Thursday, July 30, 2015

To Be Fair

Whenever race is brought up in political debate, there are a number of facts that conservatives love to toss about, and, while technically correct, I feel I have to point out that they are rather misleading. For example, it is often pointed out that the Ku Klux Klan was created by, and largely made up of Democrats, or that Republicans freed the slaves. And these are unquestionably true. But in both cases, they overlook two very significant issues. First, the major shift in party identities that took place in the 1890s, and another shift sometime in the 1960s. Second, they also ignore the fact that the South was, until about the 1980s largely a single party region.

Allow me to elaborate a little.

As concerns the parties in the 19th century, when the KKK was founded and Lincoln freed the slaves (well, all the slaves in the rebel held areas at first, but eventually all of them). At that time, Republicans were a very different breed, as were Democrats. Democrats at the time were the party of small government, states' rights, hard currency and limited government, in short, what most think of as conservative today. At the same time, the Republicans were protectionist, favored strong central government, government involvement in things such as the prohibition of alcohol and so on, in short something like a mix of liberals and paleo-cons. So it is a bit misleading to say there is any connection between the parties of those days and the parties of today. Of course, the Republicans of the day had their own issues too, so even if one wants to claim continuity, you have to deal with Republicans being strongly anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and involved with racist organizations similar to the KKK in the northeast.

But before the left crows about the Democrats who founded the KKK being akin to today's conservatives, let me point out that racist groups existed which were made up of both parties, which is why, in a large part, the KKK being largely or entirely Democrat is a non-issue. In the South, where most were Democrats, the KKK was a Democrat group. In the northeast, which was predominantly Republican, kindred groups arose which were made up of Republicans. In short, the racists of a given region belonged to the same party as did most of the non-racists. Or, to put it briefly, party had little to do with one's view of black people. I will grant, the Republicans definitely did differ from the Democrats of the time in having an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic bias, but that is the sole correlation between party and bias.

Now, I will grant, in modern times, the segregationist candidates were almost entirely Democrat, but, once again, I would not take too much meaning from that. After all, as I said, until the mid-80s at the earliest, the South was still almost uniformly Democrat, and segregationist candidates were a regional phenomenon. Finding they were all Democrats is no more shocking than finding most merchant seamen in the late 19th century were mostly Republican, coming predominantly from the northeast.

I don't offer any of this to try to argue the modern Democrat party has no issues with race. I have written before that I find a lot of their agenda is condescending and patronizing, and clearly I think their agenda is bad for minorities. Then again, since I think it is bad for everyone, it would inevitably be bad for minorities as well. (Though, in this case, they seem to have programs which are especially harmful for minorities.) All I hope to do here is to stop both conservatives and liberals from using inappropriate historical analogies to make arguments which those facts do not support. If we are going to make our case, let's make it with valid arguments, and not with facile and misleading claims such as "the KKK is a Democrat organization".

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Change of Pace

In case it is not clear from my current essay, in a few upcoming essays I have decided to adopt a new approach. Rather than my usual approach of building upon older essays, starting from my usual assumptions and so on, I have decided to approach a number of political and social philosophies on their own terms, to accept their claims at face value, assume they are honest in their beliefs, and then examine whether their conclusions are valid, and also what the likely outcomes will be of the application of those beliefs. This is not all I will be writing in the next few days, but it will form part of it, so I thought I would mention the upcoming essays.

Socialism, Communism, Democracy, Authoritarianism and Freedom - Is It Possible to Have a Non-Authoritarian Socialism?

As I have explained many times before ("Making Grievances Worse", "A Brief Aside", "The Urge to Simplify", "Coming Attractions - 2015, June 13","Things to Come") I have recently been reading a number of  explicitly Marxist sites. While they deal mainly with literary criticism, and some discussion of social justice and similar issues, there is also some discussion of more general political discussion, and that has raised a number of interesting questions for me. For example, there is the repeated claim that Stalin's Russia, while growing out a potentially communist revolt, was not itself a true worker's state. Instead, according to this theory, the West's sponsorship of the White Army, perhaps exacerbated by the growth of anti-Communist states such as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, turned the Russia revolution away from the establishment of a worker's state, and instead created either "state capitalism" or a bureaucratic state. There is also some interesting discussion of how both Stalinist Russian and Nazi Germany were "capitalist" states in some sense, but we will defer that for a future essay, along with another question about whether or not capitalism can exist without requiring state intervention. For the moment, I will limit our topic to the question of whether a socialist or communist stater -- let us just say a workers' state -- that is, a state with state ownership of the means of production and some sort of state distribution of goods -- could exist without becoming authoritarian.

On the face of it, this question is absurd, since a state which both owns all productive assets and controls the distribution of all products is, pretty much by definition, authoritarian, since the state has close to absolute power. After all, if such a state were to take umbrage to a given act, they would not even have to imprison the actor, simply refuse to provide him with the necessities of life until he changed or perished. But perhaps that is too simplistic an approach. After all, in theory, in the power of arrest, or the use of deadly force, all states have the tools used by authoritarian states, so maybe it is unfair to criticize communist states for granting the state so much power. Instead, what we would do better to ask is whether or not a communist state must, of necessity, choose to ignore individual liberties, individual desires, in short, is it inevitable that a workers' state must be some form of tyranny?

I examined a version of this question in my earlier essay "The Sado-Masochist Society, or, Would Primitive Communism Work?", but in some senses that may be an inadequate response, as it assumes -- for reasons I made clear in "The Basics" -- that an excessively intrusive state is incompatible with individual happiness or satisfaction. But again, given that we currently live in a relatively intrusive state yet most consider themselves free, this may be a difficult point to argue1. Thus, I think it may be best o start with no assumptions, and proceed from the basic situation, to argue that, by any standard, a communist state would inevitably become oppressive to the majority of its populace.

The first thing we must recognize is, quite simply, the point I have made repeatedly2, that there is simply no rational choice of what to produce and in what quantities. "Wants" and "needs", while treated as meaningful, are actually nothing more than the expression of a single individual's prejudices. Thus, if production is to be directed by the state, in some form, then the choice of what to produce and what not to produce is entirely arbitrary3. Without the price mechanism of the free market to direct producers toward those needs most keenly felt by consumers, the communist state must create a production schedule from whole cloth, arbitrarily deciding what consumers want, and in what quantities. Nor is that the end of the problem. Not only do they not have any tools to tell them what people want, they also lack the feedback mechanism the market provides to allow them to adjust those production goals, not only to correct errors, but to adjust to changing desires. Even if, through some magic, they could divine individual desires when creating the individual plan, they would not have a means of knowing if those desires changed, or how much. Thus, not only will the plan be an arbitrary construct, but it will also be unresponsive one, failing to adjust to changes.

