In the last two chapters we discussed the first two of the three elements required to justify liberal beliefs, as well as almost all modern interventionist philosophies. On their own, those two elements are more than adequate to explain the liberal beliefs. However, there is one implication of those two theories which is often overlooked, and yet is essential to the liberal theory. And as it is an element which is both often left unstated, and with which most individuals would disagree if it were stated explicitly, it seems worthwhile to discuss this in detail. And that is the requirement that individuals be unable to effectively learn from their mistakes.
Let us start with a simple explanation, that will make clear how important this corollary of our two initial premises is.
Even if we assume that individuals are prone to making bad assumptions about new data, tending to always pick the wrong option when presented with something unfamiliar, and if we also believe that they have difficulty making connections between their own desires and the goods and services available to them, in short, even if we assume that people are almost as incompetent as liberals suggest, if they can learn, that is still irrelevant.
The reason should be obvious. Decisions in the economy are not single, isolated events made once and forgotten. Most economic decisions are made by the same person repeatedly. And even for decisions which are made infrequently, such as purchasing houses, cars, college tuition, and similar rare purchases, the ability to pass knowledge on to others still allows for one person's experience to benefit another. So, even if we start with humans fully incapable of making the right decision, the sheer volume of experience, both over time and because of the number of actors, would accumulate sufficient information for the system to self-correct very swiftly.
The reason for this is obvious. If I choose a product that fails to satisfy me, I will try another. Eventually, I will find one that is superior and change my preference. In addition, I will watch those around me and see which is the most popular choice, or ask the advice of those I trust. With such information, I will, over time, make ever improving decisions. And thus, even if I postulate a human unable to make the right decision from scratch, the simple ability to recognize one's own reactions and compare them to costs is enough for the system's regulatory mechanisms to work and correct any imbalances.
And this is more important than it seems. Throughout my writing, I have shown how the ability to recognize a better opportunity and to spot a possibility of improving profits is more than enough to cause the system to correct most "problems" that worry reformers. Wages, for example, cannot be artificially depressed in a fully free market so long as employers desire profits. If an individual is paid substandard wages, an employer will eventually note this, see that he can obtain more profit per unit of wage than with his current workers by simply offering a small wage increase. And, if he is still paying below market, another employer will notice the same situation with his employees, and so on and so on until wages rise to close to the market wage, adjusted, of course, for the innumerable circumstances that always subtly influence wages (work history, reliability, personality, and thousands of others that economists rarely bother to consider).
There are more, many more, examples, but they all rest on a very basic premise, or two, the fact that individuals pursue their self interest, and that they can recognize the opportunity to improve their own situation. And that second is basically nothing more than the ability to learn. In short, the free market works, but it works solely because individuals are capable of learning, and, more relevant to our work here, one can only dismiss the tremendous advantages of the free market if one is willing to postulate that humans are incapable of learning.
And that is precisely what liberal theories set about to do. They approach the concept in several different ways, a few explicitly denying the ability to learn, many more subtly dismissing the capacity to learn by making the facts learned irrelevant to the decisions humans face, or through other intellectual subterfuge. Still, however they set about doing it, it is required for liberal theories to prosper, or for any interventionist theory to be accepted, that the capacity to learn be dismissed.
The most common approach is to split knowledge into two types, effectively creating a modern version of the Platonic ideal. Such theories admit that individuals can identify what they desire, can even learn from past experience and make choices that better satisfy their own desires. But, they argue, desires are not a valid measure by which to manage an economy. What individuals want and what they need are rarely identical. Yet to function well the economy should fulfill needs, not desires. And individuals cannot identify their own needs in most cases. Granted, a handful of experts can, the experts who should be running things, but the rest cannot. And so, since wants and needs are so completely unrelated, it does not matter if someone can learn what best fulfills his desires, as that does not tell us what is best for the economy.
