Friday, May 28, 2021

What came before the Box we put ourselves in? - The diminishing returns of Economic Thinking

The previous post went into how the unifying nature of the Administrative State's partisan divides, takes in the bitterly divided positions of the Left, Right, Libertarian, Populists, and their desire to 'do something!' for or against 'Capitalism', and outputs an indistinguishable lump of ever growing laws and regulations, bereft of principles, yet packed with promises to do this, and to do that, and do anything else to 'change' the world through govt's truly unlimited power. They all see that the system is not working as they expected, and they all continue doing the very same things to 'fix' it, which are what broke it. As Inigo Montoya might say, "You keep using that word 'America' - I do not think it means what you think it means".

What it is that all of these economic fundamentalists need to be willing to see, is the fact that 'capitalism' was and still is a rhetorical product of Karl Marx's darkly economic imagination; a tool which he and nearly all economically minded experts since him have expertly used to divert our conversations away from the underlying philosophy of liberty through securing individual rights, which is what Adam Smith was attempting to describe the interrelations of. Yet discussions of terms like 'Capitalism' today, are quickly run through the procrustean bed of modern 'economics', which ideologically turns us away from giving a due regard to those parts (of the whole) of reality which had enabled Adam Smith to observe what he called 'Natural Liberty' in action, and the amazing new burst of wealth which it was producing.

This Professor gives a glimpse at what such black box thinking necessarily closes our eyes to, even as he too leaves a critical factor out of it:
"...Natural liberty is not a neatly packaged system of political economy. Marxism is a religious system. Socialism is a control system based on government. Capitalism is a somewhat loose formulation of economic production and distribution, but it is an “ism” and is a system. Natural liberty is a descriptive term that eschews all systems and lets liberty obtain. It is a philosophy of society and human action which requires no system. When restraints are lifted the market works in a manner similar to the laws of motion—though not as precise and exact. The laws of the market are not determined but are formulated from the tendencies of people to act in a somewhat predictable manner. The magic of a free market is more nearly analogous to actuarial prediction, rather than a physical law such as the law of gravity..."
Did you notice what he left out? Ask yourself this: What was it that enabled those 'laws of the market' to begin operating, where they never had before? Why was there suddenly something there, for Adam Smith to observe and study? To see what I mean, I think it's important to keep in mind that Adam Smith was not an 'economist', but a moral philosopher, and that his revolutionary book was not about 'Capitalism' or even about 'Economics' (two terms which did not exist then, as they do today), but "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations", which - its errors and mixed messages notwithstanding - at least he didn't ignore those wider and deeper depths which are 'pragmatically' ignored in the field today.

The first stirrings of a Free Market began emerging in the West at the time it was reaching the pinnacle of Greco/Roman-Judeo/Christian civilization's development. Despite the many and often bloody political and doctrinal divisions which spread across Europe, and around the world, our Founder's era benefited from thousands of years of a maturing philosophy of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and law, and because of that their education shared in an integrated understanding of its arts, culture, and religion, which was producing a society that was not only eagerly developing science, but also a political philosophy that in scope and depth was quickly surpassing all that had come before it. Through that foundation, the West had developed the concept of a Rule of Law, whose objective purpose should be Justice, rather than simply order, and through that lens, further principled observations on the nature of Individual Rights and of Govt's proper relation to them, were brought into clearer focus by people such as John Locke, which came to a point in one of the most revolutionary ideas in all of human history: that the traditional idea of government's purpose being to maintain order while also 'serving the interests of the stronger', should be transformed into an entity whose purpose should be to uphold and defend the individual rights and property of all of its citizenry, equally before the Rule of Law.