Some may respond that these are ways around this, one could poll the public concerning their desires, or establish some sampling of the public to produce an approximation of desires, but that ignores a number of problems. First, polling cannot work as continuously as the market does, the market is a continual poll of consumers. And, a sample, though it may approximate the real outcome, is always less precise than a poll of all consumers, which is what the market provides. But even if we allow that polling, despite imprecision, is acceptably close, there are other issues. For example, individuals may not truly know how to rank their own desires. If asked "how many carrots would you want? How many potatoes? " you may be able to give a rough estimate, but such a wish list would, divorced from the concept of cost or tradeoffs, would likely ask the state to produce more than is possible. Thus, the poll would need to ask questions in the form "If you had 5 carrots and five potatoes, how many carrots would you give up for a potato?" which most consumers could not truly answer. And it would need to ask for every good combination. In short, the problems solved by the combination of the use of currency and the market economy with ease, could only be done through impossibly complex questions answered continually by the public. And, to make it even worse, this would only apply to consumer goods. What about producer's goods, raw materials and labor? The price of those figures strongly into setting production goals, we must always decide about tradeoffs between producers' and consumers' goods, and yet polls would have a hard time setting the price of producers' goods.

In short, without a market economy, there is simply no way to establish production goals except for an arbitrary choice. This choice can be made in various ways, it can be set by a single individual, by a committee, by a vote for choices between competing plans, by a compromise between various committees, by collaboration between various production syndicates, or any of countless other schemes, but, in the end, the choice is still arbitrary, representing, at best, a momentary snapshot of the desires of a subset of all individuals, or, even more accurately, what that subset of individuals imagine to be the best combination of outputs, since those setting the goals may attempt to honestly represent the desires of their fellows. And, even if they don't, if they base their decision on nothing but their own desires, even then, it is likely they will not do as well when trying to express those desires in terms of total economic output than they would when expressing their desires through the simple purchase of items4.

I am sure at this point many readers are wondering what any of this has to do with tyranny and communism, and I hope it shall be made clear shortly. You see, I started with this simple principle, because there are many other aspects of highly interventionist states that are similarly arbitrary, and thus, by demonstrating the arbitrary aspect of this fundamental aspect of the government, I hope to make it easier to demonstrate the other arbitrary aspects. All of which play a significant part in what I shall argue is the inevitable tyranny of a workers' state.

The most obvious candidate for arbitrary decisions, beyond production, would be distribution, but we shall postpone that for a moment to look at another issue, the selection of jobs. Now, according to orthodoxy Marxists, under a true workers' state, individuals will be free to choose the jobs they want, shifting between them at will. There are a host of problems with this model, such as unskilled individuals trying to work where they should not, the lack of specialization limiting skill development, the problems changing jobs produce for workplace continuity, for reliability of labor and so on5, but let us look at an even more basic problem, how to ensure we have workers for the jobs we need filled. After all, if pay is not tied to work, then who would choose to collect garbage? Or do a host of other jobs that are generally seen as low in prestige, high in effort and also unpleasant for any number of reasons? As I argued in "The Sado-Masochist Society, or, Would Primitive Communism Work?", people would rationally choose the jobs requiring the least effort, assuming the rewards were the same.

Of course, if we stick with strict Marxist dogma, supposedly the future workers' state will breed a new type of man, so maybe they will not be driven by such prosaic attitudes. But, for the life of me, I still cannot imagine that any sort of ideal being would make choices against reason. And, if we look at things reasonably, if the rewards are the same, then the work which requires the least effort makes sense, as it maximizes our benefit.

To get around this, I suppose we could use one of the tools the Soviet Union once tried, that of making undesirable jobs high prestige, praising those who took on jobs others did not want. And in a way this might work. But I would think it would only work for certain jobs. For example, those jobs which are difficult because they require a high degree of skill and a large amount of effort, such as surgeon or physicist or engineer, those I could see retaining a high prestige, which some might see as compensating for the aded effort required. And, perhaps, if one were very clever and manipulated the public to make it seem honorable to sacrifice for the good of others, it might be possible to attach some prestige to jobs that were exceptionally loathsome or otherwise unappealing, arguing that those who chose to take on these jobs no one would do, are making a heroic sacrifice for the state. So, I concede it might be possible, using praise and other social pressures, to fill some of the more labor intensive jobs, but there still remains one problem. Somewhere on the spectrum of jobs, there are those where the combination of praise and effort required still make them less desirable than others, and so they will still be impossible to fill voluntarily. Now, I admit, by combining two factors, and two factors which individuals may value differently, there will be some variation in which jobs are seen as least desirable, and so some jobs on the borderline between desirable and undesirable might seem appealing enough to a set of individuals to still get filled, but there will remain cases where the consensus is that they are simply too unrewarding, and no means of voluntary staffing will fill them, provided the reward is the same for all jobs6.

Here we find one of the problems with a socialist state. Let us suppose our state is truly free, and follows the dogma of voluntary employment. At some point, some essential tasks will doubtless go unfulfilled. It may be garbage collection, it may be surgery, it may be anything, but at some time, the excess effort required will discourage individuals from undertaking such a task. In a market economy, at such a point the increased demand for that service will raise wages, and soon it will be performed. Under a socialist economy, there is no solution. We can talk about individuals volunteering to take on a task, but in truth, many jobs may be unfilled, or inadequately filled, and yet not be obvious to the public. For example, if garbage is going uncollected, it may not be for lack of trash collectors, but rather for lack of those making garbage trucks, or those working in landfills. The public's perception of the problem may not make clear where the lack is, and thus, even with civic-minded, volunteer-happy public (which I am skeptical will exist even in a perfect workers' state), there will be no way for them to know which tasks are in urgent need of workers, and thus, without a coordinating mechanism, the economy will gradually decline.

This presents our workers' state with two options. First, they can accept the failures of the system, accept the shortcomings which we shall discuss shortly, or they can implement a form of coercion. Nothing overtly tyrannical, necessarily, but they certainly need to implement some means to let people know where labor is lacking, and, if, as I suspect, people still fail to volunteer in adequate numbers of those jobs which are undesirable to perform, assign workers to those tasks. This second solution has a secondary benefit in that it solves one of the other problems of voluntary work, people taking on jobs for which they are unqualified or incompetent. If labor is not voluntary, but assigned, as has been the case in all modern communist states, it will ensure that jobs are adequately staffed, and not undertaken by those who are not capable of performing them. Of course, enforcing such decisions does require a loss of some degree of freedom, but it avoids a worse problem, which we shall discuss next.

I mentioned above the fact that a production schedule under a workers' state would be arbitrary, but in a sense I am being unfair to true Marxism. Under the ideal workers' state of Marx, one which has progressed beyond the dictatorship of the proletariat, there is not any plan at all. Unlike the arbitrary, yet inefficient, plans I discussed above, under a true Marxist utopia, all labor is voluntary, and so production is driven, not by market forces, not by a combination of consumption and production, but purely by producers' desires. In accord with Marx's fascination with labor7, production, assuming labor is truly voluntary, would be driven by nothing but the preferences of the producers. In short, rather than an arbitrary plan imposed on the producers, production will be chaotic, driven by the productive whims of individuals. With workers free to choose their labor, presumably the output would also be determined by the current desires of the workers choosing to work in a given shop. Thus, production would be driven by what products seem most pleasant to make, rather than giving any thought to consumption. I suppose some workers of a more far sighted nature may choose to produce goods that seem most urgently needed, but without any coordination it would be difficult for any single worker, or even group of workers to truly know what is in and is not needed. In addition, with labor being unreliable it would be likely labor would focus on goods that can be produced in a short time, as no one can predict if adequate workers will be available for longer term projects.