Of course this is a terribly weak argument, one I effectively dismissed in an earlier chapter. Wants and needs might be meaningful terms in some context, but only if we define needs in context of a specific goal, and use the terms only in that context. In terms of the overall economy, "need" is a meaningless term. In addition, as each individual cares only about satisfying his desires, as there is, in fact, no other practical way to measure the success of an economic system, there is no reason to dismiss wants as a measure of overall economic health. The measure we use to judge our personal success, the measure we use to judge the success of others, and the measure we use to determine the success of almost any economic endeavor we examine, is also the measure we should use for the economy as a whole. Adopting any other is simply a means to avoid uncomfortable arguments made possible by using individual desires and their subject economic values to questions about the economy.
But that leaves only the other alternative, to argue that satisfaction of wants is the best measure of economic success, but that individuals are simply unable to learn from experience well enough to correct past errors. It sounds absurd, as everyone has had the experience of learning. For that matter, we all know that dogs, horses, pigs, even pet fish or simpler creatures, can learn. So it sounds ludicrous to argue that man cannot take past experiences and learn from them. However, that is exactly what is argued.
Most often it is argued by fudging the question. Rather than putting it in simple terms, as I did above, saying that people can experience two goods or services, recognize which is preferable, and choose the better option, those who wish to dismiss learning speak of it in complicated, abstract terms, making it seem that learning in an economic or political sense is far removed from the simple experiential learning we all do every day of our lives. They speak of being "unable to learn the lessons of history", or "a disconnect between experience and action" or a hundred other convoluted terms intended to obscure the simplicity of the learning process they are denying.
And before anyone thinks I exaggerate, read Hegel's Philosophy of History, and check out his statement about history revealing that people and governments never learn the "lessons of history". Not only was Hegel a major force in European philosophy, even to this day (at least via the Existentialists, who drew on the Phenomenologists, who, at least in the case of Husserl, drew on Hegel), but he also was both something of an influence on Marx, and, if you care to disagree on that specific detail, was influenced by the same thinkers as Marx (partly Kant, partly Plato, partly a host of less famous, mostly German, academics). Both proposed dialectic processes, both postulated an immutable, almost mystical pattern to history outside of human control, and both seemed fascinated with archetypes and inevitable processes, though they refused to define them as such. Oh, and both pretend their mystical ideas were somehow scientific.
So, if Hegel was not only convinced of the inability to learn, but convinced enough to make an argument in one of his most significant works, it seems clear that it was far from a controversial idea in those circles. And, if Hegel accepted this idea, it seems hard to imagine Marx would have found fault with it. After all, as with Hegel, Marx saw history as an inexorable dialectic process over which humans had little control, so why would learning even figure in his thoughts? We are largely the tools through which economic history expresses itself to Marx, so is it a surprise that he, or his modern proponents, think we are unable to learn at even the most basic level?
But speaking of Marx and Hegel has taken us a bit far afield, into the area of the irrational universe, or perhaps I should call it the non-volitional universe, though f it is divorced from human action and choice, then it is irrational as well. In any case, that topic will be covered briefly in a future chapter all its own, where I will discuss Marx, Hegel, the one time fascination with irrational world views, and their recent resurgence. And as that is going to be covered later, it is probably a good time to draw this chapter to a close. After all, the inability to learn is but a specific aspect, or outcome of the combination, of the two previous rules upon which liberalism rests. And, as it is but the consequence of those two ideas, it could probably have been left out without any significant loss to this argument.
Still, as I have mentioned it, perhaps I should sum up what we have said so far.
Liberalism, in fact all modern interventionist theories, excepting perhaps some orthodox communism, a few behaviorist schools, a handful of anarchists, and maybe the fringe of the environmental movement, rest on the same three building blocks as modern liberalism. In a way, this is a victory for the 19th century version of liberalism, the belief in social contracts, individual rights and human rationality, as all of building blocks aim at undermining the principles upon which 19th century liberalism was founded. But, then again, perhaps it si not so much a compliment as just recognition that the 19th century liberals won, even among those who no longer followed their political doctrines. The world had come to think in terms of rights, of government for the people, of government providing benefits, and of government being accountable to citizens. And, because of the way those ideas had permeated the western world so thoroughly, any attempt to undermine the theories of individual rights and personal freedom had to first undermine those foundation beliefs.
