Thursday, April 26, 2012

Conservatives Are Indeed Social Darwinists

President Obama, deep in his liberal bubble, seemed to think he was hurling the worst insult in the world at Paul Ryan when he described Ryan's budget as "thinly veiled Social Darwinism."  He was relying on the notion that, ever since Richard Hofstadter and Social Darwinism in American Thought, "social Darwinism" was an ever-useful pejorative to sling at evil Republicans to send them slinking back to their whites-only country clubs.

Of course, the way that Hofstadter defined it, no doubt it is enough to intimidate practically anyone.  But seriously, conservatives should be proud to be social Darwinists.  Darwinism, as developed in The Origin of Species, merely states that the animals that survive in any habitat (particularly in boundary zones) are the animals that produce offspring that adapt best to the environment.  Darwin includes a diagram to illustrate "the probable effects of the action of natural selection through divergence of character and extinction, on the descendants of a common ancestor."

President Obama wants us to think that, without the beneficent Oz of government programs, the poor will become extinct in an "on your own" economy.   What rubbish.  Applied to human society Darwinism merely warns that its social institutions, like the species "large in its own country," are subject to the law of natural selection.  The ones that adapt best to the social and economic environment will wive and thrive; the ones that don't will wither away.  Individual people, being resourceful and energetic, will be sure to join and contribute to the thriving institutions and abandon the withering ones.  You see this occurring in the United States today as ordinary people abandon bankrupt blue states with onerous state income taxes like California and Illinois and move to red states with right-to-work laws and no state income tax.  Humans are social animals; they know that survival depends on belonging to the right collective.

Conservatism, ever since Edmund Burke, has recognized the importance of trial and error in social evolution, especially in the gradual reform of social institutions.  Capitalism and freedom provide the best social process for gradual improvement and reform, because all the time and in every way, capitalism motivates people to adapt to the changing social and economic conditions, to react to small riffles in the stream before they turn, further downstream, into a Class VI unrunnable rapids.

Indeed, there is a whole conservative subculture that has shown that conservatism is the opposite of an "on your own" society.  That is because a non welfare state society develops a rich undergrowth of mediating structures between the government and the individual that protect and nurture the individual.  In totalitarian and welfare states there is no shelter for the weak and helpless, because there is no social middle ground between the all-powerful state and the helpless individual.  You go along to get along, or else.

If conservatives are Social Darwinists, believing in an adaptable, flexible society, how should we categorize the other Big Beasts on the ideological plain: communists, fascists, and our liberal friends?  These species come in two flavors.  The communists and fascists we can call Big Bangers.  They believe in the revolutionary convulsion, the Year Zero.  Everything changes in the revolution; the old order goes out, and with it all memory and all superstitious attachment to the past.  Society is reborn from a single point, with no memory of the past, as our modern cosmologists imagine the birth of the universe 14 billion years ago.

Our liberal friends are Intelligent Designers.  Well, they are.  They believe that liberals can intelligently design modern social institutions, and that the complexity of modern society demands that an educated elite of intelligent liberals be empowered to rule the less intelligent.  Without this intelligent design, liberal believe, individuals will find themselves "on their own" and reduced to helplessness and marginalization.  Of course the science on this is settled, except for the tribe of liberal deniers.  Ever since Hayek we have known that modern society is too complex for intelligent design.  Thousands of intelligent designers in Washington DC simply cannot outperform millions of producers and consumers out in flyover country.  The situation is rather like the situation with the Intelligent Design argument for the creation of the universe.  It may just possibly be possible for God to do Intelligent Design and direct everything from the Big Bang and the cosmic constants to the fall of a sparrow.  But when it comes to Intelligent Design of health care and affordable housing and student loans, well, the most charitable judgment is that the jury is still out.

So much for the overall design of social institutions.  But the big question is: what happens when something goes wrong?  In the Big Bang, it's too bad, because once the revolution erupts and the New Era begins, that's it.  Whatever the the God of the perfect society did when he set the cosmic social constants, that's it.  Actually, the record of Big Bang societies isn't too hot.  The Bolshevik cosmic constants caused it to run down in 60 years.  The Nazi Big Bang collapsed in on itself in 12 years.  Mao's Big Bang was reversed by Deng XiaoPing after 30 years.  The Intelligent Design universe is not much better; it seems to be running down after about a century.  So what is the problem?  The problem is that the Big Bang and Intelligent Design models of society are not designed for humans to run.  They are suitable only for the divine gods, driving around heaven in their chariots, as Plato imagined.  The gods are lucky; they have two good horses pulling their chariots, but the souls of mortal charioteers have one good horse and one bad horse, and spend so much time and attention wrestling with the bad horse that they can barely glimpse what the gods can see up at the rim of heaven: Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