Of course, this can be resolved through the solution of modern communist states, that is, imposing tasks upon workers, and coordinating their efforts to match a conventional production plan. But that too has drawbacks, as the more workers are coerced to act against their desires, the less appealing the workers' state seems, and, since their arbitrary production plans are inevitably less productive than a market system would be, workers will find themselves no more free, and with less to show for it, which is why so many modern communist states also enforce limited contact between their nation and foreign lands, as well as strongly monitoring their citizens.

However, I suppose I should be as fair as possible, and point out that, while it is true, if we wish to have anything approaching a modern economy, or even simple subsistence, we would need to institute precisely the same social controls we find in modern communist states, it is possible, assuming we do not care about any economic factors, for us to have a truly free communist state. It is conceivable we could have a state where workers choose at which tasks to work, what to produce and so on. Of course, the output of such an economy would likely fall short of even subsistence, not to mention the massive problem with maintaining infrastructure, much less building new infrastructure (identical to Smith's tragedy of the commons), but that is a secondary concern compared to the absolute productive chaos which would result in massive shortages of almost everything.

It is possible to go on, to apply more analysis, but why bother? The simple fact is, if there is no coercive assignment of labor and imposition of labor plans, communism as conceived by Marx would produce an economic chaos which would doubtless end in famine. So, while it is possible to imagine such a state, and it could function -- in a sense -- for a short time, there is no way such a state could exist for long. Thus, I think it is safe to say, communism, for all practical purposes, requires an authoritarian state, as the alternative is a rapidly worsening tragedy.

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1. I suppose the best analogy is with the incubation of a disease. One can be suffering from, say, hepatitis, or the early stages of many cancers, even have suffered considerable physical damage, and yet feel none of the symptoms. Similarly, I would argue, the degree of intervention in our state, the level of government intrusion, while seen by most as acceptable and compatible with individual liberty, in truth it is simply setting the stage for larger losses of liberty and a state where we will eventually recognize that we have lost our freedoms, that it makes tyranny inevitable. Even if most people imagine that we are still free and the government is exercising nothing more than common sense regulation. (See "Inescapable Logic", "Slippery Slopes", "Common Sense, Guns and Regulations", "The Problem of Established Perspectives", "The Urge to Simplify", "The Lunacy of 'Common Sense'", "'Seems About Right', Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revisited, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "Impractical Pragmatists", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "No Dividing Line", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact", "The Rarity of 'Common Sense'", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship" and "The Problem with Common Sense Solutions")

2. See "One More Meaningless Word and Its Consequences", "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity", "Protean Terminology", "Semantic Games", "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions", "Weasel Words and Hollow Words", "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "The Case for Small Government", "Fairness and the Free Market", "Capitalism and Its Consequences", "Two Sided Processes and Claims of "Unfair" Outcomes".

3. There is often a straw man argument made in response, that the free market is equally arbitrary, but that ignores that the price system, as well as the market's direction of revenues to those best meeting the desires of others, tends to direct the producers to follow the desires of their fellows, or else forces them out of the market.  (See  "High Cost of Medical Care","Government Efficiency", "Medical Reform, An Overview", "The Absurdity of Mandatory Insurance", "Clarification of my Argument for a Free Market in Medicine", "Preexisting Conditions", "Misunderstanding Profits", "Government Quackery", "Two Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism", "The Devil is in the Definitions (And Assumptions)", "Bad Economics Part 10", "Bad Economics Part 18", "Cutting "Costs"", "A Different Look at "Health Care Reform"", "Reviving Nonsense in the White House", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Again?", "Collective Ventures Versus Government" ,"Greed Versus Evil", "Competition", "The Basics", "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "Planning for Imperfection", "Misunderstanding the Market", "How to Blame the Free Market", "How to Blame the Free Market Part II", "Contracts and Freedom", "Unfair Advantage and Foreign Trade", "In Praise of Contracts", "Third Best Economy" ,"Another Look At Exploitation", "Patronage", "Patronage Versus Choice")

4. If this sounds absurd, think about it this way. You go to the store to buy groceries for the week. You look at the items you want, assess the price of each, and make tradeoffs based on the price. It is fairly simple as there is but one measure. On the other hand, let us suppose you have a given basket of groceries and want to make it match your desires. Suppose you are told "to get one box of cereal you must give up four carrots, or two cans of beans, or three cans of soda, or six radishes or four squash or..." and follow it with a list of several hundred possible trades, including some made up of more than one good. Would you be able to accurately match your desires using such a system? Or would it be, not just much more difficult than using money, but actually impossible given the infinite amount of information you must consider in making each change?

5. There is an even more obvious problem. Since not all jobs produce physical output, and some don't even produce intellectual output with regularity, who is to contradict me if I say while lying about staring at clouds for the last week I was not working as a poet or theoretical physicist? And if I can get rewards for no effort at all, then why would anyone choose to work?

6. Actually, in the scheme proposed, praise is nothing but a form of compensation. Those jobs which are less appealing, for whatever reason, are selected to result in more praise, resulting in the wage, defined as a combination of the monetary reward and praise, is higher for those unappealing jobs. But, since monetary pay is fixed and constant, praise is the only variable, and thus there would still remain jobs where the additional burden is too great for the additional praise to make it worthwhile. Of course, as I said above, individual valuation of the worth of praise varies, so some jobs may be acceptable to some and not others, but there will likely remain some jobs where, no matter your valuation of praise, the amount of praise offered is inadequate to induce anyone to take that job.

7. For example, Marx's anachronistic insistence on preserving the labor theory of value, which conventional economists had long since abandoned as unrealistic. See "The Cart Before the Horse, or, Some Thoughts on the Iron Law of Wages", "Employment A to Z", "Fairness and the Free Market", "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 3, 2012)", "Stupid Quote of the Day (February 14, 2015 -- Delayed)".

Monday, July 27, 2015

Sorry for the Long Pause

Sorry for the long pause between posts, but I am afraid work got rather busy, my health was so-so and then, Sunday was my birthday and my son and my mother insisted on celebrating with dinner, cake, etc, so I had no time to do much this weekend, or last week.


I hope to get more done this week. I have two incomplete posts which I hope to finish, as well as write one that has been in my mind for some time, examining the claims I have recently heard from sincere socialists and Marxists that it would be possible to have a non-totalitarian socialism or communism.

