Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Optimists, Pessimists, And Realists

     Yes, Gentle Reader, it’s yet another year’s-end roundup column! Except, of course, that as it’s from the mind and fingers of your favorite Curmudgeon, it’s...not.

     At this moment I’m unsure where this essay will go, but I’m perfectly sure where it will not go: to a review of the major events of 2019. There are many such columns out there, and I’m innately averse to doing what others have already done perfectly well. I think this will be something different: a congeries of thoughts on a topic of perennial interest...well, to me, at least: how resolutely we refuse to understand ourselves.

     There are many “important books,” and which ones make any particular commentator’s “most important” list will be a matter of priorities and taste. On my list of “most important books,” one that I’ve cited frequently over the years stands exceedingly high, above perhaps everything else on it except the Gospels: Helmut Schoeck’s masterwork Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour.

     Professor Schoeck’s treatment of this critical yet under-studied influence on human behavior is so penetrating, and so definitive, yet so accessible, that I lack the words to do it justice – and when you see a writer say that about another writer’s work, mark your calendar. If you’ve read the New Testament but haven’t read Envy, for the love of God get yourself a copy – yes, it’s available for the Kindle – and get busy! You will learn a great deal. Moreover, while the experience will be less than pleasant, it’s likely that much that you’ve suspected will be confirmed.

     I first read Envy more than thirty years ago. I’ve recurred to it often since then. My estimate of its importance has only increased. It delineates both why envy is dominant in human social and political interactions, and why we dislike to take note of it. It pulls no punches in doing so.

     Once you have read and comprehended Envy, you will nevermore be baffled by the human tendency to destroy freedom in the name of a specious, inherently unattainable “equality.” As a bonus, you won’t feel any need to read my drivel henceforward.

     Another book of significance to me, though it doesn’t make my “most important” list, is Gregory Benford’s early novel Against Infinity. Professor Benford wrote that the tale arose from his own childhood. This suggests that he had a singular childhood indeed, but I’ll let that pass. While it’s probable that he had many themes in mind in the construction of this unusual story, the one that screams most loudly to me is this one: There are processes in motion that Man cannot stop nor materially affect – nor should we try. Some of those processes are embedded in our nature as human beings.

     I hope Professor Benford will allow me to reproduce a long passage from Against Infinity as an illustration of the thinking of the “advanced” socialist. It’s essentially a lecture by one such to a young man who has come of age in a quasi-anarchist society on Ganymede, the moon of Jupiter:

     “Why doesn’t Earthside keep their chingado faces out of here?”
     “Why, they cannot. It is implicit in the dynamics of society. Earth is fully socialist. Earth understands itself scientifically—the first society to do so. Let me tell you how to look at these things, Manuel.”
     Manuel gazed out over the oval garden with its stands of slender trees and the baked, hard-packed sandy soil. He had come here to watch the light, had looked forward to it all day. It was a thing you had to watch carefully. The eclipse of the sun by Jupiter had come, bringing amber glows, and he had missed the change. Gutiérrez went on.
     “Every civilization up until now has evolved because of internal contradictions—conflicts within it that forced change. Capitalism proceeded by contradiction to produce socialism—it was inevitable.”
     “Uh-huh.” He was watching the light.
     “The Marxists thought that under socialism, alienation and class warfare would stop. They ignored the fact that the dialectical model of change never predicted an end to contradictions, or to evolution. Socialism requires a bureaucracy, and that means an administrative class. The administrators faced a problem Marxism never discussed: how well socialism works, versus capitalism. What is the good of being exactly equal to everybody else, if that means you have to be poor? The last century has taught us—or rather, Earth—that socialism is less efficient than capitalism at producing goods.”
     “So to stop socialism from sinking into the mud, the bureaucrats had to promote expansion—off-planet, out into the system. But socialism is an historical necessity that arises when you get a certain density of population. Once people spread out…” He opened his hands. “The population density in the new worlds is low, of course. The dynamics of economics drives them to adopt individualist, capitalist measures. They must, to survive and prosper in harsh places. So the internal contradiction of socialism is that it must expand, to make up for its own inefficiencies. Expansion, though, produces capitalism at the frontier. Your Settlement is really a small, communal capitalist unit. It interacts with Earthside through a market, not by edicts.”
     The waiter came, and Manuel reached eagerly for his drink. This was worse than he’d thought it would be. The waiter put down the rum and Gutiérrez corrected him. “It wasn’t rum adopolc,” he said helpfully but severely. “I wanted mulled wine.”
     “It’s all right,” Manuel said. “I’ll take the rum. I’ll pay. Bring what he orders now, please.”
     “What I ordered,” corrected Gutiérrez.
     The waiter returned quickly with the mulled wine. They sat in silence, one drinking of the cold, bronze, finely textured infusion, with its malty aroma and sweet-clean, yeasty flavor; the other lifted the cup of swarming warmth and drank off half of it in one long swallow, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Manuel hoped there wouldn’t be much more of the social theory—it all sounded like Earthside chat. Gutiérrez was influential, he knew, and it was a puzzle why the man paid any attention to a petroworker from an obscure Settlement. There was the Aleph thing, but Manuel refused to talk about that and he hoped that everyone had by now forgotten it.
     “And therein lies the true comedy,” Gutiérrez went on, picking up the thread as if there had been no interruption. “You see, the Marxists always assumed the next step would complete the cycle of contradiction and change. It is so amusing! Because they could imagine no further change beyond socialism, they assumed—without thinking—that there would be none. They didn’t notice that the dialectical model predicts no Final Revolution. From a materialist perspective, there need never be a Final Revolution. There is instead an equilibrium between the two forms. So we get humankind—with refined, humanitarian socialism in the older, crowded core. And capitalism sprouting up like weeds at the edge.”