And so, modern liberals, basically postulated the inverse of the rational world view of the age of reason. At first, some time ago, they had tried to put forth a theory founded on an irrational world, culminating in Marxism, and then the nationalist theories of the early to mid 20th century. But, they were never very successful, the arguments rang hollow to many, and so the rationalist views continued to stand, gaining popularity, especially as it become obvious what living hells the irrationalist theories created. (Eg. Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany)
The liberals, and others following in their path, adopted a more modest approach, not inverting the entire world view, but only specific, essential elements. First, replacing the competent man of rationalism, the "fellow man" more like us than unlike us, with the "other people" of liberalism, always mistaken, always misled, in constant need of guidance and aid. Second, they replaced the skeptical humility of the age of reason, always willing to look for the truth, but always concerned with any claim to have found it, with the didactic certainty of the arrogant college student, absolutely convinced nothing could be better than his own prejudices and preferences, if only everyone could be forced to adopt them. And finally, they took the egalitarianism of the rationalist, aware of the differences between men, but unwilling to imagine any one so far ahead he should be given free rein to determine the choices of his brethren, with the elitism of the left, or perhaps a revival of Platonic philosophical elitism, imagining an inner circle, endowed with some special wisdom, which should be given the right to protect those "others" from themselves, lest they harm themselves or others.
But that summary does not cover the one point I need to touch, and that is the subject of this chapter. Or, rather, it does, but not directly. You see, even if we allow the left to postulate mistaken people, or postulate a singular right answer, there is still not a strong argument against allowing man his freedom. A mistaken man can still learn enough to find the right path in time. And even if there is but one right path, whatever that may mean, through experience it can be found. No, for the left to truly gut the argument for human freedom, we must also postulate a man unable to learn, unable to draw on experience to avoid the same mistakes. And so, though it is but a consequence of what the left had postulated, with drawing that consequence, their argument would fall flat.
And that, in a nutshell, is why I gave this point a chapter of its own. It may be but a consequence of other points, but it is a crucial one.
Continue to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Chapter 6 - Us and Them".
Return to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Preface".
I doubt we will cover it in this work, but the left's obsession with avoiding error also has a part in this. I wrote about this in my recent post "The Threat of Perfection", and before in "Utopianism and Disaster". The left could believe in a single right answer ("The Right Way") and yet not insist on pushing everyone into that course. Even if you believe you know best, and everyone would benefit from being forced, there is no argument that they must be made to obey your dictates. That is unless one imagine that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs.Of course, in some ways that too is a consequence of the belief in a single right theory, as the left take the "right" part to mean not only correct, but that any alternative is terribly damaging. But, only with that assumption, that error must always be avoided, does the authoritarian tendency of liberalism make sense. And that is why I mention those other posts about the fascination with perfection, as they help to explain why the left continues to insist on controlling so much.
Actually, as I already made a single change to the planned chapters, let me make another. I had planned to add a chapter after the one on irrational world views to explain how environmentalism, especially the hard-core anti-man environmentalist theories, fit with this view of liberalism. Now, I would like to add another chapter before the one on irrational worlds. In that chapter I will look at the question of why the awareness of potential errors implies to some, but not to others, the need for authoritarian solutions.
Correction (06/20/2010): I am afraid I made an error (much more common in speaking than in writing) when putting together the preceding post. The Hegel quote I mentioned above comes from the Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy of History. However, when I tried to write out the title, I telescoped the chapter and title into the phrase "Introduction to History". I have since corrected it, but for those who read the earlier version I felt I should point out the original error and the correction.
Originally Published in Random Notes on 2010/06/19.