I already did this in "The Sado-Masochist Society, or, Would Primitive Communism Work?", as mentioned in "Things to Come", but I do plan to actually write it at long last, even if it covers some of the same ground as old posts, as I think it is a claim that too many take seriously, and I ned to demonstrate why authoritarianism is not just an unfortunate consequence of bad government, but an inevitable result of increasing government power or scope. Actually, that may be useful to demonstrate why I argue for minimal government, as even those who want a supposedly limited government often want the state to intrude into other matters, which will bring about ever increasing authoritarianism.

Well, enough about what I plan to write. Please check back tomorrow or Wednesday, and I should have at least one or two of these completed.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Cultural Imperialism and Preserving Cultures

It seems in modern times it is mandatory to bemoan "the Americanization of the world" and decry "the loss of native cultures", or, in more general terms, to make a big deal of the evils of "cultural imperialism". I admit, I never could make sense of this objection, as I explained in "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 11, 2012)", but I also realize my previous explanation managed to overlook a few very important points. So, I am going to take a few moments and reexamine the question of cultural imperialism, and ask "what do we mean by cultural imperialism"? Who is to blame? What is the harm? And, finally, assuming it is in some way bad, what is the cure and what would it cost? And not just financially, but in terms of the effect upon those who are asked to preserve those cultures.

The first, and most significant, issue, is found in the terminology that critics use. The terms, and phrases, are heavily loaded with the language of military action, of conquest, or subjugation. "Cultural imperialism" itself suggest an invading, conquering army. Similarly, talk on this subject tends to focus on products seizing markets, conquering competitors, forcing their way into societies, subduing the populace and so on. Whenever one hears people speak about this supposed ill, it gives the impression of a hostile act, a violent assault upon an otherwise passive foreign land, with US products somehow bashing their way into the hands of consumers.

But is that accurate? In any way?

The truth is, American products "invade" markets because consumers in those market want them. Some will claim it is "invasive advertising" and so on, but I have argued elsewhere advertising is not magic ("Regulated Speech") there must be some desire for advertising to reach, and no matter how pervasive advertising might be, a product must provide some real benefit to maintain a market. Thus, it seems, this supposed imperialism is not an American, or western, assault on foreign lands, but rather a desire in foreign lands to enjoy the same goods and services as we do in the west. They want jeans and Coke and Hollywood films and consumer electronics and all the rest, and so they seek it out. We are not invading these markets, they are inviting us in.

Some might argue, whether it is the result of western invasion or native demand, it is still a problem, as this process is resulting in homogenized cultures and the lost of native cultural traditions.

There are several issues with such objections. First, there is the most obvious question, why we would want to ensure the survival of every culture? Second, we must also ask, since cultures come and go naturally, with no culture surviving forever, why are we opposed to this process? Are we going to stop all cultural change, in the name of preserving native culture? Or just third world ones, while allowing the developed world to continue to change? Third, we must also ask, if native cultures are of such value, why are those who live in them so ready to abandon them for foreign alternatives? And finally, if we are to "preserve" these cultures, how will we do so? And what costs will this impose upon those who live in such cultures? (All of which suggests a final question, is this not a rather bigoted, patronizing view, arguing westerners are mature enough to allow for cultural change, while poor benighted third worlders need to be forced to preserve their culture, which is valuable, presumably because it is primitive and quaint*.)

In some ways this first point reminds me of my essay "Environmentalism for the Economy". In that work I argued that people understand evolution as a beneficial process, yet strive to keep businesses afloat rather than let them fail naturally, thus driving an evolutionary process. A similar problem also exists with environmentalism ("Extinction", "Environmentalists Versus Evolution", "Societal Evolution"), the efforts to preserve "endangered species" actually seem somewhat contrary to the claims of "preserving nature", since nature certainly has no interest in ensuring every species persists forever. And I ask the same about cultures. They come and go with time, as we shall discuss later, so why must we preserve each and every one? If cultures disappear naturally to make way for new ones, why should we bemoan the loss of a culture? What is the point? Especially if the people who actually live within that culture express an interest in change, is it not perhaps a sign that the culture is due for a change?

Which almost answers our second question as well. After all, if we are to preserve every culture because of some inherent value, then we must be saying there will never arise a new culture. Of course, this seems strange, since the same people who often argue for preserving foreign cultures are the ones who press for gay marriage, for reduced discrimination on the basis of sex, race and so on, and a host of other cultural changes within our culture. If each and every culture is so inherently precious that it must be preserved at all costs, should we not apply the same rule here and strive to remove all changes in western culture? Of course, culture is changing all the time, so we then must also ask, what is the definitive version of each culture? Are they going to preserve the foreign culture with all the western elements it has absorbed? Or roll it back to some presumably pristine state? And if that latter is the case, then should we roll back changes in our own culture to some past state which epitomizes our culture? And if so, when? Which is yet another problem, as culture, being in constant flux, varying with time and location, is almost impossible to define. Are we preserving the culture of city X at this year? Or city Y two years ago? And if we are preserving both, where do we draw lines to divide them? As you can see, it is a problem which presents us with impossible questions. Though, as most who argue against "cultural imperialism" are themselves guilty of oversimplifying foreign cultures and seeing them as monolithic, unchanging entities which changed only once we westerners arrived (a rather bigoted view we will discuss shortly), then they do not recognize the impossible questions they would need to answer.

This brings us to the point which must be addressed and so rarely is, if these cultures are so precious, then why are those living in them so willing to abandon them for foreign alternatives? Or, at the very least, to accept foreign alternatives alongside their native versions? It is not as if they have no local choices. Almost every nation has some domestic film industry, for example (though many are hampered by strong government regulation), yet outside of Bollywood, and to a lesser degree Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and, maybe, Indonesia**, western films have enjoyed greater success than domestic film industries.Similarly, clothing, food and drink, music and the rest are all available locally, yet western versions enjoy mass appeal. Sometimes, local musicians, writers, clothiers and the like will try to emulate western models, and may even enjoy some success, but that just shows that, it is not specifically western goods that are being sought, but the style of goods themselves. In other words, they do not love rock music because it is western, they allow in western music because they love rock. All of which argues they do not see the supposed value in their culture.

Of course, those arguing against "cultural imperialism" will say there is some inherent value in the culture even if the locals do not see it, but that is nonsensical. It is akin to the environmentalist argument about nature having some inherent value we must preserve. ("The Lie of Environmentalism") If something is not desired, then it has no value. And if these westerners are so enamored of this culture, then let them choose to live their lives that way, rather than insist others must do so as there is some inherent value those foreigners fail to see.

Which brings me to the last official point, the cost of "preserving cultures". As I said above, these westerners are not going to make themselves live in these "traditional cultures", giving up modern conveniences and social mobility and a global perspective in the name of some ill defined value they want to preserve. No, they want to force others to forgo their own desires, to give up access to foreign goods, services and ideas, so these westerners can feel good about having stopped western imperialism and preserved some foreign or primitive culture. In short, the cost will be paid by those who have no desire to stop change, for the benefit of a handful who, in the end, will probably never even see the culture they are so excited to preserve.

