Archives for category: Transactional Clarity

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The week feminism died?

Every movement has a not-so-secret entelechy, the seed of an imp of the perverse that reduces its core ideas to absurdity.

This week, the shrill sectaries of the online feminist flock — those who preen themselves as exquisitely plumed, beaked and taloned to retaliate in quick defense on the occasion of “taking offense” — once again ruffled their feathers at the trivial. And, thereby, proved themselves completely without sense of proportion.

The sheer silliness of “ShirtGate” is obvious to most people. Matt Taylor, a scientist, wore a home-made shirt at a press conference celebrating an important event, landing a probe upon a comet. The shirt, made by a female friend of his, depicted cartoonish voluptuous women on it. This so deeply offended one feminist journalist, a woman whose name I shall neither utter nor type, that she set Twitter all a-twitter. The usual wordplay hashtags it “#shirtstorm.” The scientist tearfully apologized, and last I saw, Richard Dawkins has defended the man in public. This is just so weird.

Or, sadly, isn’t.

Did feminists finally “go too far”? Did they demonstrate that their movement ceased being serious long ago? It is possible; maybe the tipping point for this nonsense has finally been found. There is so little of intellectual substance in feminism any longer, so filled with groupthink and ritual squawking, that one might think it must implode at some point.

It is now all umbrage theater. Or, as suggested by Glenn Reynolds in his USA Today column, it’s a stage where fainting couches must always be accessible.

It used to be that those who took offense easily were called prudish, square, or even “Mrs. Grundy.”

Now? They pretend to be hip, cool, “progressive.”

“The tyranny of Mrs. Grundy,” wrote philosopher Herbert Spencer, during the thick of the Victorian Age, “is worse than any other tyranny we suffer under.” I always thought that a bit extreme. But I understand the complaint, the frustration. Grundyist disapproval is the most likely abuse a well-mannered thinking man of Spencer’s type was likely to come across as applied to himself. And it is true today, now that the “liberal” chic have become harpies of censure.

But if the testimony of a man is unwelcome — that is, an adult of the “male gender” (idiotic term from “feminist” lingo) — try the testimony of Viroqua Daniels, a younger contemporary of Spencer who was an anarchist communist. She recognized just how dangerous Grundyist grumblings were:

Her will is law. She holds despotic sway.
Her wont has been to show the narrow way
Wherein must tread the world, the bright, the brave,
From infancy to dotard’s gloomy grave.

“Obey! Obey!” with sternness she commands
The high, the low, in great or little lands.
She folds us all within her ample gown.
A forward act is met with angry frown.

The lisping babes are taught her local speech;
Her gait to walk; her blessings to beseech.
They laugh or cry, as Mistress says they may,—
In everything the little tots obey.

The youth know naught save Mrs. Grundy’s whims.
They play her games. They sing her holy hymns.
They question not; accept both truth and fiction,
(The OLD is right, within her jurisdiction!).

Maid, matron, man unto her meekly bow.
She with contempt or ridicule may cow.
They dare not speak, or dress, or love, or hate,
At variance with the program on her slate.

Her subtle smile, e’en men to thinkers grown,
Are loath to lose; before its charm they’re prone.
With great ado, they publicly conform—
Vain, cowards, vain; revolt MUST raise a storm!

The “indiscreet,” when hidden from her sight,
Attempt to live as they consider “right.”
Lo! Walls have ears! The loyal everywhere
The searchlight turn, and loudly shout, “Beware!”
In tyranny the Mistress is supreme.

“Obedience,” that is her endless theme.
Al countries o’er, in city, town and glen,
Her aid is sought by bosses over men.
Of Greed, her brain is cunningly devised.
From Ignorance, her bulky body’s sized.

When at her ease, she acts as judge and jury.
But she’s the Mob when ’roused to fighting fury.
Dame Grundy is, by far, the fiercest foe
To ev’ry kind of progress, that we know.
So Freedom is, to her, a poison thing.
Who heralds it, he must her death knell ring.

