck. And for a brief time — the time in which Alexis de Tocqueville was poking around in the States — the Loco-Focos dominated political discussion. Ultimately, they mainly affected corporate law, taking away the overtly political and favoritist aspect to gaining corporate status, but also had a huge impact in Rhode Island and a few other states. Nevertheless, their general anti-government stance was not appreciated by ambitious men. And then when they moved to abolitionism, they were successfully marginalized forever.

Modern libertarians are indeed echoes of that Loco-Foco Moment, as Brian Doherty mentioned in his book on the modern libertarian movement’s most successful politician, Dr. Ron Paul:

The particular combination of beliefs that animates Paul and his fans has not been prominent on the American scene since the Locofocos. You don’t remember them, but they were the New York–based, radically laissez-faire wing of the Jacksonian Democrat coalition during the President Martin Van Buren era of the 1830s–’40s. Like Paul, for them, the separation of government from banking was their primary goal (as well as the elimination of non-hard money). But aspects of Paul and Paulism appear and reappear across our nation’s history, like ghosts haunting the battlefield where the American dream has been slaughtered in slow motion since shortly after it was born.

Though modern libertarians may find some commonality in 19th century leaders like Van Buren and Grover Cleveland, they see little of value in the party from the racist, progressivist warmonger Woodrow Wilson onwards. The modern Democratic Party has utterly betrayed its Jeffersonian and Loco-Foco roots. Most of the current crop of the Democracy’s presidential contenders are pimping for socialism, of all things, which to a libertarian appears just as bad (or even worse) than imperialistKu Kluxer, or Nazi.

William Leggett, chief theorist of the Locofocos.

Brian Doherty, Ron Paul’s rEVOLution (2012)

Brion McClanahan, How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America (2017), with a foreword by Ron Paul

Anthony Comegna, “The Loco-Foco Movement: A Lost Chapter in the History of Liberalism, Part One” (2016)

Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era (2016)

Christopher Hitchens said of libertarianism that “I have always found it quaint, and rather touching, that there is a movement in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.” What are your thoughts on this assessment?

…as answered on Quora….

Selfishness is the excess of consideration of (or passion for) benefits to self over benefits to others. Libertarians, under influence of Ayn Rand’s goofy logomachy, sometimes make of selfishness a virtue. So for a non-libertarian to mistake libertarian norms as a defense of selfishness, it is hardly shocking.

But just as I expect libertarians not to fall for Rand’s error, so too do I expect really smart non-libertarians. After all, error remains error, and I shake my head no matter who makes it.

To clarify: I follow Aristotle in saying that an excess of a praiseworthy passion or proclivity, like a lack of same, is a vice. The questions regarding liberty might then be:

  • Is it selfish to want to be free?
  • Is it selfless to defend others’ freedoms?
  • Is it selfless to accept responsibility for one’s actions, or selfish?
  • Is it selfish to shrug off responsibility while demanding that others’ accept theirs?

I ask these questions mostly with a rhetorical intent. Commonsense responses include:

  • It is selfish of others to seek to take away my freedoms.
  • It is selfish of me to slough off my responsibilities.
  • It may be selfless of me to give up some of my freedoms for others’ benefits, but it is not selfless to take away others’ freedoms for my or anyone else’s benefit.
  • Freedom and responsibility fit together fairly naturally. It is only vice that twists our minds to think otherwise.

Truth is, “selfish” is a term of opprobrium we marshal most often at kids. It pertains most to situations of commons, like when sharing toys or taking common meals, etc. Adults can get more specific, can’t we? Let’s drill down.

Greed is one form of selfishness. Greed is the excess of acquisitiveness. We must acquire goods to survive and thrive. A person who lacks an acquisitive drive becomes a burden to others, or withers and dies. Normal acquisitiveness is absolutely vital. Thus virtuous.

A libertarian qua libertarian would say that acquisitiveness unbound by respect for others, acquisitiveness taking the form of theft, or fraud, is indeed a vice. The harm done by the vicious acts of over-acquisitiveness are obvious, and every society has some rules against such actions. Libertarian views on property rights are distillations of such universal norms. And greedy acts of theft and fraud are indeed selfish. Libertarians are very much against these forms of selfishness. It is our basic belief. It hardly gets more basic.

Libertarians would go further: they would say (and do) that much political activity to use The State to take from some and give to others feeds greed, expresses greed, is greedy.