Not that we should be surprised. This sort of patronizing, arrogant world view is part and parcel of this subject. Cultures are valued precisely to the degree they are primitive or foreign, and despised to the degree they resemble the culture of the United States. Not only that, but the residents of such cultures are seen, not as choosing to embrace the west, but rather as passive entities, having western culture forced upon them because they are too ignorant to recognize the value of their own culture. Or, rather, not exactly their culture, but rather the quaint, simplified amusement park version of their culture that these people imagine it to be. And the cost, the considerable burden of being forced into a state of perpetual stasis, of an eternity without a hint of cultural change, is not to be paid by enlightened westerners, but rather by these same benighted little third world people, who must be forced to embrace their valuable culture and told to turn away from the western culture they ignorantly seek. In short, it is a pretty condescending, bigoted view of the world.

There is, as always, much more to be said, but in the end, the question is rather simple. Do we trust people around the world to make their own decisions, to choose what they wish to buy, to watch, to read to wear, to hear and so on? Or do we refuse them access to supposed cultural contaminants? Deny them choice? Force them to live in an unchanging culture, even as our own culture remains in flux? That is what these arguments about "cultural imperialism" truly hide, the question of whether or not people in the third world and elsewhere are to be treated as adults capable of making their own decisions, or to have their choices made for them by the supposed betters -- usually western liberal intellectuals and politicians? And is that latter option not a worse form of imperialism than simply agreeing to sell them what they desire?

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* I wrote before that certain people have an instinctive tendency to see value only in the foreign or primitive. I argued in "Rousseau's Foolish Legacy" and "The Dishonesty of Avatar" that it was due to a rejection of their native culture, which made them see value in those things most different from it.

** Canada enjoys some success for entirely different reasons. Because of state subsidies, there is a glut of Canadian produced children's programming on television in the United States (mostly shows which would have been produced anyway, but simply moved to Canada to take advantage of the subsidies). Likewise, many syndicated television series film in Canada to avoid some union restrictions and other costs. However, as I discussed in "Canada, Subsidies, The Free Market and Intractible Reality", the actual feature film industry is largely a failure, mostly because these subsidies remove commercial concerns which drive Hollywood, resulting in the production of many films of supposedly superior artistic merit, but which lack any audience appeal outside of a very narrow market.


Canada, Subsidies, The Free Market and Intractible Reality

NOTE: I am reproducing this essay from my old blog "Random Notes" as it is cited in an upcoming post.

Since most Americans seem to know as little about Canada as they do about, say, Laos1, most Americans don't realize the degree to which our northern neighbor abhors the free market, even though they pay lip service to it.Americans are well aware of the drug subsidies and socialized medicine, but that is not so unusual, America is rather unique, or was until the current administration, in avoiding the stupidities of socialized medicine2. However, Canada goes much, much farther. For example, Canada maintains a massive subsidy for children's programming produced in Canada, using Canadian talent, which explains why so much of children's programming has a Canadian pedigree3,4. And then there are movies and television, which form the basis of my essay today.

Canada tries very hard to maintain a domestic film and television industry. To a degree, this is just part and parcel of their European-style state socialism, which demands the state own and run broadcast television. Canada is not quite as successful at this as most European nations, as Canada's neighbor tot he south has many non-state networks which often reach well north of the border. But Canada still tries. And, to provide content for this state television network, as in Europe, Canada must have domestically produced content.

However, most of Canada's efforts, especially in the realm of film subsidies, is the outcome of Canada's envy of her southern neighbor's domination of the entertainment market, not just in North America, but in the world. Of course, much of the world envies the success the United States has enjoyed in selling entertainment worldwide, but Canada seems to suffer a particularly strong case of envy, perhaps because of a general feeling of jealousy for her neighbor. Whatever the reason, Canada has shown a determination to maintain a domestic film industry unmatched in much of the world5.

Canada has, so far, avoided the periodic calls to require domestic cinemas to display a quota of Canadian content, but that such a call could be made at all, and taken seriously, shows how strongly Canadians believe in their efforts to subsidize a failed entertainment industry6. And it is that particular failure, and the reasons behind it, which interest us, and about which this essay shall concern itself.

Economic theory tells us that subsidies will always result in producing more of a good than is desired, leaving the market filled with good no one is consuming. Obviously, that is not a model which fits entertainment precisely, as entertainment is not used up in the way bread or shoes are, but there is still no doubt that subsidies result in the production of unwanted goods. In this case, movies that few people want to watch.

Of course, subsidies change the dynamics of film making as well. In a free market, film makers tend to be concerned first and foremost with viewers, and so they produce films they think will enjoy popularity, and once they have made them tend to market them heavily to ensure success. Subsidies change both dynamics, resulting in content which is divorced from public interest7, and in films which are weakly marketed, if that. Not only does the system of subsidies allow films with little prospect for success to be made, but they create an atmosphere where there is little incentive to try to improve the marketability of the film through advertising as the like8. The system is designed in such a way that it creates an environment where the participants are content to make middling failures which are mildly profitable thanks to subsidies.(As well as the sale of television rights to channels mandated to buy a certain percentage of Canadian made films.)

And then there is the problem of how to select which films to make. In a commercial environment, the answer is easy, the investors fund films they expect to make a profit. If they succeed, they make more money and can make more decisions, if they are wrong, they lose their money and gradually lose their voice. (The exceptions being in those lands with strong government involvement, such as the tale -- true or not -- that Uwe Boll continued to find German backing because German tax laws allowed a 100% write off of funds lost on an unprofitable film, making his record of non-stop flops a magnet for tax shelter money.)

But government funding is not interested in success, it is there to create "culture", or "develop a domestic industry" or some other mandate which is open to an infinitely subjective interpretation. And the investors are not held accountable for losses either, so there is no need to worry about the returns. All of which means that such funding ventures end up becoming the private domain of one clique or another, which can hand out money based upon their own vision, whatever that may be. In short, the money of the people is taken to fund the pet ventures of a small group with political connections.

And that is where the subsidies end up creating unconsumed content. Obviously, it is not the same as foodstuffs, or cars, but it has the same result. In terms of subsidies, what we have are, first, films being made which would not be made in a competitive market, and, second, films receiving funds all out of proportion to their anticipated audience size. In other words, money that would have funded a film reaching tens of millions in a competitive market would be spent on a film reaching hundreds of thousands, if that. Or, to make it more economic, the dollars paid per amount of satisfaction received is many times higher in a subsidized system than a competitive market.

Of course, those who favor subsidies claim they are preserving art, but one must ask how. Who is defining what is art worth preserving and what is not? And how did they gain that status? In the end, the truth is, the subsidies are forcing one particular vision of art on the market, just as the commercial model does, the subsidy model differs only in being based on political connections rather than broad appeal.

And that is the result of the Canadian film industry. They have produced endless films no one has seen, all so they can boast of a national film industry.

What is amusing is, if they truly wanted to have a thriving film industry, they could probably succeed on a smaller scale, by following the model of Vancouver. Vancouver has become a magnet for low budget television production because of the lack of union pay scales. If Canada in general were to create an environment friendly to lower budget films, they could probably do away with subsidies entirely and develop a thriving market in US-Canadian co-productions designed to keep costs to a minimum. Of course, it would not allow the strong nationalist boast of a purely Canadian film industry. Then again, economic nationalism is as disastrous as all nationalism, and so probably should be forgotten.