That feminists have become moral scolds has been long known — at least since the 1980s, when one of the greatest lightbulb jokes became popular:

Q. How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A. That’s not funny!

The problem has been evident in the larger progressive movement, as well. Indeed, by the 1990s it was all too clear: the free spirits that we thought of as being “on the left” in the 1960s had mostly turned into (or had been replaced with) serioso grumps whose moralistic fervor put the conservatives and chauvinists of my youth to shame.

What happened? Out of power, the left thought they wanted freedom, and behaved with a modicum of free spiritedness. (This probably does not apply to the old New York commies, who always seemed a dour lot to me.) But once they got a taste of power, whether on city councils or college tenure, their sense of freedom and tolerance went out the window. The Marcusian ethic came to dominate, and the totalitarian instincts which are strong amongst the anti-property left burst into full flower. We got “political correctness,” which we now get to witness in its (I hope) final grasping at craziness.

The inner Stalin in every socialist soul comes out as a parody of the old censorious windbags of prudery. And that it is a new prudery is pretty obvious to all but those who speak the lingo.

Further, and let this serve as instruction for the young: the shirt was not “sexist.” Not everything you don’t like about someone else’s sexual stance is “sexist.” To think otherwise is boneheaded.

But then boneheaded misuse of language comes natural to most people, and not simply because we do, after all, have bones in our heads. Some confusions are easy to make by a natural association of ideas. Juxtaposition leads to conflation leads to the drift of lexical meaning.

Sexism used to mean something specific. It used to be about inapt discrimination — the application of statistical or normative conclusions about one sex unthinkingly or habitually or prejudicially upon an individual who does not demonstrate the average or modal or even model advantages/shortcomings of the group to which he or she belongs. However, sporting a big-busted woman on one’s attire may be less than appealing to many women — and men. It is not “sexism.” It is not inapt because of discrimination against any individual, but because of, perhaps, a certain lack of tastefulness.

Of course, nowadays feminists have moved far beyond the old definitions. To them it is all about “power,” but they are so little interested in actual transactional clarity that they indiscriminately use the concept with gestures more than than thought. Some feminist women feel particularly discriminated against — or “oppressed” — for no other reason than that most men prefer some few women for their beauty and their conformity to evolved standards over most others. But the reverse is also true, with many or most women exhibiting evolved standards of acceptability in mates that most men demonstrate in regrettably partial measure. In neither case are the evolved standards — or “culturally oppressive” standards — “sexist.” They show another “ist” entirely. Beautyist? Lookist? Or, in the case of many women’s interests, sizist? (I am thinking of bank accounts, of course.)

Oh, and finally: a man should apologize for his shirt only when it stinks, sports body fluid stains, or fails to conceal his belly.


Sheldon Richman has it right. Today’s pols are so addicted to the word “terrorist” that they have forgotten words like “insurrection.”

What we are witnessing is state creation the old-fashioned way, by conquest. Oh, with a little crowd-sourcing thrown in at the recruitment end of the conquering organization.

We are present at the creation. But don’t realize what is really going on, because, you know, “terrorism.”


I have recently been reading the writings of the pre-marginalist anti-Ricardians, the school of thought referred to by Henry Dunning Macleod as the Third School of Political Economy, the leading lights of which included the Frenchman Frédéric Bastiat and the American Arthur Latham Perry. These economists resisted the siren song of the Labor Theory of Value, and promoted a subjectivist foundation for value. They were basically proponents of a catallactic approach to what was in those days still called “political economy.” Macleod pushed the name “Economics” for the science; Perry called the approach “The All-Sales School.” Macleod put everything neatly in place with a definition:

Economics is the science which treats of the laws which govern the relations of exchangeable quantities.