But conservatism is different.  It is designed with humanity in mind from the ground up.  That is why it is Social Darwinist.  It is constantly inventing new institutions and replacing old ones that fail.  You don't need an Intelligent Designer, you just need to make sure that the government is built upon the principle of the separation of powers.  The idea is to prevent one branch of government totally dominating the others, or for two branches to gang up on the other.  And more than that, you need a Greater Separation of Powers--that's my idea--so that the three great sectors of institutional society, the political, the economic, and the moral/cultural are separated.  We already have the idea of the separation of church and state, the separation of the moral/cultural and the political.  Now we need to go the next step, the separation of political and economic.  Sure, the political and the moral/cultural sectors can set the rules for the economic sector.  But it's time to tell them to stop trying to run it.  Because when they do, they make a mess of it.

The reason that our liberal friends make such a fuss about Social Darwinism is that their situation is very close to the panic fundamentalists experience with regard to The Descent of Man.  It cannot, it just cannot be true that society does not need Intelligent Designers to organize and direct the lives of Everyman.

Of course the mystery of the modern era is the great question.  Can it really be true that Adam Smith's Invisible Hand is true and that humans naturally act in a social manner because that's the best way to meet their own needs?  Conservatives admit we don't really know.  But we would really like the chance to find out--if only those liberal Intelligent Designers would stop messing up the blueprints.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Confusion on Socrates' Last Day

Being a civilized community, the Athenians of Socrates' day executed people by hemlock poisoning in the evening of the day of execution. And so Socrates' young friends gathered at the prison on the day of his execution before he took the draught of poison.  Naturally they talked about immortality, and Socrates indulged in a bit of  argument by reckless analogy.  For instance, he argued, if we sleep and then wake and then sleep again, it follows that living and dying is analogous, and if we know things that we seem to have learned before we were born then we must have an immortal soul.

Socrates' young friend Simmias suggests that Socrates is wrong about the immortal soul.  After all, if you break up a lyre, then its harmony is gone forever.  So if the soul is a "kind of harmony or attunement" then it too is destroyed "when our body is relaxed or stretched beyond true measure by diseases and other evils".

In Simmias account, harmony refers to the relation between the tones from the different strings of a well-tuned lyre.  The harmony is "something invisible, without body, beautiful and divine".  Thus it is an instance, a particular of the Form of harmony, the eternal relationship between tones, the music of the spheres.  Given the context, Simmias does not think of the harmony of the instrument as the eternal Form itself, but the specific harmony of a given instrument achieved by tuning the strings.  Once you break the instrument or cut its strings you have lost the specific harmony of the instrument, its particular harmonic beauty.  Thus, he says, using a Socratic argument by analogy, the individual soul is lost when a body dies, because its particular harmonies are lost with the body.

Socrates attacks the idea of the soul as a kind of harmony.  First, if the soul is the composite of the elements of the body, then it could not have existed before birth.  But his learning-by-recollection argument proved that the soul exists before birth. Second, if a lyre can be more or less harmonized, presumably according to the specific tuning, surely that is different from a soul, which cannot be more or less of a soul: it is just a soul.  Conversely, if all souls are souls in harmony they must partake of harmony equally.  So how can "one soul have more wickedness or virtue than another"?  Thirdly, it seems impossible that the soul could rule the body if it is analogous to harmony, for "it could never by out of tune with the stress and relaxation and the striking of the strings".  In fact the soul is quite the opposite, since it rules over the elements of the body, "directing... inflicting... holding converse" with it.  So the soul cannot be like harmony.

Simmias  was too modest, and did not make the most of his argument.  The soul is indeed like the harmony of an instrument, providing you don't get too reckless with the argument from analogy.  Harmony is an ideal, an invisible quality that the lyre is designed to approach.  Yet the soul of the instrument, its harmony, is merely banished to a musical underworld if a string is broken, or the instrument is damaged.  Every recreation of a musical instrument invites the eternal soul of harmony to inhabit it once more.

Socrates demands from his young friend a much higher bar for a valid argument by analogy than he requires of himself.  He has recently argued that sleeping and waking are like death and birth, a pretty good stretch.  Why shouldn't the soul be the composite of the elements of the body?  We could say firstly, that the soul, the harmony of the body, only inhabits the body when its components all come together in birth.  Secondly, a musical instrument can be badly tuned or badly played, and this is analogous to wickedness in the soul.  Certainly a virtuoso instrumentalist can take a so-so instrument and make it sing.  Thirdly, why could not the soul be like an instrumentalist struggling to create harmony out of an instrument that is part good instrument and part bad instrument like the chariot myth of the Phaedrus.  The strings are forever going out of tune and it is up to the instrumentalist to struggle with disharmony and strive to create good harmony.