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1. It is odd, but most people I have met seem to know more about France, England, even Turkey, Egypt or South Africa, than they do about Canada. We in the US have a general impression of Canadians as mild-mannered, rules obsessed, and somewhat rustic individuals obsessed with printing everything in two languages, but beyond that general impression, we really don't know much about them. Nor do we seem very curious about them. Which probably explains the lack of knowledge.

2. For those who did not read them, my criticism of universal health care, or whatever the current term is, can be found in "Preexisting Conditions", "The Absurdity of Mandatory Insurance", " High Cost of Medical Care", "Medical Reform, An Overview", "Of Wheat and Doctors", "Redefining Insurance... To Actually BE Insurance", "The Insurance Sham" and "Cost Conscious Medicine".

3. See my article "Am I Getting This Right?".

4. Low budget television is similarly dominated by Canadian, specifically Vancouver-based, productions. However, this is not so much the product of subsidies as the ability to avoid paying the union (SAG, ACE, etc) wages demanded in the US.

5. Canada is not the only nation to subsidize domestic films -- some nations even control which films are allowed and which are not -- but Canada seems unique in continuing to subsidize those films even when there is little expression of public interest. Of course, other nations have enough linguistic and cultural differences that domestic film industries offer something Hollywood cannot, while Canada must compete with highly successful, popular films made in the same language from a roughly similar culture. 

6. I suppose I should differentiate between Canadian movies, Canadian domestic television and television productions made in Canada by foreign companies, or by private domestic firms for foreign consumption. The film industry is the most clear cut case of failed subsidies. Canadian domestic television was once the same, but the hunger of US cable networks for cheap programming has given that industry a boost. The final category, or pair of categories, really don't apply, as many receive no subsidies, and those that do receive them only incidentally, and their main focus is, as mentioned before, avoiding union costs in the US.

7. Some would argue this is the benefit of subsidies, they allow artists the freedom to follow their calling without worrying about how commercial their output is. However, that can be stated in the opposite direction as well. Subsidies force the public to pay for movies in which they have no interest. (Not to mention that subsidies do not grant artistic license, like grants they simply replace the ability to curry favor or impress bureaucrats and panels for pleasing the public at large. They are not a ticket to total artistic freedom as many claim.)

8. I won't go into this in great detail, but the basic reason is easy to understand. Film making is risky, and advertising is costly. If a film cost little enough that the subsidies allow it to break even, then any earnings are pure profit. On the other hand, if money is put into advertising, it is possible to suffer a loss. Since advertising does not guarantee success, and on average more films fail than succeed, the net result of advertising, barring an occasional blockbuster, would be to suffer a net loss. As Canadian films have a relatively bad reputation, mostly due to subsidies, the likelihood of a blockbuster is small, and thus advertising looks like a losing proposition.

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POSTSCRIPT

An interesting take on this topic, at least in terms of English language Canadian films can be found in the article "English Canadian Films: Why No One Sees Them". One quote from a film insider stands out: 
"It's a public service, paid for by the Canadian people. But we are not making movies that people want to see. If we made roads that nobody wanted to drive on, that would be hard to defend as a public service."
That is actually the best statement ever for ending arts subsidies. If arts enjoy popular support, then they will thrive on their own. And if they don't enjoy support, if no one wants them,. then why should we fund them? I have said it many times, but it bears repeating. Subsidies do not grant artistic freedom, they simply change the need for appealing to the public to a need to appeal to regulators, or boards of artists. In other words, it replaces the market with patronage by a select clique. How can anyone claim that is "artistic freedom"? It simply replaces pleasing a mass audience with pleasing a restricted one, but one with political pull.

On a final note, I do not agree with all the statements made in the article, as it seems much friendlier toward subsidies than I am, but it is interesting to read how even a subsidy booster finds Canada's system horribly broken.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2012/04/30.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Niagara Falls

Monday I had an appointment with one of my several doctors and, unusual for me -- but understandable as I was in a hurry -- I forgot to bring along a book to read (I had planned to bring The Collapse of the Third Republic, which I am reading yet another time). So, I had little choice but to glance through the magazines in the waiting room. Having little interest in the plethora of "women's magazines" or their male counterparts (everything from "Men's Health" to "Sports Illustrated" to a few of those Maxim-with-more-clothing horrors), I finally found a copy of "Time". As I had just jokingly dismissed "Time" in a conversation with my mother as "not even up to Newsweek quality", I decided to check it out and see if it had improved in the decade since last I read it. And I was somewhat surprised to find a mention -- if only a fleeting one in an interview -- of a topic which has come to my attention several times recently.

As I mentioned in a number of earlier essays (eg "Making Grievances Worse", "A Brief Aside", "The Urge to Simplify", "Coming Attractions - 2015, June 13") I have recently spent some time reading web sites which apply "lit crit" approaches to popular culture, especially television/films and video games, and either within those sites, or in sites to which they frequently link, I have also been reading a lot of sites which focus on social justice concerns, especially sexism, racism and related topics. There are a number of issues which these sites have raised, some of which I have already discussed, others which I plan to examine in the future. One of these is the use of the "trigger warning" on various blog entries. And it was that which was mentioned in the magazine.

In an interview with one time young adult writer, now adult novelist, Judy Bloom, the interviewer asked about her feelings on the use of "trigger warnings" on various works, including short stories and novels. Ms Bloom responded, in my mind much to her credit, by associating such warnings with more intrusive types of censorship, arguing that such warnings are just another attempt to exclude anything challenging or potentially disturbing, which she explicitly equated to more conventional forms of censorship, presumably because she assumes such "trigger warnings" would be used to exclude such works from classes, school libraries and the like.

When I first ran across "trigger warnings", they were most used on the more feminist sites, mostly when the blog entry in question dealt with rape, domestic violence or other topics which one would presume would trouble certain people. However, even then, it troubled me. First, the whole term just sounds a bit silly. As the title of this essay implies, the first thing I thought of when hearing the term was Moe Fine hearing someone mention Niagara Falls. In my head, I kept hearing "slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch...". I could not think of anything else. The very suggestion that something could be a "trigger" seemed so absurdly mechanistic an approach to humanity, that Niagara Falls was the only analogy that came to mind.

But after giving it more thought, two other, more serious, complaints came to mind.

First, it was troubling that those placing such warnings saw their fellows as so weak, so easily damaged, that they needed special labeling. When people claim men view women as weak and over emotional, they may have a point for some men, but it strikes me that many feminists, such as those insisting on such warnings, are even more responsible for reinforcing such stereotypes. After all, I can't imagine men insisting on warnings on blog entries that have specifically male-troubling matters. Yet, out of an excess of sympathy, feminists manage to create stereotypes more troubling than any man ever has.