     Indeed. The “advanced” socialist is aware that socialism fails as a mechanism for producing anything people actually want. Socialism needs capitalist societies to feed on. Similarly, Smith, the man of little ability who envies his more productive and prosperous neighbor Jones, hates him for that but doesn’t want to destroy him; he wants to mulct him. And by hook or by crook, mulct him he shall!

     Unfortunately, owing to the dominance of the human psyche by envy and cupidity, Gutierrez’s projection of how the steady increase of population density causes a society to move away from capitalism and toward socialism is also on the mark. Our cities are excellent illustrations of the process.

     Envy and cupidity are the driving forces behind the destruction of free societies. Yet neither can be expunged from human nature. That being the case, the only prospect for the preservation of freedom lies in controlling them. The failure to control them is bad. The tendency to pander to them is even worse, for neither envy nor cupidity can ever be satisfied, and any degree of success at gaining their ends sharpens their appetite for more.

     Hearken to “John Galt,” from the first edition of his book Dreams Come Due:

     Although envy is never absent from any society, it becomes most pervasive and counterproductive when it gains control of government and then of the “law,” which subsequently sets itself above the rights of property. As laws of envy (redistribution of wealth through “legal” plunder, such as the progressive income tax) multiply, so does the emotion, because like all forms of neurosis, envy cannot be satisfied. Various envious entities continually find new “inequalities” that must be rectified by more government plunder, and thus less individual freedom....

     A free economy (i.e., an economy that controls envy through custom, religion, and law) ensures hope for the future and ever greater prosperity as people work voluntarily to expand and share an ever growing pie. This constantly improving standard of living helps keep envy from becoming a divisive and counterproductive force. Everyone has a chance to improve his own situation, and no one is plundered by “law.” But once an economy begins to receive “help” and “direction” (i.e., socialism) from a government that has surrendered to envy, it begins an inevitable decline, and positive feelings are supplanted by worry, despair, fear, hatred, and ever greater envy. The question of how to divide (read: plunder) an ever shrinking economic pie becomes an overriding concern as various “public interest” groups fight to seize control of the government and the “law” for their own purposes.

     Every word of the above is golden. But note what the author did not say: Once envy and cupidity are released from control, and government becomes a pure instrument of plunder, those who “have” must turn their attention from production to politics out of self-defense. But the dynamic of power-seeking is a corrupting dynamic. It guarantees that sooner or later every player in the “game” will be “dirty.”

     Custom will not endure. Law will be seized and perverted. What remains?

     I am old. I have seen much, including much that I would rather not have seen. And I have come to a conclusion that many will reject: some out of intellectual pride; others out of a surly unwillingness to be told what to do and what not to do; others still because they cannot imagine how something as natural as their desire to take what others rightfully possess could possibly be wrong, as long as “the government” acts as their hired hand.

     There is only one enduring countermeasure to the power of envious cupidity, and therefore only one countermeasure to socialism. And here it is:

     And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
     And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
     He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

     [Matthew 19:16-19]

     Note that Jesus omitted the last of the Ten Commandments:

     Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's. [Exodus 20:17]

     Ask yourself why.

