Under The Sun

Saturday, April 26, 2003



F of u is a subset of K.

--Anna's (foreign-born) group theory professor

Friday, April 25, 2003



Democracy in the very long term. Is the "open society" sufficiently adaptable and sufficiently robust to compete and survive in the ages (post-Industrial, post-Information, etc.) to come?

Painting with a broad brush, I see three major flaws from which the open society is at risk:

(1) Capitalism. Both Marx and Schumpeter have argued that capitalism is not viable in the very long term. I'm not very familiar with Schumpeter's argument, but Marx's can be paraphrased thus: the natural tendency toward power-law distribtion (few with most, many with little) means that capitalism will always be barely staving off a proletarian revolution. Can the small compromises of the welfare state keep the proletariat pacified indefinitely? Will the overall real standard of living (bang-for-buck) rise fast enough to solve the problem of scarcity in time to prevent the big crunch? Is there room on this planet--are there enough resources--for a worldwide profusion of consumerist capitalist states?--or will we get our act together and find other planets to spread out to? Or--gasp!--will Marx eventually be proved correct?

(2) Idiotocracy. The quality of democratic government is steadily getting worse. Bureaucracy proliferates; the political process seems to preclude candidates with ideas. So far the open society has proved quite good at running itself despite its nominal leaders, but have we really transcended the need for leadership? Ancient Athens hadn't: when the going got tough, the tough got ostracized, and Sparta won the war. If we want to win our current war--the overall war, not merely the small wars--we will have to escape the trap that closed on Athens. So far we have made no obvious moves in that direction.

(3) Equality. Political equality is an enforced lie--well-intentioned, but still a lie--and because it does not correspond to reality, it creates inefficiency. This is related to idiotocracy, of course, but is broader and deeper. The open society in general does not reward merit and does not reward vitality: the weaker are supported, at the cost of a disproportionate share of our total resources, while the strongest are left to fend for themselves. Again: there is a strong moral case for this, but it does have consequences. One consequence is that a less equal society--a meritocracy, perhaps, or even a social-darwinist machine state--would in theory be able to out-think or out-work ours. Will the unfreedom of such societies cost more efficiency than their advantages gain? Or will their willingness to embrace "immoral" new technologies--genetic engineering, perhaps, or nanotechnology, or cybernetics, or whatever else moves from science-fiction into reality--give them an insurmountable advantage?

It's an old truth that winners don't adapt. The open society won the race from agriculture through industry to information. Now we're pausing for breath, and letting--helping--the rest of the world catch up. (This is a good thing, of course.) Will we be able to shift back into high gear in time to take the lead in the next race? Will we care to try? Should we care to try? One thing is clear: as ever, we--humanity--are too tangled in the present to take proper account of the future. The future, of course, will happen regardless. But, as ever, some us hope that trying to predict it, or at least understand it, might ease some of the growing pains.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003



"You can't borrow serotonin without having to pay it back. With interest."

--Emily Grainger


Tuesday, April 22, 2003



Naughty speech redux. Eugene Volokh defends (only on principle, of course) Sen. Rick Santorum's reading of US law. It seems to me that Prof. Volokh is letting his libertarian bias trump common sense; I'm not sure that matters to his argument, but it does illustrate again that two very similar minds can disagree about what speech is worthy of condemnation, let alone punishment.

My question is, why do people want to restrict remarks like Lott's, Cubin's, Santorum's? The only legitimate ground for restricting speech is that it's dangerous--else you're just trying to restrict belief, which is impossible. So how might a racist or homophobic statement be dangerous? It might threaten, but if so it's hate speech; none of these were. It might incite, but that too is actionable, and clearly wasn't the case here. No, our objection to the three Congresscritters' remarks is merely that they were wrong. And the proper response to wrong speech is not condemnation or punishment; it is correction. Rather than calling for censure, officially or otherwise, we should emphasize our competing, and morally superior, positive position: we should vocally support equal rights, and encourage our representatives to do the same.



Peace in the Middle East? Certain politicians are against it.