Libertarians thus condemn today’s politics as a politics of greed. It is the foamers-at-the-mouth for higher taxes and ever-growing social programs — or merely for special advantages for their own groups — who are greedy, not libertarians.

Further, in the realm of personal ethics, a commonsense libertarian would readily concede, as I insist they do, that one can be greedy without violating someone else’s rights. All vices of excess amount to an imbalance. If one concentrates on acquisitiveness at the personal cost of neglecting other good habits, like empathy or curiosity or x — the list goes on and on — then one harms oneself. Vices are not limited to social destruction. Personal destruction also applies.

And though as libertarians we may not make a big deal about personal greed — most libertarians mind their business, knowing that virtue is not always easy — as normal members of families and communities, we do sometimes express our concerns about others’ private greed.

Now, let us take a step back: greed is not the only vice of selfishness. Another is niggardliness.

A few paragraphs above I suggested that those who would marshal the state to take from some to give to others are greedy. But sometimes they are worse than greedy. They play games of moral blackmail and confuse people as to what vice and virtue are.

A greedy person, they say, is stingy, is mean, is a niggard. Maybe. And it is definitely the case that generosity is a virtue. To give from a condition of strength is a special kind of excellence. But just as one can give too little, one can give too much. And, just as we do not use the word niggard much any longer (because of its similarity with a very different word), despite its key function in our ethical vocabulary as the lack of generosity, we also do not use often enough the very best word for the excess of generosity, prodigality.

prodigal is a person who spends too freely and gives too much. While a niggard is a person who robs himself of the joys of helping others, a prodigal indulges himself too much by helping others. In both cases, the indulgence chiefly hurts self. A niggard, in not helping the other, would commonly be said to be selfish, while we might say that the prodigal is indeed ‘selfless,’ but that is only a theory. The trouble here is that while acquisitiveness is a self-regarding virtue, generosity is an other-regarding virtue. Both virtues have lacks and excesses that constitute vices. But there are asymmetries here which can confuse is if we are not careful. The reader might see a key to resolving the whole confusion. But let us leave that aside for now.

Notice where we are at: Libertarians are against some vices on grounds of liberty, leaving opposition to other vices for venues other than politics and legal action (libertarianism being at core limited to a set of norms to be treated as laws), venues like manners, religion, and interpersonal persuasion.

But libertarians do have things to say about some vices, like prodigality. It may be regarded as a personal, familial, or community issue whether so-and-so is a prodigal. But just as greed can be expressed in the political realm in the clamor for special treatment for self or in-group, that same system and same sort of clamoring can serve as a platform for prodigality, too. It is extremely easy to indulge the halo of generosity in politics — all the while spending other people’s money. While it is prodigal to over-spend on generous acts from one’s stores of wealth — hoping to curry favor with others, often, in effect “buying love” — it is doubly prodigal to spend other people’s wealth in a similar binge of currying favor with others. Today’s liberals, Leonard Read ably noted, are liberal mainly in spending other people’s money. It is a fake generosity. It is stolen virtue.

It is modern politics.

The politics of prodigality.

And libertarians are most often roundly hated — not condescendingly regarded as “quaint” — for pointing out this pharisaic posturing of pseudo-generosity by “progressives” and other pseudo-liberals. And we regard this heart-on-sleeve “selflessness” as mere selfishness ill-concealed.

Savvy socialists do not see our challenge as “touching.” They see it as a threat, and seek a multitude of ways to diminish our critique.

So far, they have only been rhetorically, not dialectically successful. One way they have done so is by muddying up the waters of “selfishness.” It is usually a dumb-person’s accusation, nothing more. It is kindergarten ethics repeated by adults who should be embarrassed for themselves.

. . . republished from March 23, 2010. . . .

The passing of the Democrats’ medical institution reform package, by clever and opaque political maneuvering, has angered many people. Though all ancient sages unite to advise us not to lose composure about things we cannot change, I, too, have been a bit angry about the recent events regarding what is popularly (and nauseatingly) called “health care reform.”

But what interests me at the moment is how risky the Democrats’ maneuvers are. We often say that politicians can’t accomplish much. Washington is riddled with gridlock; its prime movers are not merely dishonest and petty, but unable to take stands.

Here, however, regarding the nationalization of medicine in the United States of America, the Democrats have taken a daring stand. They are bucking the growing incredulity amongst Americans that government can solve our problems by taking control. For the past few decades, the long-term trend has been towards skepticism about large-scale government efficacy.