These are very interesting theorists, though not one of them was a complete success, missing marginal utility theory, if sometimes coming fairly close. Macleod was both the most ingenious and least reliable member of the school, with opinions ranging all over the map. But as the school’s chief historian, he is always interesting:



That was from The Principles of Economical Philosophy, a fascinating work. Below is a longer passage from a shorter treatment, On the Modern Science of Economics, showing his daring in criticizing classical economics, from Smith-Say to Mill:



You can see what Macleod is up to: reinterpreting the main concepts of economics in terms of trade. He was very careful of the transactional nature of his science, and tried not to introduce explanatory concepts that prescinded out the transactions upon which markets were based. Indeed, his discussion of the original meaning of production, distribution and consumption, above, is the clearest I’ve yet come across.

During the course of my readings, I’ve had occasion to provide forewords to new, ebook editions of Bastiat’s works, including the Economic Harmonies. If you haven’t read Bastiat, I heartily recommend these Laissez Faire Books editions.

I was pleased to see links to those editions in a recent Common Sense squib by Paul Jacob, on the Swiss minimum wage plebiscite. Mr. Jacob referred to a great passage in Bastiat, about the nature of interventions into exchanges:

Unlike in America, this minimum wage would have affected a huge hunk of the population. One out of ten Swiss workers earns less than the proposed minimum. In America, only about a single percentage of workers earns close to the national minimum.

This matters, as Frédéric Bastiat clearly explained, because price regulations can have two effects: a loss of production, or none at all — “either hurtful or superfluous.” No effect, when the price floor (as in a minimum wage) is set lower than the level most prices are already at (or, for which workers already work). But when the price floor gets set higher, goods go off the market — with too-high wage minimums, workers with low productivity cease to get hired.

Swiss voters could scarcely afford to risk the jobs of ten percent of the workforce.

Paul Jacob quotes the passage in his sidebar:

Legislation that limits or hampers exchanges is always either hurtful or superfluous.
Governments that persuade themselves that nothing good can be done but through their instrumentality, refuse to acknowledge this harmonic law.
Exchange develops itself naturally until it becomes more onerous than useful, and at that point it naturally stops.

The reason for that natural stopping point in trade is because, at root, trades are engaged in to serve both sides, each trader expecting a gain by each trade. When no further gain can be obtained by either one side or both, the series of trades stop.

Unfortunately for economic theory, it was Dunning Mcleod, not Bastiat, who reasserted Condillac’s principle that, in each exchange, both parties gain. Bastiat, like J.B. Say before him, had difficulty with the idea of reciprocal advantages, that people traded because their values differed enough to make a trade advantageous to both parties. Bastiat’s confused repudiation of the principle, like Say’s before him and Karl Marx’s after, is one of the great embarrassments of pure economic theory.

And yet he understood, like Say did — but unlike Marx — that on some practical level trade is productive.

Implied in Bastiat, also, is the idea of a schedule of demand, of a scale of values. But it is only implied in the above principle, not in his attempt to define value itself.

The great lacuna of the proto-marginalists.

But Bastiat did understand an important thing: the idea that a price floor (or, also, a price ceiling) either did no harm (if too low; or, conversely in the case of ceilings, too high) or was indeed harmful (when set above the rates at which some trades are made; or the reverse, in case of mandated price ceilings). There is no possible positive benefit to both sides of exchanges. Only to one side. In only some subset of exchanges.

This is important not only to explain why some minimum wage increases have little obvious effect, but also to help understand why some people advocate this form of regulation.

The possibility (even likelihood) of superfluity across most employees helps the advocate bury the actual effects of the wage floor. It allows them not to see.

It helps them forget the unemployed. Ignore them.

Yes, raising the minimum wage serves, on some level, as a cynical upping of voters’ packets of self-righteousness, while risking so little of their own possible wealth.

Mostly, voters pretend they’re doing no harm; they choose bad faith. But, at some level, a lack of interest in who is unemployed betrays a narrow vision of concern. It is not the poor workers they are trying to help. It is their own “moral standing” they are trying to raise. And the reason they do not gulp and double the minimum wage is that they would then have to confront what the Swiss confronted the other day: decreasing employment levels, harming lowest-skilled workers, and creating a business-negative environment.

In other words, current debate about the minimum wage is largely an exercise in political class luxury, sacrificing others while appearing to help those others. It’s quite a racket.