That, and only that, and all of that, is what led to there being something to emerge on the world stage for Adam Smith to begin observing, and prior to that there were no unusual amounts of wealth being created, in any nation, for anyone to begin inquiring into! Once Western nations began to recognize the right under law of their people to have (some) measure of liberty in their actions and security in their property, unusual amounts of wealth began to be generated in their markets, and the more secure their liberty was (as was especially the case in Britain & America), the more wealth there was to observe being produced through them. After Smith published his "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations" in Britain in 1776, the need for a new branch on our philosophic tree soon became obvious, and what Smith had roughly identified as 'Natural Liberty' which had caused Free Markets to enable the production of wealth, within certain a political contexts, it became better identified as being 'Political Economy'. One of the best efforts in the new field, was Jean Baptiste Say's 1803 work, on 'A Treatise on Political Economy', which greatly clarified and improved upon Smith's rougher pioneering efforts, as Thomas Jefferson noted:
"...In France, John Baptist Say has the merit of producing a very superior work on the subject of Political economy. his arrangement is luminous, ideas clear, style perspicuous, and the whole subject brought within half the volume of Smith’s work, add to this considerable advances in correctness and extension of principles...."
, and chief among those extensions of principles, was his 'Law of Markets', or 'Say's Law', which has been the bane of every false economic theory ever since.

If you believe such a development as a Free Market, is separable from the general culture and philosophy which brought it about (as most 'libertarians' do), I challenge you to find another instance of it in all of the rest of the known history of the world. You will not find any such instance, because none exist. It is unique, and the wealth and power of such a society as that, cannot be overcome from the outside, but it can and will be brought down from within, by losing an understanding of what made it possible to emerge in the first place.

What I'm not saying, is that people in 'the good 'ol days' somehow knew more stuff. Probably as few people then as now, had an encyclopedic knowledge that extended down into the philosophical depths of all that could be known. But the thing is, there was no need to have that degree of knowledge, in order to benefit from all that was known to them. Why? Because what they knew, was reflected in everything else that they knew of. What was understood by 'all', was that such depths of knowledge did exist, and that what was known in one area, touched on and was integrated into what was known in another, and was reinforced by, and greatly reflected through their common culture of history, arts, literature, etc. If you knew little of a particular matter, then through related issues which touched on it, you had some general gist of it, and you knew what went with something, and what did not, and if you didn't know enough of what you needed to, someone you knew, knew it in more detail, and or could point you to some one, or some book, which could inform you more deeply about it. What was and could be known, mattered, and it was understood that valid concerns, ideas, and criteria, had to either integrate into that whole, or else its poor fit would be rejected, or even laughed off, by everyone you might meet.
Self Evident, even....

The closest we can probably get today to that universal sense of a meaningful whole being understood to exist, even by those who have no extensive familiarity with it, might, appropriately enough, best be felt by picturing a meme which has Star Trek's Capt. Kirk yelling 'Kahn!' in it, or Star Wars' Darth Vader reaching out to Luke who's screaming 'Nooo..!' You may laugh, but most people who've reached 8yrs old somewhere between 1976 & 2021, can very likely call those scenes to mind, and fill you in on the stories leading up to, and after them. Even those who know little or nothing of either's movie & TV franchises, still very likely recognize the characters and have a general sense of the story involved in each. And nearly everyone you meet today would, if presented with a scene containing both Capt. Kirk and Darth Vader meeting together in a corridor, would feel an immediate sense of 'WTH?!' on seeing that, knowing at a glance that they not only don't belong together, but that they cannot sensibly be pictured together in the same scene.

Now imagine, what it would be like if the two characters of Kirk & Vader, represented not just (what's taken today as being) meaningless adventure stories, but represented active links in people's minds into entire histories and volumes of school lessons...meaningful images that were not seen as the stuff of trivial amusement, but as guidance into the more meaningful structures of life itself?

For instance, there was a popular theme for painters of the period to capture, called 'The Choice of Hercules', which typically had the Greek demigod Hercules deliberating on a choice between Athena, goddess of wisdom, urging him to take the steeper and more difficult high road, as a voluptuous Vice attempts to seduce him to come with her down the easier and more pleasurable low road.