But this long-term trend has had its set-backs. The three biggest counter-trends to growing anti-statist opinion have pertained to

  1. War — There was a lot of support, early on, for the conquest of Iraq;
  2. Anthropogenic Global Warming Catastrophe — There was a huge surge, in recent years, in the belief that there had been recent global warming, that this was in some sense unique, that human civilization had caused it, that this would only grow more dangerous, and that government could (and mustsolve it; and
  3. “Health Care” — A rising number of people had begun to see rising costs and spotty insurance for medical care as a problem requiring a national solution.

In each of these three counter-trends to the rising general incredulity over government efficacy, the wave of pro-government sentiment has recently waned. Spectacularly.

Regarding the advisability of conquering Iraq, the widespread support for this had ended before the end of George W. Bush’s final term in office. Even Republican legislators, today, are almost unanimous in realizing that the war was a mistake. The general consensus, now? War and conquest and remaking other polities is tough work, and we should always be super-cautious about engaging in such action.

AGW catastrophism hit its peak popularity in 2008, and is now in steep decline. The leaked emails from Britain were in no small part responsible for this. Careful criticism also had an influence. And, finally, the silly folk sayings confirming global warming itself probably did the most to undermine the position. People can only speak risible nonsense so long before laughing. (Al Gore and media folk were largely responsible for encouraging the idea that every storm, every heat wave, and every exceptional weather event provided “more evidence” that global warming was happening. Record-breaking cold spells and blizzards heralded as signs of “global warming” became a popular folk joke in 2009 and 2010.) The hard rhetorical barrage Americans had been hit with for years — from scientist-advocates, media folk, popular entertainers trying to look serious, and Al Gore — appeared to toughen them up, not convince them.

Finally, support for new national programs for medical insurance peaked last year. By the beginning of this year, popular support had dropped to below 40 percent.

And here’s where courage comes in. It is now risky for Democrats to unite around an unpopular issue.

What could they be thinking? I mean, we expect politicians to rally around popular causes, not unpopular ones. Politicians have demonstrated a rather consistent desire to get re-elected. So what gives? What do they hope for?

I can think of a few possibilities:

  1. Democrats hope that, like Social Security, the new program package will grow in popularity over its first 20 years after implementation. Social Security became the infamous “third rail” of politics, which one dare not be seen to criticize, from the ’60s though the ’80s and beyond. They hope for a similar effect with health care regulation and nationalization.
  2. Democrats know that they have only a limited time in majority, in united government, and feel they have to do what their core constituency really wants, before they lose control. They are hoping that it will be harder to repeal the medical reform package than it was to pass. (It is harder, in America, to repeal programs than it is to create them. This is fairly well established.) Think of it as their “Final Solution.”
  3. They know that it will likely be struck down in courts, and that this will rally their supporters to take on a new, bigger fight, which they can make hay over for years.
  4. They really are (or, perhaps more likely, want to be seen as) ideologues, to appeal to their core supporters in the government unions, people who by their nature think that government is the key to all progress (the sole sense in which they can be called “progressives” . . . that is, they believe only in the eternal progress of increasing size, scope, and efficacy of political and bureaucratic governance).

In these four scenarios, they come out as risk-takers. People of courage.

But, when you look at the hodge-podge of proposals that make up the reform package, they come off as something else again. I’ll let the reader name that “something else.”

Republicans have a huge opportunity for a comeback, here, but only if they stick to the theme that nurtures Americans’ justified incredulity. And the only way to make this stick is to attack the package not for such things as Death Panels and Abortion support — proof positive that Republicans tend to be a rather brain-dead group, so off-point are most of these issues — but for its long-term and wide-spread negative consequences.

This is hard work. I have not done it here. We have only just begun. Thinking “beyond Stage One” (as Thomas Sowell puts its), identifying the “unseen” as well as “the seen” (as Frédéric Bastiat put it), striving to discover the long-term effects as well as the near-term effects (as Henry Hazlitt put it) — these critical modes of thought aren’t easy. They require effort. They rub against the grain of enthusiasm. They seem treasonous to people who demand symbolic action, and identify themselves chiefly by the “good deeds” they do by merely supporting a political party.

Ah, and there’s why we don’t see Republicans normally taking to this agenda. The technique of honest and thorough social thought cuts both ways. It cuts against the right as against the left. It makes hash of simplistic arguments for war as it does against simplistic arguments for government handouts and regulations.