     The Year of Our Lord 2019 saw many attacks on Christianity. Some came from the adherents of other “faiths.” Others came from persons who fancy themselves “bright” specifically because they lack faith. Yet only the Christian faith holds out a hope of controlling envy and cupidity.

     Cupidity, of course, is the desire for more than what one already has, absent a willingness to earn it. But Thou shalt not steal! Envy, the only emotion explicitly mentioned in the original Ten Commandments, is essentially beyond our ability to suppress by a mere forbidding. Our only recourse lies in Christian love of neighbor: that is, to treat one another’s rights, prerogatives, and aspirations as equal in importance to one’s own.

     Thomas Stearns Eliot, greatest of the Modernist poets, was prescient when he wrote:

     “It is against a background of Christianity that all of our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning.…I do not believe the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole culture goes.”

     That is exactly what is happening to Europe as we speak.

     To close, a few words about the title of this piece. The colloquial interpretations of those three terms are relatively simple:

  • The optimist believes that things are pretty much guaranteed to get better;
  • The pessimist believes that things are pretty much guaranteed to get worse;
  • The realist has no fixed opinions about the future; he takes it as it comes.

     Like the blind men fondling different parts of the elephant, the optimist and the pessimist are partly right and partly wrong. However, the realist is more important than either. He knows from history that improvement is possible. He also knows, both from history and from his knowledge of Mankind’s tendencies, that deterioration is possible – that in the absence of adequate efforts toward constructive ends, it’s guaranteed. Thus, he cannot style himself either an optimist or a pessimist. Nevertheless, he knows what he wants and is willing to work toward it. He maintains his belief in the three virtues critical to all advanced and advancing societies:

  • Faith: That life can be better, or at least no worse, if only he sees clearly and acts rightly;
  • Hope: That he will not be ruinously impeded by forces beyond his control;
  • Charity: That he can act in his own interest without infringing on others’ rights, and vice versa.

     You may have seen those three virtues mentioned in another context. Perhaps it was here:

     When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. [1 Corinthians 13:11-13]

     Saint Paul fired quite a few duds, but in the above he scored a dead-center bull’s-eye.

     Happy New Year, Gentle Reader. May the Year of Our Lord 2020 bring you closer to Him, for all our sakes. May it be filled with all the good things life has to offer. I’ll see you after the revels are over and the hangovers have eased. Until then, be well.

All my best,


Paul in Boston said...

I give up, why is the 10th commandment left out?

Francis W. Porretto said...

Because he who loves his neighbor as he loves himself would not stoop to covetousness. (I suppose that could have been more clearly put in the essay.)

Jim Horn said...

An optimist believes we live in the best of all possible worlds. A pessimist is afraid that that may actually be true...

Linda Fox said...

Faith, Hope, and Charity.

We have Faith in God, that He is directing the play of our lives.

We have Hope, that we might end up with more than we deserve.

We have Charity - both towards us, and what we direct to others, that softens the result we deserve.

Linda Fox said...

Many, many people confuse envy with jealousy. That's sad, because so many of us are prone to envy others - I do, myself, mostly for things that I COULD have, if I wanted them badly enough to make the effort. I just didn't want to make the effort.

Brian E. said...

I’ve regularly heard the adage:
Never underestimate the power of human stupidity, especially in large groups.

Now take that concept and replace ‘stupidity’ with ‘envy’ - and much of the recent world history comes into much clearer focus.

I fear that our Constitution (as we’ve received it - and possibly as originally written) is not equipped to handle high density envy - which is really just another way of saying that it hasn’t scaled well - population wise.

I’ve come to believe that fixing the US House of Representatives apportionment to 435 seats and going to direct election of our US Senate (via 17th Amendment) only compound this issue.

The ‘thirty-thousand.org’ project to go back to a more reasonable “representative to citizen” ratio, and releasing the 17th - to allow the States to define their own methods to select their Senators - would go a long way toward fixing that ‘scaling’ issue. Making Congress responsible for making the laws they pass (as opposed to passing it off to regulators), and having sunset clauses on on all laws (thereby requiring periodic review and re-approval) would keep us from being a land of a million laws - most never prosecuted unless you cross someone in power...

Just my $.02, not adjusted for inflation.

(And don’t get me started on the ‘Federal Reserve’...). 😉