Monday, April 21, 2003



"Sentimentality is feeling that shuts out action, real or potential. It is self-centered and a species of make-believe. William James gives the example of the woman who sheds tears at the heroine's plight on the stage while her coachman is freezing outside the theater."

--Barzun



Re: Rousseau. "[As reason] turns itself into the absolute opposite of nature and forgets nature in itself, all the more will a self-preservation gone wild regress into nature."--Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics

Sunday, April 20, 2003



Jean-Jacques Rousseau became famous when he won the prize offered by the Dijon Academy for an essay on the question whether progress in the arts and sciences had led to progress in manners and morals. Rousseau's answer, as we all learned in high school, was "no". This fact is given in many history classes as supporting evidence for the thesis that Rousseau did not believe in the project of the Enlightenment--did not believe, even, in the value of "culture" at all. That thesis is false.

First, notes Barzun, "it was the Academy, a large group of intellectuals, who raised the doubt"--their posing the question shows that it was on the mind of the age, and that it was not considered obvious. More important, the ideological use to which Rousseau's answer is put--of which more in a moment--obscures the fact that, taken simply on its own terms, it is just plain fact: humans in general are not more moral now than they were in the past. They may or may not be less moral, but Rousseau at the time took no position on that second question; he merely pointed out that "culture" has historically shown no tendency whatsoever to be any freer from vice or sin. We do reject some old errors or systems, of course--human slavery, for example--but our "advanced" thought and technology enable us to make new errors that our ancestors could never have imagined.

The myth that Rousseau was anti-"culture", rather than merely critical of culture, was propagated in part by Voltaire, who was too busy defending the Enlightenment from the church to take kindly to criticism of it from others. Furthermore, people who actually were anti-Enlightenment raised Rousseau as their own banner. But the return to nature, the apotheosis of the "noble savage", was not Rousseau's idea: it certainly did not originate with him--as Barzun says, "primitivism" has been one of the persistent themes of the modern age--and he did not endorse it. He was speaking as a theoretical historian, and his normative point was, again, not positive but critical: "progress" causes new problems, and is not to be exalted as the cure for all ills.

What of the famous line, "Men are born free, and everywhere they are in chains"? The next sentence says: "I will now endeavor to show how they", the chains, "are legitimate." The book is titled The Social Contract; a contract is, indeed, a kind of chain. When Hobbes advocates the same thing, we accuse him--perhaps rightly--of too much chain; Locke we uphold as having struck the right balance. Perhaps Rousseau seeks to leave the chains looser than Locke--and if so perhaps he was right, as the current American turn away from centralized government suggests. In any case he is not a reactionary; he is trying to come to grips with the fundamental political question of his age, and his answer is thoughtful, and still worth considering.


[When my high-school humanities teachers told us about Rousseau--repeating false myths left and right--my response was, "That's stupid. How could any sane man believe that?" According to Barzun, my judgment was correct: none could, and in fact Rousseau did not. For further enlightenment, consult Barzun, From Dawn To Decadence, pp. 382ff., or the works of Rousseau himself.]



"The motives behind scientism are culturally significant. They have been mixed, as usual: genuine curiosity in the search for truth; the rage for certainty and for unity; and the snobbish desire to earn the label scientist when that became a high social and intellectual rank. But these efforts, even though vain, have not been without harm, to the inventors and to the world at large. The "findings" have inspired policies affecting daily life that were enforced with the same absolute assurance as earlier ones based on religion. At the same time, the works in the realm of intuition, the gifted finessers--artists, moralists, philosophers, historians, political theorists, and theologians--were diverted from their proper task, while others were looking on them with disdain as dabblers in the suburbs of Truth. The case of Karl Marx is typical. Infatuated with the kudos of science, he persuaded himself and his millions of followers in and out of the Soviet Union that he had at last formulated the mechanics of history and could predict the future scientifically. (One can find Marx and Lenin in the otherwise admirable Dictionary of Scientific Biography. They were included under pressure, not by the free choice of the editors.)

--Barzun

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