But there is one thing we, who try to practice economic criticism, can take solace in: Our agenda may not be the mainstream political agenda, but it does fit in, very nicely, with the common sense of the American people. Americans’ native skepticism over government may be superficial, but it is strong, and it is growing.

By applying economic thinking, and publicizing this thought, we strengthen the growing incredulity to statism in American culture, and prepare the way, perhaps, even for an eventual political success.

twv, The Lesson Applied

What is meant by the phrase “there is no god but the unknowable, and Herbert Spencer is its prophet”?

. . . as answered on Quora. . . .

This is a taunt from the pages of Jack London’s great novel Martin Eden, 13th chapter:

Martin had heard Herbert Spencer quoted several times in the park, but one afternoon a disciple of Spencer’s appeared, a seedy tramp with a dirty coat buttoned tightly at the throat to conceal the absence of a shirt. Battle royal was waged, amid the smoking of many cigarettes and the expectoration of much tobacco-juice, wherein the tramp successfully held his own, even when a socialist workman sneered, “There is no god but the Unknowable, and Herbert Spencer is his prophet.” Martin was puzzled as to what the discussion was about, but when he rode on to the library he carried with him a new-born interest in Herbert Spencer, and because of the frequency with which the tramp had mentioned “First Principles,” Martin drew out that volume.

So the great discovery began. Once before he had tried Spencer, and choosing the “Principles of Psychology” to begin with, he had failed as abjectly as he had failed with Madam Blavatsky. There had been no understanding the book, and he had returned it unread. But this night, after algebra and physics, and an attempt at a sonnet, he got into bed and opened “First Principles.” Morning found him still reading. It was impossible for him to sleep. Nor did he write that day. He lay on the bed till his body grew tired, when he tried the hard floor, reading on his back, the book held in the air above him, or changing from side to side. He slept that night, and did his writing next morning, and then the book tempted him and he fell, reading all afternoon, oblivious to everything and oblivious to the fact that that was the afternoon Ruth gave to him. His first consciousness of the immediate world about him was when Bernard Higginbotham jerked open the door and demanded to know if he thought they were running a restaurant.

Martin Eden had been mastered by curiosity all his days. He wanted to know, and it was this desire that had sent him adventuring over the world. But he was now learning from Spencer that he never had known, and that he never could have known had he continued his sailing and wandering forever. He had merely skimmed over the surface of things, observing detached phenomena, accumulating fragments of facts, making superficial little generalizations—and all and everything quite unrelated in a capricious and disorderly world of whim and chance. The mechanism of the flight of birds he had watched and reasoned about with understanding; but it had never entered his head to try to explain the process whereby birds, as organic flying mechanisms, had been developed. He had never dreamed there was such a process. That birds should have come to be, was unguessed. They always had been. They just happened.

Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was a Victorian Era polymath, remembered for

  • his early development of evolutionary theory — “The Development Hypothesis” (1852), “A Theory of Population, deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility” (1852), Principles of Psychology (first edition, 1855) and “Progress: Its Law and Cause” (1857);
  • his political liberalism — in Social Statics (1851), Justice (1891, Part IV of Principles of Ethics) and The Man versus the State (1884), all celebrated only by libertarians, today;
  • his pioneering of sociology — Study of Sociology (1878), Descriptive Sociology(19 vols., 1873–1934), and Principles of Sociology (1876–1896 );
  • coining the term “survival of the fittest” after hearing Charles Darwin’s initial presentation of “natural selection,” and as introduced formally in Principles of Biology (1864).

But Spencer first made his name as a metaphysician and religious philosopher. His main concept was “the Unknowable,” as indicated in the quip in above. It received its main exposition in the first half of First Principles (1860). Spencer was trying to show the limits of human knowledge, but also address an understanding of what he regarded as the underlying foundation to all existence, which, he argued, we know of but cannot actually know. Spencer believed that awe and reverence for this “Unknowable” is the remaining — “ultimate” — religious idea, after science had done its work.

The best treatment of this peculiar element to his philosophy is by George Santayana, in his Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford in 1923, “The Unknowable.” I highly recommend this beautiful and profound essay, to every thinking person — see Obiter Scripta (1936), but I first came across it in Clifton Fadiman’s Reading I’ve Liked (1945).

Spencer’s agnostic concept of “The Unknowable” was once all the rage. Victorian scientists such as John Tyndall, rapidly losing their faith, grabbed at it as if a lifeline in deep ocean. Since then, however, it has dropped out of circulation. I did once hear it discussed in the 1990s’ TV dramedy Northern Exposure, though.