Socrates was a wily old man, and his young friends were too young and inexperienced and in awe of the great man to critique his arguments properly and wrestle them to the ground.  It is up to us to set things to rights.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More Platonic Immortality

In the Phaedo, the Socratic dialog that Plato wants us to believe took place on the day of Socrates' execution by poison, the condemned philosopher and his young friends discourse on the question of immortality.  It all revolves around the "proof" of the soul as a permanent unchanging thing.  For one thing, if you can understand geometry then it must be that your soul existed before you were born and that you are merely "recollecting" what your soul learned before birth.  We can understand concepts like Equal even though there are no two things on this Earth that are exactly equal.  So we must have learned about Equal in the underworld.

But even if our souls were born before our births, what if the soul is dissipated away in death, ask Socrates' young friends?  Well, since the soul is unchangeable and nearly fixed, and is to the body as the Forms of the Good and the Beautiful are to actual instances of goodness and beauty, then it stands to reason that the soul is as immortal as the Forms are eternal.

In the Socratic argument by analogy, it is possible to argue almost anything, as long as you choose the right analogy.  We want to believe that we, or at least our soul or spirit, will live forever, so any analogy looks good to us.  For me, though, the meaning of immortality is closer to home; it is children.  All the rest--Heaven and Hell, sitting at the right hand of God, the life eternal in the next world, divine judgment--they don't resonate for me.

Modern philosophers, chastened by the shaking of the foundations of the last century, have come to this.  As you rise in complexity, each leap seems to involve an irreducible mystery, a secret ingredient.  For instance, we are as yet unable to describe chemical reactions in terms of physics.  Chemistry is not merely a branch of physics: there is something extra at work.  So also there something irreducible in the leap from organic chemistry to biology, chemistry in the service of living things, and then in the leap from vegetable to animal.  So also in the leap from great ape to human.  It is some spark, some spirit, some irreducible something, the mystery in-between body and mind.

This mystery, this spark, is kept alive from parent to child, from the ancestors to the living generation to generations yet unborn.  It is more than the contract between generations, it is a mystery.  We only know that, when a human dies without issue, that individual human spark dies forever, the spark of immortality quenched.  But all is not lost, because other humans, other children, pick up the fallen lantern, and hold it aloft once more.

For humans, as social animals, are not just their progeny, nor yet their footnote in history, an earnest increment to knowledge, to techne, or to affect.  Humans are not just individual egos but intersubjective communicators that affect each by speech actions.  All humans affect each other all the time, and the precipitate of their communicative reactions blend into the human destiny, immortal and forever, and this seeding of the future is not just broadcast by the genius from an ivory tower, but also those "who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Today we are bidden to release our grip on all foundations, all divine props, all familiar spirits, all relationships with the divine, and all hopes for immortality.  But humans still search for meaning, live as though life could last forever, and long to find eternal bliss.  It may be that the idea of immortality, and a divine judge at the gate of Heaven, is merely a device of social control to put the fear of God into mortals here below.  Now that God is dead, the court of divine judgment has been replaced by the judgment of history.

Through all the changes in religious and secular orthodoxy and the terrible threats issued from gods to humans as from masters to slaves, most humans most of the time instinctively shrink from betraying the future to the present.  There is no more damaging judgment on a fellow human than "he has no future."  Humans live as if their lives matter, forever, and so each human contributes, in her particular life, a single spark to human immortality.

Sex and Nostalgia

The usual hit on conservatives is that we are impossibly nostalgic for a past that never was, of perfect marriages in spotless suburbs: mom and dad and three children.  Anyway, it was never as spotless as the nostalgists pretend:  think of Mad Men drinking and bonking the night away before they get home to Scarsdale.

But maybe the opposite is true.  Maybe in the old days the relations between the sexes was much more exploitative than the one-man-one-women-for-life of the bourgeois ideal.  Certainly the aristocracy regarded marriage as a power and property transaction.  Young princes and princesses were ruthlessly married off for reasons of state and dynastic survival.  And the poor?  They were struggling to survive, and mostly failing.  Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms argues that before 1800 agricultural society in England was a downwardly mobile society in which the rich had more surviving children than the poor, and the extra rich children crowded out the children of the poor in the scramble for resources.  After the industrial revolution the poor developed into the respectable working class and adopted bourgeois cultural norms--at least until the welfare state came along.