The second concern is more in line with my usual worries, and that is "where does it end?" After all, pick anything you like, and someone out there is troubled by it. As the title suggests, even Niagara Falls worries at least one person. So, if we must label everything that might "trigger" someone, where do we draw the line? Why not just label everything and be done with it, since I am sure someone is offended by nearly anything one cares to name?

I had a similar reaction to excessive reactions to allergies, especially among children. Now, I am not unsympathetic, if an actual child has an actual allergy in a class, I have no objection to avoiding the substance to which the child is allergic. Where my problem arises is when people suggest preemptive measures, such as banning all peanuts in a locale, in case someone is allergic. It seems to me this simply ends up banning select allergies, usually the "allergy du jour", while ignoring equally common and deadly allergies. For instance, while peanuts are often excluded from places, how often have we heard the same for shellfish, or milk, both of which are equally, or more, common, and in the case of shellfish, often just as deadly in a handful of cases? As I said, I am not opposed to sensible measures for known issues, or even taking extraordinary steps should someone with allergies request them, but to make them in advance, just to show we are in sympathy with the cause of the day, that seems pointless, and that is how these "trigger warning" strike me.

And now, since I resisted doing it every time I mentioned the title (I thought of including it in a footnote attached to each mention of the title), allow me to close out "Niagara Falls." Niagara Falls? Slowly I turned. Step by step, inch by inch...

Thank you! Thank you! I will be here all week. And remember to tip your server. (Sorry, could not resist. For some reason, it feels like one of those days.)

POSTSCRIPT

I actually have planned for a while to discuss the health fetish of the day phenomenon, such as the current trendy statement "gluten free", promising the worried well they will not be exposed to something that will do 99.9999% (or likely 100%) of them no harm at all. I had to laugh when I saw that even my vitamins were declaring themselves free of gluten. Of course, this is just the latest in a long line of absurd health fads, based on imaginary benefits to some foods (whole grains, acai, soy, raw foods, etc) ,the belief that most of us suffer from a misunderstood and rare ailment (celiac disease, Lyme disease, etc) or the belief specific foodstuffs are inherently harmful (bleached flour, sugar, transfats, gluten). I will write more about this later.



Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Brief Note on Slavery

I will write on this at length later, but there is something I read repeatedly in left-wing, and especially communist/socialist, web sites, and it puzzles me to no end. They speak of "the slave trade" as a specific ill of industrialization and capitalism. Yet, slavery was hardly a creation of the 18th or 19th century, slaves had existed ever since settled agriculture made it sensible to enslave rather than exterminate those defeated in combat. (See "More Thoughts on Slavery".) Even massive slave markets, an organized slave trade and all the rest existed in quite developed forms long before capitalism. Nor is it unique to the west. Slavery was practiced by most cultures, and slave markets, slave traders, large scale commerce in slaves, existed on several continents. If anything, the end of slavery, the choice to not just speak about the dignity of man, but to actually act on it, came from industrialization and capitalism. After all, the evil, capitalist, imperial power England spent a large amount of money and dedicated a lot of its naval power to ending slavery around the world, when most of the rest of mankind did not care. I am sure some communist will tell me this is because they wanted to make those slaves proletariat workers in sweat shops or some other nonsense, but, if that is the case, then why do the same people claim capitalism created slavery? Either capitalism is hostile to slavery or friendly, you cant have it both ways.

But, as I said, a lot to be said about the relationship of slavery and economics (eg the hostility of the industrial, capitalist north in the US to slavery in the semi-feudal, agrarian south), and I hope to write a much longer essay in the near future.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Communist Arrogance

I have argued many times that liberalism rests upon the arrogant assumption that the majority of mankind is ignorant and foolish, while only a small wise elite has access to the single right answer. (See "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences", "Man's Nature and Government", "Appealing to Arrogance", "The Intellectual Elite", "The Citizen Dichotomy", "The Essence of Liberalism", "Liberalism, "Idealists" and Internal Contradictions") However, I think the best example of this comes, not from mainstream liberal sites, but rather from those of orthodox communists, as it seems communists, when confronted with the inconsistencies between their theories and reality, often have no choice but to accuse workers of being morons.

Take, for example, the entire idea of class, and class struggle. The official position is, in an admittedly simplified form, that the interests of each class are inexorably opposed, and the true interest of the working class is in opposing the capitalist bourgeoisie. Supposedly it is the eventual resolution of this conflict (well the synthesis of this opposed thesis/antithesis pair) that will lead to our workers' utopia and the communist heaven on Earth.

However, in real life, it seems the workers aren't always so ready to smite the hated bourgeoisie, and sometimes seem to think their interests are quite different than the communists would propose. So, how do communists explain this? For example, how do they explain strong patriotism among the working class, as opposed to their supposed innate international solidarity? Why, they have been beguiled by the power structure and given a false consciousness. The same also explains falling union support, blue collar Reagan voters, the prevalence of upper middle class bourgeoisie -- and dearth of workers -- in the ranks of communists, and so on.

In short, the beloved workers are just stupid mouth breathers who don't know what's good for them. So, until they listen to their betters, who know their true interests, they have to be shown what to do.

Is it any wonder this theory ended up developing the "dictatorship of the proletariat", and created countless authoritarian states around the world? If your basic premise is that the supposed best among us are still too dim witted to know what they should do, then there really is no solution but to let the enlightened few seize the reins of power.

But, before we go, I would suggest we not forget that a similar, in fact identical, belief underlies almost every liberal theory I have found, and even a number of supposedly conservative schools of thought, so before we feel too superior about the foolishness of communism, we may want to look at our own beliefs as well.

Making Grievances Worse

Have you ever had one of those days where something is bothering you and no matter what you do it just seems to get worse? Maybe your boss is bothering you and every time you see him he seems to be piling on more work, berating you, bullying you, whatever? Perhaps you have even had a problem that went on for some time, that kept bothering you, giving you time to mull it over, to think about it, maybe even obsess a bit. And, perhaps, after some time considering it, the problem began to take on a life of its own. You began to see it wherever you looked, it began to grow, to loom larger, to become the single most important thing in your thoughts, to start to appear to be the root of everything wrong in your life, to grow and grow until it seemed overwhelming, so huge and all pervasive nothing could ever make it better.

And most of the time, the only thing that allowed you to snap out of that funk, to stop obsessing, to see the problem with a little objectivity, was someone else pointing out just how unrealistic you were being. It often is uncomfortable, in fact most of the time you argue tooth and nail with the one who points out how much of the problem is in your head, but, in the end, it frequently takes someone from outside, someone unrelated to the problem, or at least with a different perspective, to keep us from seeing things in an unrealistic way.

It is this experience which causes me to argue with those who believe that, among groups facing discrimination or other social ills, only those who suffer can speak on the issue. For those who do not regularly frequent such sites, this is often seen when, for example, a man tries to discuss discrimination against women and is accused of "mansplaining", that is trying to minimize the true scope of discrimination, or to make the women feel their reaction is unjustified, and so on. And, in one way, perhaps it is understandable. After all, it does seem sympathetic to tell those who have a bad experience that whatever they feel is valid. And, though I disagree strongly*, it is a common belief in our society that one must experience something to truly understand it. But, despite these ideas, I would argue the idea that only the victim can speak about discrimination is a dangerous approach.

