Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Theory of Willful Blindness

A while back I took a look at "Marx's Five Big Mistakes," five big things that Karl Marx got wrong.  I mean things like the immiseration of the working class, the alienation of workers by the division of labor, the labor theory of value, the idea that bureaucracy would wither away under socialism, and that people would abandon the division of labor under socialism.

But then I got to wondering about the willful blindness that keeps people even today believing in these discredited notions.  I mean this.  You have to be really determined not to see if you believe still in the immiseration of the working class.  Yet tons of people fall for it every time that some new technology wipes out some industry of neo-buggy-makers.  It's the end of the world, they say, and soon nobody will have jobs.  

Or the division of labor.  Even the career coach mavens, people like the crazed Penelope Trunk, tell us to forget being a generalist.  Specialize on something, something you will find by trial and error.  Deadly serious sociologists like Emile Durkheim write that the division of labor is a manifestation of the nature of humans as social animals.  In social setting some individuals specialize on one task and others specialize on another task.  That's why it makes sense for them to cooperate.  So how could this be alienating?

I've suggested, following Anthony Giddens, that Marx came up with his stuff because the generation of Germans in the 1840s was beside itself about the backwardness of Germany.  Here were France and Britain with modern governments and there was Germany stuck in the feudal past with its little states and its disunity.

It wasn't just Marx.  Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her 1984 book The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, suggests that the feeling of existential panic was widespread.  Things were changing so fast that people were convinced that disaster was just around the corner.

Obviously this sense of existential panic is a very human thing.  In our own time we have the panic over global warming.  Experience a trend in increasing temperature over a couple of decades and you'll get a ton of people panicking.  End of the world!

Now, the situation in England around 1800 is epitomized by the Rev. Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population first published in 1798, in which Malthus predicted that population would always outrun the resources available to sustain it.  Food increases arithmetically; population increases geometrically.  The poor were doomed.  At the time that Malthus published his first edition many people thought that Britain was losing population.  Then the Census of 1801 showed that population was increasing.  Who'd have thought it?

Actually it has turned out that Adam Smith was probably the best forecaster of those troubled times, according to Himmelfarb.
He made poverty remediable, not by interfering with the operation of natural laws but by the natural expansion of the economy that was the inevitable result of those laws.  Instead of pitting man against nature, labor against machine, class against class, worker against worker, he presumed an essential harmony of interests, in which everyone would benefit from the "natural progress of opulence."
That's what actually happened.  In 1800 the modern progress of opulence was just getting started, and still, it may be that you ain't seen nothing yet.

To Himmelfarb, it appears that a concern for the poor is a consequence of prosperity.  Alexis de Tocqueville went to England in the 1830s and was astonished both at the prosperity he encountered and also the numbers of the poor.  Himmelfarb writes of his opinion:
While "the English poor appear almost rich to the French poor; and the latter are so regarded by the Spanish poor," the number of paupers in each of these countries was in inverse relationship to the actual condition of the poor.
It's as though we experience things as worse the better they get.  And why not "do something" about the poor once you have the level of opulence to do it?

This is the real existential challenge for conservatives.  Elites are always going to panic over something or other.  It's what a ruling class does to justify its importance.  It panicked over the poor in 1800.  Over the working class in the 1840s.  Over the deserted farm in the 1930s.  Over global cooling in the 1970s.  Over "peak oil" in the 1990s.  Over global warming in the 2000s.

It's the job of conservatives to dampen these wild pendulum swings.  Because whatever the panic around the next corner, what in the world is going to improve things better than the natural human adaptability implemented in the price system and the credit system?  Certainly, it cannot possibly be another bureaucratic program run by the ruling class.

There's probably a deep reason why people are always so willfully blind.  It may be because every living thing must ignore most of the stimulus it receives through its five senses and only respond to things that are genuinely life-threatening.  So we are blind to most of the things in the world.

But the trick is to make sure that we aren't turning away from the one important stimulus that really is going to kill us.

And that's not easy to deal with.  It's probably why we humans are so diverse.  Some people respond one way to a crisis and some respond another way.  Chances are that one of us will be right, and the human experiment will continue.

No comments:

Post a Comment