So why the sneering remark? It apes the famous Islamic credo, sure. But it was from a socialist character. Herbert Spencer was deeply anti-socialist. No more need be said.

twv

Herbert Spencer

Is libertarianism an outdated ideology?

…as answered on Quora….

Funny you should ask.

For the first time I heard the word “libertarian” I was informed in no uncertain terms that it was hopelessly old-fashioned, backward, and inapplicable to modern society.

The sages who told me this were the news anchors of KOIN Channel 6 in Portland, Oregon. The occasion was the night of the 1976 Democratic National Convention. After the festivities ended, the Libertarian Party candidate for the presidency, Roger MacBride, ran a television spot making his pitch for “A New Dawn for America” (his horrible slogan and the title of his campaign book) with liberty as the centerpiece. I was a teenager, and was intrigued by MacBride’s presentation. After it ended, the CBS affiliate’s local news show came on, and they immediately commented on the Libertarian candidate’s ad. It has been over four decades since then, so my memory’s a bit fuzzy, but the gist was simple: “Those kinds of ideas may have worked in the 19th century, but not today, in our complex society.”

Now, that was an interesting contention, but they gave no evidence for it. As I thought about it for the next year, I put it in the iffy category of ideological statements.

What was clear was that, after freeing the slaves, Americans swiftly became more nationalistic, imperialistic, interventionist, and government-happy. So, with each ratcheting up of the new Leviathan State, libertarian ideas had become further alienated from the general tenor of American political thought. I had read some Jefferson at that age, and dipped into Locke; I knew Thoreau and the abolitionists; I had an inkling of the kinds arguments used to fend off — unsuccessfully — the growth of government in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was obvious to me that libertarian ideas were linked to the Declaration of Independence and the fight against slavery. I thought it weird that a people that prided itself on ending slavery, in spite of or because of all the bloodshed it cost, would now be so blasé about scoffing at universal freedom, the libertarian idea. The idea decreasingly struck me as time-bound. Universal freedom and individual responsibility were, if anything, a future ideal set, not a past one, for it was obvious that Americans had been tempted by power from the outset, and gave in to the temptation at the cost of liberty. Repeatedly.

A year or so after hearing that political advertisement I read Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. The radicalism of the idea was pretty clear. But it was not an alien radicalism, like socialism struck me. This was familiar. Homely. And decent.

But accepting it as an ideal principle of political life required settling some factual and philosophical problems. I slowly worked those over.

Our culture did not follow my path. The enticements of power always tempt us in modern, partisan politics — including especially that mad drive to live at the grudging expense of others — and Americans seem hell-bent on succumbing.

Every year a little more.

Our culture has settled into its rut of statism, and it would be hard to jump out of the groove and take a new tack or track. We are “path dependent,” as social scientists like to say. There are costs associated with changing course.

But the course is not set to a lodestar, or to a clock. A moral ideal and a matter of general advantage does not change no matter how many wrong turns you take.

“No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back.”

—Turkish proverb

As you can see by the image of my Goodreads review, it took me a while to finish reading it. But since there is no story, no plot, it doesn’t much matter. Little “violence” is done by intermittent reading, as is also the case with Impressions of Theophrastus Such and The Book of Disquiet.

In my reading, though, this long span of occasional picking up and putting down of the book was the result, mainly, of repeatedly losing track of it. My library is too large, my reading spots too numerous, and my office is too messy: it is easy to lose track of books. There was no plan — or even economizing of effort — going on in my seemingly studied inattention.

Gissing’s reflections on the British national spirit.
Gissing was not very “pro-science.”
Back cover to the edition I read.
This reminds me of Pessoa’s reflections.

Since it is mainly just a series of reflections it is not an autobiography. So what is this genre? Belles lettres, I think.

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Why were the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics never implemented?

. . . as answered on Quora. . . . 