And one that members of the Third School of Political Economy, for all their faults, worked mightily to understand. Bastiat included.

People in government, and generally “on the left,” often tell us of the primary importance of giving. All sorts of things should simply be “supplied” to us, free of charge. Free education, free roads, free lunches. All of this “free stuff” is illusory, of course: it comes at high cost. To somebody, anyway, perhaps to everybody. William Graham Sumner referred to the somebody who most obviously pays for all this free stuff — the hard-working taxpayer — as “the forgotten man.” But what is forgotten when we focus on Sumner’s forgotten man in the statist “free goods” equation, is the recipient.

Or, I should say, recipients. They, too, become corrupted by merely receiving — and then expecting and demanding — the free good. That corruption may be the saddest part of the tale, and may offer the best reason to put a leash on the ideology of “free stuff.”

You need look no further than your public library for examples of today’s “free stuff” corruption. Indeed, look no further than the fascinating blog “I work at a public library“:

A man approached the desk to ask very aggressively why there was a fee on his library account. When I tried to explain, he got angrier and angrier. From the corner of my eyes, I could see my co-workers and some customers ready for the rescue. After several minutes of shouting from his side I finally succeeded in calming him down and he paid the fee.

Ten minutes later he came back to check out a book: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People.

I’m sure librarians look at this man as yet another example of why the service they do is so important, in that it shows the common run of humanity to be deeply low and vulgar and foolish, always in need of enlightenment, which can be found (ahem) in the books that they just happen to provide.

And I don’t want to discourage this view. Nevertheless, I see the above tale as an example of a man reacting (or overreacting) to standard library policy. Though the service librarians offer may indeed be (or: may once have been) an important civilizing influence, some of the ways they go about their business encourages just such loutishness.

How so?

The man was complaining about “fees” on his library account. Well, he had simply imbibed this idea that public libraries offer “free” goods — that is, books — and wondered why he had to pay. It’s galling to have to pay when you’ve been told it’s “free.”

And though the author of the blog post did not explain the origin of the fees, any library patron knows how most such fees arise: from overdue charges, usually referred to as “fines.”

The implication of references to “overdue charges” and “fines” is that, by keeping a book a few days or weeks longer than some specified period, you have done something wrong. And people tend to get a bit testy when told they are in error, somehow a drain on the body politic.

And all for keeping Boswell’s Life of Johnson a few extra days! You know, most likely because it’s a long book, and you really did want to read it (and maybe you are, also, kicking yourself for having watched, during the period set to read the book, Season Two of Game of Thrones instead).

The man was obviously in need of spiritual advice, after his altercation with the librarian, and he may have chosen his next book well.

Though I would have suggested reading Seneca.

To the librarians, though, I offer meatier advice. Stop this talk of books being “overdue” and “fines” being imposed. You want to loan books. So rent them. That establishes that they have value. People should pay for what they get.

But, but . . . you sputter? You say you want to offer them for free?

Then waive rental charges for the first day or week or two of the loan period. You can still provide a “free service.” But only for a limited time. After that time, the rents kick in. And this would be up front. The “free period” might be seen as a loss leader. And no one needs to get grumpy when they pay their “fees,” because the paltry amount would be paying for a service freely entered into, and acknowledged as a valid exchange by both parties.

Heck, if you decide to keep the book, you could pay an advertised amount, and get a receipt to put in the book’s rental pocket, and everyone will be happy.

In such a world, libraries would become less like “charities” or “government bureaus,” and more like businesses.

Which, I grant you, still have grumpy customers. But, perhaps, fewer idiotically grumpy ones.

Oh, and by the way, the first big libraries in America were rental libraries. The whole “free libraries” craze came from rich men trying to find a way to spend their enormous fortunes. They thought giving it away in the form of books was a good idea. And maybe it was. For them. But the recipients, over time, became corrupted by the expectation of “free stuff,” and began to demand more and more, and meanwhile the cost of maintaining the free libraries was placed onto communities with tax bases, and the politics of interest group alignment flowered. And we’re all wondering why our “fees” have gone up.