Perhaps the bourgeois cultural model is not a hopelessly old-fashioned notion but a radically new idea that is being attacked by the nostalgists of the left who long for the good old days when powerful political figures got all the women they wanted, including servant girls, and the poor did without.  The current liberal fashion for "polyamory" is curious considering how liberals inveigh against Mormon polygamy.  The idea that men and women would mix together in multiple-partner relationships without rich men dominating the process is laughable.

But we already know this.  Since the sexual revolution and the mass entry of upscale women into the workforce, women are reporting less happiness.  Could this be because women don't thrive in the loveless sexual hookup scene?  Could it be that enforcing a cultural norm for women to work at careers is anti-woman?  Could it be that no-fault divorce, supposedly enacted for the benefit of women trapped in abusive, loveless marriages, actually works against the desire of women for permanent loving relationships?

Conservatives make a big deal out of the notion of "civil society," the proliferation of "mediating structures" between government and the individual: family, churches, associations.  But who really breathes life into these civil society institutions; who does the day-to-day grunt work?  I'd say the answer is simple: women.  And when women are dragooned into wage-work it means that there are fewer people to contribute to civil society.  And government gets more powerful.

The idea that bourgeois marriage is old-fashioned is a crock, published by the devotees of big government and politics-with-everything.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Capitalism's Century Five

What will happen when we do the wrap on capitalism's Century Five in 2050?  Could it be, could it possibly be the end of big government?

Century One, from 1550 to 1650, was the century when the Dutch invented Dutch Finance.  They created a funded national debt and made the government's rock-solid bonds the foundation of the credit system.  The Dutch invented all this in their struggle for political and religious independence from the empire of Spain.

Century Two, from 1650 to 1750, was the century when the Dutch exported their financial system to Britain.  Historians disagree on whether the Brits invited William of Orange to be king, or whether his 500-ship invasion fleet flat out invaded the sceptred isle.  But the result was the Bank of England and a funded national debt.  The bad news is that the Brits used their new-found wealth to conquer India and North America, and scaled up the profitable notion of plantation slavery to make fortunes in the millions--and millions of slaves--in the sugar islands of the West Indies.

Century Three, from 1750 to 1850, was the century when capitalism invented cheap cotton textiles for the poor--with techniques stolen from the Bengalis--and railroad transportation for everyone.  It was a revolution, because for the first time the poor could get clean, and could travel around on something other than their feet.  The year 1800 is a watershed.  In industrializing Britain, it began an era of rising expectations.  The poor expected their children, maybe for the first time in history, to be better off than they were.  The bad news is that the French tried to wreck it all with their violent Jacobinism, and the folks migrating off the land to the industrial cities had a pretty rough half-century transitioning from the life on the land to the life in the city.

Century Four, from 1850 to 1950, was the century that started with ocean steamships that let the poor migrate across the world, from the Pale of Settlement to the Lower East Side, from Ireland's potato famine to Boston and New York, from the Mezzogiorno to Little Italys all over the northern United States.  Then the capitalists cut oil prices by 90 percent, steel prices by 66 percent, and motorized and electrified Everyman.  The bad news was that the "shock of the new" inspired a ton of people to believe that capitalism was the anti-Christ.  Two huge global wars were fought to neutralize reactionary movements against the new order of freedom and cooperation: one a nostalgic attempt to return to the communist egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers; the other a nostalgic attempt to return to the blood and soil of kinship and clan identity.

Century Five, from 1950 to 2050 is already half over.  We already know part of what it means.  Capitalism has brought about a communications revolution.  Now you can travel half way around the world in a day with jet travel, and you can communicate and work with anyone and anything with the Internet and computer technology.  We cannot know what the second half century will bring.  Some hope for an utter demolition of the big-government welfare state, a nostalgia for the bureaucratic centralism of the absolute monarchs, to match the demolition of communism and fascism in Century Four.  The bad news is that another movement of nostalgic rejection has arisen to challenge capitalism, the Islamic longing for the caliphate of 700-1500.

Nobody knows how Century Five will turn out.  But if we are going to roll back the injustice of the welfare state we would have to start in 2012 with the decisive rejection of the politics of the social-democratic educated class and its poster boy, the President of the United States, Barack Obama.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Plato Strikes Out on Immortality

When modern philosophers decided that you couldn't prove the existence of God--or the non-existence of God--they put an end to a vibrant industry.

The same thing applies to immortality.  How would we know if we are immortal?  It's a matter of faith, and properly a question for religion, the sphere of the human quest for meaning.  And everyone is on that quest, whatever they say.  Christians are on a quest to save their immortal souls by experiencing God's love.  Environmentalists are on a quest to save humanity from sudden mortality by saving the planet from humans.