As I said above, it is human nature to brood over problems, especially those which are ongoing, more so if they are not easily solved. And it is also human nature for those things which are foremost in our thoughts to seem more prominent than they truly are, for those things that bother us to seem insoluble, to seem more pervasive than they are, to lie behind every problem we experience. How much more this is the case when not only is a problem ongoing, but one is part of a group which all experience the same problem, all think about it, talk about it, allowing it to become a large part of one's experience, reinforced by many of those one meets? Is it not probable that, at some point, those in such a situation might come to view matters unrealistically? To become overly focused on the issue, to see it as larger than it is? That it is to blame for more than it is? That the solution is harder than it truly is? Or that more people are to blame than truly are?

It is precisely for that reason that we do need to sometimes hear the voice of an outsider. Of someone outside of the problem**. For when we choose to live in an echo chamber, to surround ourselves with only those who speak of the same problems, who see them the same way we do, it is very easy to slip into an unrealistic view of things. And thus, despite the complaints that those who do not experience discrimination cannot understand it, I would argue that, whether they understand it or not, they may still be very valuable in providing a perspective from the outside, or, if not the outside, then from a different point of view. And many times, we need that corrective. It is often not comfortable, it can seem to be saying our concerns are invalid, but at times, that is precisely what we need to hear. An thus, I would argue that the supposedly proper approach to discrimination espoused by many sites focused on social justice is, not a productive one, but rather a recipe for making problems seem larger and more difficult than they truly are, and that -- while it may serve the political ends of some, and may make some happy by providing easy justification for every grievance, and a handy justification for every failure -- is a very bad way to approach life.

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* I have never believed the idea that one must experience something personally to understand it. I know many writers ascribed to this philosophy, as do many social justice proponents, but I would argue, even if one has not had the precise experience of another, there are enough analogous experiences to provide one with understanding. After all, if we could not truly understand anything we did not experience personally, no sort of empathy or understanding would be possible. Why, if we took this view seriously, I would argue communication itself would be impossible, as my word "dog" would signify something so different from yours they would not be useful to describe as a single word. The fact that we can communicate and understand one another seems to me adequate proof that understanding is possible without direct shared experience.

** This is not necessarily limited to discrimination or other experiences, all groups that tend to have shared complaints are at risk of reinforcing one another in unrealistic exaggeration of those grievances. From politics to social ills to homeowners' associations and so on, those who come to focus on a specific problem, and exclude those who have a different perspective, have a very real tendency to exaggerate their grievances.

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POSTSCRIPT

There are several other items of conventional wisdom concerning discrimination, equality, social justice and the like I want to examine in the near future. However, as should be evident by my rather tardy replies to comments lately, I am short of time last the few days, and so I will have to wait until I can find some time to properly address these topics.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Incorrect Reasoning

I was reading some articles in the Guardian and found what has to be the world's most invalid argument.

It seems commentator Matt Ridley at some time prior to 2010 became one of the directors of some variety of semi-private bank*, which failed and later applied for a government bailout. Mr. Ridley then wrote a book in 2010 which extolled the virtues of the free market and argued against government involvement in economics.

Now, the usual pop criticism would be to argue that he is a bit of a hypocrite in arguing against government intervention while seeking a bailout. As I argued in "Hypocrisy?", this is actually incorrect, as he may honestly believe government intervention is wrong, yet fail to live by his own ideals. That would mean he has failed to live up to his ideals, nothing more. It is not hypocrisy for an imperfect man to extol perfection, though in this case it is a bit unseemly.

However, the Guardian actually took a different approach, and one which I think is completely absurd. They argued that he must be foolish as his failure in banking should have taught him the free market does not work.

This is an absurd argument. The argument for the free market is not that every unregulated business succeeds, but rather that by allowing failed managers, approaches and other bad ideas to fail, in the end it produces a more robust and efficient economy. In fact, the fact that Ridley failed when he undertook investments that were too risky is a vindication of the free market, it shows how bad ideas die in a free market, while in this regulated market they are allowed to continue under the same management that brought about the original failure.

Yet, several times I have seen British blogs link to this article, arguing it is a sound refutation of free market "rhetoric". Far from it. Just as every warm day does not prove global warming ("Global Warming Watch, Again", "Global Warming Watch", "Odds and Ends"), the failure of a man in business, even a proponent of the free market, does not prove the value of regulation, it simply shows that man is not a good manager.

Allow me to make two analogies. I can say "smoking is bad for your health", yet we all know I am a smoker. Does that mean my message is false and smoking is healthy? Or does it mean I have failed to live up to my ideals?

Even more apt, what if I said "It is a good idea to learn to swim, especially if you go out on the water." but was later to drown? Does that prove swimming is of no value?

In each case, the argument is no less foolish than the idea that the business failure of a free market proponent somehow proves the inadequacy of the free market.


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* I do not know much about the current state of British banking laws, so do not know to what degree privatization has taken hold, though I doubt that any British private bank would be any less regulated than a US bank. For better or worse, our two nations seem to have relatively similar perspectives on bank regulation, with England generally being more strongly regulated, with the US adopting British regulatory measures after a lag of several decades, sometimes more -- for example, our Federal Reserve being created centuries after the Bank of England. (Though that last may be unfair, as the Bank of England was one of the earliest central banks.)

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POSTSCRIPT

I shall be revisiting Mr. Ridley in a future essay as well, as he is also apparently a proponent of genetic determinism of some sort. As I have been quite critical of many of these beliefs, I will be looking at an essay about his genetic ideas very soon.

UPDATE (2015/07/18): I realized my argument about hypocrisy may actually be read the wrong way quite easily, and so I need to clarify a bit. If he argued that government aid was wrong, for everyone but him, then yes, that is somewhat hypocritical. On the other hand, if he truly believed government aid was wrong, but thanks to his monumentally bad management, saw no way to save the money of his investors but to accept government aid, he would be failing to live up to his ideals, but would not necessarily be hypocritical. Hypocrisy is, for lack of a better description, extolling a virtue in which one does not believe. Say, Clinton extolling the virtue of marital fidelity, or Nixon extolling government openness. But even in those cases, one could argue both believe in those ideals, but due to circumstance, personal weakness or what have you, failed to live up to their ideals. It is why I tend to view claims of hypocrisy very skeptically. Though often tossed out to criticize anyone who failed to meet their professed ideals, that is both a misuse and a dangerous one. After all, as someone once pointed out, by so defining hypocrisy, it means those who espouse no virtues, or only the most pathetically modest ethics, essentially come out better than those who try for much loftier goals and sometimes fail. In short, this pop usage of hypocrisy allows the amoral greater freedom than those who have ethics but sometimes fail to meet them, which is, to my mind, the opposite of what we should advocate. But I have said this before, and much better, so I will cut myself off before repeating myself even more.