Thursday, June 27, 2019

Overextensions And Corrective Mechanisms, Part 1

     Most people are willing to give up their preconceptions...once they’ve had them tattooed on their heads with a blunt instrument. – Keith Laumer

     We all want to believe there’s An Answer: a single great revelation that, properly understood and applied, would solve all “problems” and usher in Utopia. Mind you, I didn’t say that we all do believe it; just that we all want to. The desire seems to be built into the deep structure of our minds.

     Some years ago, there was a popular bumper sticker:

Christ Is Your Answer

     I’m a religious man, but even I could see the difficulties there. Is Christ the answer to the flood in my basement? How about to my property taxes, or to the poison ivy in my back yard? Yes, Christ Is The Answer to the overarching human problem: how to conduct oneself so as to gain admission to eternal bliss in the next life. But for a whole range of temporal problems, even the most devout Christian must reach for the phone, the checkbook, or the RoundUp® rather than a crucifix.

     Single, all-encompassing Answers that would function as absolute panaceas are lacking. This is especially so in that maddeningly thorny realm we call politics.

     Some years ago, in what I consider to be my most important political analysis, I strove to demonstrate that two political families, one far better established than the other, had important things to say to one another – and that both had a need to listen. It drew quite a lot of praise. But many who were pleased by that essay, or by parts of it, managed to miss the underlying principle, which is of so much greater importance that it cannot be overstated:

All Human Visions Are Partial.

     As we are temporal creatures with finite powers, there are limits to what we can do, see, and conceive. Those limits dictate that our “answers” will also be limited. The implications “should” be “obvious”...but they’re not. First among those implications is this one: Every idea has a domain of applicability, outside which is it useless or worse.

     I recall first tumbling to this in a discussion of investment strategies with an older, much more experienced coworker. At the time he was investigating the Elliott Wave theory, which had a considerable grip on many investors’ thinking. He allowed that the wave pattern was suggestive, and that the associated theory had some appeal, but he also noted a flaw in the reasoning of its chief proponents: They never said where Elliott Wave analysis would fail to apply, nor did they ever allow that there might be any such conditions.

     It was a major “of course!” moment for a young thinker. Elliott Wave proponents hold out their theory as The Answer, at least within the huge domain of equities-market analysis. In that sense, the theory is Utopian in nature. It admits to no bounds on its applicability. Elliott Wave advocates are adroit at explaining away cases that appear to contradict their analysis. Such evasions render the theory more an article of faith than a useable technique of technical analysis.

     That “of course!” illumination would serve me well when I set sail onto the turbulent seas of political theory and political economy.

     I spent a number of years studying anarchism as an approach to the problems of social organization. Anarchism has many attractions. David Friedman and others have written much about the subject. Yet the most dedicated proponents of anarchism can all foresee difficulties that would destabilize and politicize an anarchist society.

     Anarchism, like all political propositions, has a domain of applicability. Outside that domain it functions poorly. If pressed to go outside its proper domain, it’s rapidly destabilized and replaced by some kind of government. I made this point in the Foreword to Freedom’s Fury:

     I shan’t attempt to deceive or misdirect you: I’m horrified by politics and all its fruits. I consider the use of coercive force against innocent men the greatest of all the evils we know. But I try, most sincerely, to be realistic about the world around us. In that world, peopled by men such as ourselves, anarchism—the complete abjuration and avoidance of the State—is unstable. In time, it will always give way to politics. Hammer it to the earth as many times as you may, you will never succeed in killing it permanently. The State will rise again.

     I strove to illustrate the process in the tale told in that novel. (If you find that intriguing, beware: Freedom’s Fury is the third volume of a trilogy.)

     The libertarian movement, of which I was once an activist and in which I still find much that’s admirable, has made a number of missteps. Several of them derive from the inability to admit that as an organizing principle, individual freedom has a domain of applicability outside which one must not attempt to push it. I noted a few of the problems in The Conservative-Libertarian Schism. I’m sure the thoughts I provided there can be extended.

     If I’m to avoid monotony here, I suppose I should make the key statement right away. It’s key because individuals are...individuals. Smith doesn’t agree with Jones about what constitutes a “problem” that demands a “solution.” Both of them are at odds with Davis. And just as individuals have individual views and priorities, so also will families, groups, communities, and nations:

For any given thing you might want:
What price are you willing to pay?
And what price is your neighbor willing to pay
That you might have it at his expense?

     As decision-making units enlarge, considerations that are both opinion-bound and frankly political rise to eclipse considerations that individuals prize most highly. We can see it even in the “direct democracy” of the old New-England-style “town meeting,” at which every resident has a vote on every issue. In the practical sense, not every Jones is willing for every Smith to have unfettered personal freedom of action. Quite a number of Joneses would object to having neighbor Smith blare obscene music from his rooftop at pain-threshold levels, even on a nominal holiday. Virtually all Joneses would be averse to living immediately next door to a slaughterhouse. Such things leave bad impressions on the kids, to say nothing of property values.

     Rights theory, so critically important when we strive to cope with interactions between individuals, tends to fade when decision-making is done by groups. Respect for individual freedom, something virtually all Americans would profess, starts to be demoted in priority when neighborhood effects, externalities, and other implied consequences of absolute personal latitude arise to bedevil us.

     This is not to say that individuals’ rights can ever be completely ignored in collective decision-making. There are absolutes that must not be transgressed. However, even in this regard there are thorny cases, as Jack Vance has shown us:

     Xanten made an airy gesture. “A.G. Philidor, you oversimplify grievously. Do you consider me obtuse? There are many kinds of history. They interact. You emphasize morality. But the ultimate basis of morality is survival. What promotes survival is good; what induces mortifaction is bad.”
     “Well spoken!” declared Philidor. “But let me propound a parable. May a nation of a million beings destroy a creature who otherwise will infect all with a fatal disease? Yes, you will say. Once more: ten starving beasts hunt you, that they may eat. Will you kill them to save your life? Yes, you will say again, though here you destroy more than you save. Once more: a man inhabits a hut in a lonely valley. A hundred spaceships descend from the sky, and attempt to destroy him. May he destroy these ships in self-defense, even though he is one and they are a hundred thousand? Perhaps you will say yes. What, then, if a whole world, a whole race of beings, pits itself against this single man? May he kill all? What if the attackers are as human as himself? What if he were the creature of the first instance, who otherwise will infect a world with disease? You see, there is no area where a simple touchstone avails. We have searched and found none. Hence, at the risk of sinning against Survival, we—I, at least; I can only speak for myself—have chosen a morality which at least allows me calm. I kill—nothing. I destroy—nothing.”

     More anon.

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