Plato was no slouch in the immortality stakes; he entered at least two likely runners.  There's the proof in the Republic and the proof in the Phaedrus, for a start.

In the Republic, Socrates wants Glaucon to believe that the soul is different from the normal operation of good and bad things on the body.  If something bad "attaches itself to something... [it can] break it down completely and destroy it."[609a6]  Obviously this applies to disease of the body.  But to the disease of the soul, not so.  If you get sick, the sickness can kill you.  If you act unjustly, the injustice doesn't kill you.  A deficiency in the body can kill you, but not a deficiency in the soul.  So, if "something is not destroyed by a single bad thing--whether its own or an external one--clearly it must always exist.  And if it always exists, it is immortal."[611a1]

But why should a deficiency in the soul afflict a man in the same way as a deficiency in the body?  Maybe a deficiency in the body will kill you, but a deficiency in the soul just makes you into a monster.  And if a deficiency of the soul doesn't kill you, or sicken you, it doesn't mean that it's immortal.  It just means that the soul is different from the body.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates uses a different argument on his young friend Phaedrus.  "[W]hatever is always in motion is immortal".[245c5]   That's because something always in motion never had beginning, for if it had a beginning then it must have come from another source.  For us this is ridiculous, because we post-Newtonians believe that everything moves forever unless accelerated by something else.  But for the ancients, things sat around immobile unless they were pushed, like Eeyore.  The idea of something moving perpetually was unnatural, godlike, and therefore immortal.

But really, Socrates, how do you know?  How do you know that the "something" you see in motion was always in motion, or could have been always in motion?  You are pulling a fast one on us.  The idea of perpetual motion is not something that we humans experience.  We only experience objects that seem to have been moving before we first observed them, and that we assume will continue to move after we terminate our observations. We believe with Wittgenstein of the Tractatus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Monday, April 9, 2012

Platonic Reincarnation

In the Phaedrus Plato gets to dialog on the love for beautiful boys.  But before he does, he develops a full-scale myth on the reincarnation of souls, the so-called Chariot myth.

Souls, of course, are immortal.  There is something about a self-mover that cannot be created or destroyed, because it never starts or stops or anything like that.

But how does the soul work?   Plato conjures up the notion of a charioteer driving two horses.  That's no problem for the gods, because they have two good horses.  But everyone else has a mixture: one good horse and one bad horse.  "This means that chariot driving in our case is inevitably a painfully difficult business."  This gets ugly when the soul is in love with a beautiful boy.  That bad horse starts causing problems, big time.

Life in heaven is a parade of chariots, with Zeus first in the procession.  When he leads the procession up to the rim of heaven for a banquet, things get tricky for the folks with a bad horse.  Some few, some lucky few keep up with the gods and get a "view of Reality, just barely."  Those lucky ones get to partake in the godly feast, "seeing what is real and watching what is true" They get to see Justice as it is, and Self-control, and Knowledge.  On earth we get to see "knowledge that is close to change", the contingent knowledge that we know down on earth.

But most fail in acquiring knowledge like this. With bad horses and the incompetence of the charioteers, "the result is terribly noisy, very sweaty, and disorderly."  If you don't keep up with the gods then you shed your wings and fall to earth. Oh yes, up in heaven you have wings--with feathers.  What did you expect?

Fortunately, on this first fall from heaven, the soul is not incarnated into a wild beast, but into one of nine sorts of men, depending on the amount of Reality it got to see.  Tier One is your philosopher and lover of beauty; Tier Two is a king or general; Tier Three is a statesman, householder, or financier, and so on all the way down to Tier Nine, a tyrant.  If you live your incarnate life with justice then you get to return in heaven to a better one, to live as their manner of their human life has earned them.  Of course, you spend thousands of years in between lives, discarnate, charioteering and banqueting with the gods, or "condemned to go to places of punishment beneath the earth and pay the full penalty for their injustice."

Then, of course, you could return to earth as a wild animal.  For here is the judgment of the gods. A "soul that never saw the truth cannot take a human shape".  A human being "must understand speech in terms of general forms, proceeding to bring many perceptions together into a reasoned unity.  That process is the recollection of thing things our soul saw when it was traveling with god" seeing the "truly real".  A soul acquires its knowledge in heaven while traveling with the gods, and recollects it in mortal life as a soul-and-body.

You can spend a lot of time in heaven, waiting for your wings to grow, for only wings only grow for "the man who practices philosophy without guile or who loves boys philosophically.