The “Austrian School” is a movement of social scientists sharing similar method while working out a rigorous analysis that first flowered in late 19th century Vienna. The tradition started with Carl Menger’s Grundsätse in 1871, and carried on in several major works by Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and Friedrich Freiherr von Wieser in the 1880s, till their deaths. Böhm-Bawerk’s work quickly became world-famous, especially his writings on capital and interest, his extremely clear explanations of Menger’s price formation theory, and his understanding of subjective value in the concept of what Wieser called Grenznutzen (“marginal use” or, more commonly, marginal utility). Wieser formulated the crucial concept of opportunity cost, building on work of the French Liberal School economists Frédéric Bastiat and Courcelle-Seneuil. Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, and Wieser were all Austrians, as were a great number of the next generation of the movement — Eugen Philippovich von Philippsberg, Viktor Mataja, Richard Strigl, Hans Mayar — and, of course, the two that remain the most famous, Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek.

Menger gave up academia for tutoring the crown prince of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. He hoped to influence policy — and it is policy that is meant by “ideas” to be “implemented” in the OQ, right? — through his instruction of that one man. Who committed suicide for murky reasons, making Menger’s career bet a bad one. But both B-B and Wieser held major positions in the government. B-B was even on currency.

They did implement Austrian ideas on policy, B-B especially. Later on, Mises, working for the Chamber of Commerce, advised the government. Some say he helped save as much of the old liberal order that could have been, by fighting inflationism. Mises developed a coherent and powerful theory of the business cycle (trade cycle) which was taken up by the younger scholar, F.A. Hayek, who predicted America’s Great Depression while the great Irving Fisher asserted it was all roses just on the eve of disaster in 1929. Hayek went to the London School of Economics, where he elaborated the Misesian theory in interesting and perhaps ungainly ways, caused quite a furor (convincing many), but was then outdone by Keynes.

Why did Keynes “win” this debate? He offered a few very enticing things, the most important being an excuse for politicians and ideologues-on-the-make to engage in governmental fiscal recklessness, spending more than revenue and increasing the levels of debt, and push monetary inflation, as well. Austrian policy is designed to restrain government and serve the greatest number of people through stability. That is, politically, no match for the Keynesian Temptation. Besides, Keynes’s General Theory, his second big book to push his favorite policy (Hayek “destroyed” the first one, which almost no one reads any more), was such a conceptual mess it gave academics whole careers trying to make sense of it and defend it. Hayek was late in the game with his behemoth failure, The Pure Theory of Capital, which could have had a similar effect, except that the Austrians never encouraged elaborate mathematical formalism, and economists hoping to become court wizards to the emerging welfare state order needed that bit of hocus pocus to advance their social position.

Mises, meanwhile, belatedly fleeing Austria from the Nazis (who hated Mises for being a liberal and a Jew), moved to Switzerland and then the States, in which he could not get a good teaching position through normal means: the crowding-out effect of the order of wizards meant that the universities had no interest in this pioneer theorist of ordinal utility, money, boom-bust and banking, and the impossibility of economic calculation in a socialist commonwealth — he was shut out. He was left to pick up just a few students who carried on this now quite fugitive and subversive work: Israel Kirzner and Murray N. Rothbard are the two great Austrians who came out of the 1960s.

Mises was considered an “intransigent,” occasionally embarrassing fellow liberal/libertarians like Milton Friedman (who was not Austrian in approach). Like in the case of business cycle theory, the Mises-Hayek critique of socialist calculation (another of Hayek’s LSE projects) was said to have been “won” by their enemies. Then, after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the Austrian position triumphed. Even the egregious Robert Heilbroner admitted that “Mises was right.”

Every time a socialist state dies, replaced by something more market oriented, I tip my hat to Mises’ shade and smile when I say “now that is a kind of implementation of Austrian policy; step in the right direction, anyway.”

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How to get kicked off a progressive-run platform and still come out ahead

The extent to which statists, particularly illiberal, ”progressive” statists, quite consciously work against the idea of freedom, can hardly be underestimated. Progressives hate liberty. Even when they are too muddle-headed to understand that their basic conceptions of normative philosophy run against the idea of freedom, their revulsion against the very word liberty — and especially against any notion of liberty as a limit to government — shows through.

We who study these two very different standards do know, though, and should not be shocked when the one turns against the other and seeks to destroy it.

The idea of liberty as justice gave us free speech as a legal and as a cultural standard. Progressives, who have whored after ”social justice,” have given up on all such liberal notions. They are into censorship now. Way in.

My favorite example of this is not all the social media nonsense lying about COVID or suppressing news about Biden or constantly pushing calumnies against Trump. My favorite example? Quora kicking off Dennis Pratt.

But, considering where Mr. Pratt has re-directed his attentions, that may have not have been a prudent move on the part of Progressive Quora (P Q).

For this, see my latest podcast:

And video at:

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