As nearly any person in America today would recognize the characters of Capt. Kirk and Darth Vader, and understand something of their traits, etc., so would nearly any person living in colonial America recognize Hercules in that painting, and be familiar with the scene it was portraying, would tie it into histories of ancient Greece, significant figures in history and literature that echoed the themes conveyed in that painting, and it would resonate with uncountable school lessons, books, conversations and historical references, which wove together themes from ancient myth, and contemporary issues of virtue and vice, and the importance of moral reflection in making choices. For them - and for us - art was not something that could or should be dismissed as 'mere entertainment' - but where they were aware of that, we are not, we instead (having been subjected to the eclipsing economic mindset), take the pragmatic (ignorant) view that nothing is integrated, all is separate, random and meaningless.

If they were to come upon some equivalent of a meme mashup, perhaps a painting portraying Hercules' choice as being of no importance, it would have set off, not the trivial chuckle of 'WTH?!', but a sense of foreboding and chaos, and if it was promoted in Revolutionary America as being a serious statement and something to be taught in schools, it would have rattled heart & mind, and set alarms ringing with scandalized discussions throughout the town and countryside that would've made 'woke cancelling' pale by comparison. Not as a pretentious ideological trigger for those who want to posture about as being offended about politically correct positions, but because it would have been seen as an attack upon themes of what it means to be a hero, the importance of making a distinction between virtue and vice, and what the importance of moral reflection and choice are, and would rightfully be seen as being a clear and present threat to every aspect of society, which should be fought back against (see what was beginning to emerge in Germany at that time, with Goethe's 'The sorrows of young Werther').

Now try to imagine what raising the suggestion of 'transgender story hour for kindergartners' would entail. And yet before you chide them as 'conservatives afraid of change', such was the nature of their world, that making a reasonable argument that the existing system of royal rule had run its course, while demonstrating how a new innovation (a Constitutional, representative Republic, for instance) was a truer improvement over what had always been, that resonated through that same web of knowledge and community, and produced an actual revolution.

It was that entire system, whole, which made it objectively possible for people to realize that engaging in "the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses" (which is the proper definition of what Economics actually is), would in its proper context, be of great importance to all, but not at the cost of ignoring whether or not those 'uses' are both justified and justifiable. America was not founded upon an Economic Black Box thinking of 'the ends justify the means', America was founded from refusing to allow Great Britain to use its own black box thinking upon the Colonies, the American Colonies became The United States of America, because we refused to go along with divorcing thought from action - and 'No taxation without representation', and Lexington & Concord's refusal to give up their guns, were the thoughts and actions of a people whose thinking was deeply integrated with and into their lives.

BTW, care to guess who advised Lord North to 'do something!' about Britain's deficits by collecting taxes from the colonies? Adam Smith. God loves good comedy. And as you might guess from that, our Founding era had developed an exceptionalism which had been nipped in the bud in Europe, and our revolution came at the last possible moment that it could have occurred in the West, as the beginnings of that chaos which we see around us today, was already polluting minds through the pens of Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Bentham, and Hegel, who's ideas were helping to spread a materialized and denatured rationalism throughout society, via education, the arts and even the sciences. In Germany the Sturm und Drang movement was bringing something like our meme mash-up above, into the arts, and it didn't take long at all for that corruption to spread to Political Economy as well. By the early 1800's modern 'Economics' began to emerge (the gory details of which are well presented here), as the likes of J.S. Mill, & David Ricardo, and the Positivists, gradually twisted Say's words & meaning, to the point that when John Maynard Keynes came along, he was able to disregard the laws Say had revealed, and the field completed its slide into the isolated black box study that is what modern 'Economics' is today.

'Economics' is not what the American system of government was derived from or founded upon and it could not have been, and it cannot continue on for long by treating it as if it's a proper basis and guidance for it - that is unsustainable. It, America, Is not that, and can no more be so than a man can successfully identify as a women, or that houses of straw and sticks can identify as a house of bricks. You can make the claim, but the reality is that the political power of the big bad wolf is going to come and blow your house down.

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