The more philosophy I read the more it seems that philosophy is little more than the rationalization of one’s dear-held beliefs and so concealing such teleology in formal constructs.
The persistent mantra of the call for limiting the size and power of government that has so captured the imagination of a certain segment of the American body politic sounds very well to those of us who would do what we will in our own personal and economic spheres, but no amount of suasion is very likely to have significant effect, aside from the occasional lip service when the country’s mood requires it, to the actual trajectory of growth of governmental power.
The sad fact is that the law of government is that it must grow, not less than it is the nature of rabbits and of entropy to increase. The simple reason for the growth is the natural reluctance of those in authority to relinquish it but rather always to increase the power they hold. What bureaucrat, after all, has ever volunteered to reduce his budget or his reach?
If we are to examine the trajectories of governmental institutions throughout history, we likewise find that once a governmental system has emerged from the infighting, it promptly will commence to establish and shore up its power position. We see this pattern, for example, in the emergence of strong monarchy in Europe in the Middle Ages, just as we do in the rise of empires of the East and of the ancients.
Only when a governmental power is overthrown, by war, disaster or even revolution does it give up the growth of its reach, only to be replaced by the next emerging government which next begins its own power-agglomeration cycle.
The sad spectacle of Lance Armstrong’s auto-da-fé serves up a pertinent reminder of the smug hypocrisy with which our media (and our government, as if it had no more pressing issues to be solving) treat the rather natural extension of the top athlete’s drive to win. Never mind that the notion of what is sporting has evolved from turning up one’s nose on the very thought of training — we lionize those who broke that particular taboo — to use of every form of medicine in the service of the quest, from nutrition to psychiatry — but only when they turn to pharmacology that they are paraded through the pillory.
Doping in sports has been an issue for as long as drug use was in general society, and the reason that it despite all efforts to stamp it out it continues and evolves is the same: when a natural market has been established, that means that real needs exist, and when they do, there always is supply.
It is time to recognize that what grownups do to their bodies is no more our business than what they do in their bedrooms and that by driving markets underground we do nothing more than create criminals of those who desire to excel or exit and bring into being vast conspiracies to off them supply.
The New — and old — Keynesian insistence on the reason for the failure of the unprecedentedly large stimulus to kick-start the economic growth engine is reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets’ sermons blaming Jews for their own persecution on the charge of insufficient zealotry, although it is plain to see that it was in fact this excess zealotry that was the proximate cause of the Hebrews’ sufferings. Now these same economists are counseling Europe to go down the same failed path in order to preserve the Euro, never mind the dubiousness of its value to European prosperity and the pain it has already caused.
The fact is that if macroeconomics is to be taken seriously as a science rather than philosophy, to say nothing of its prescriptions being accepted by responsible decision-makers, it must abandon doctrinaire adherence to theories — all theories — that are not proved, or at least well supported, by rigorous empirical evidence. Without such proof, economics will remain indistinguishable from ideology. Keynes, Hayek, Friedman, Marx even, if he is to be included in their number — all were fallible and often wrong, in whole or in part. Politicizing economic-theoretic thought to advance social agendas — whether it be more or less governmental control and regulation over economic factors, trade, inflation, and so on — only undermines the economics as a field of study, much like Stalin’s functionaries attempted to politicize genetics, cybernetics and agronomy.
To insist primacy of theory over observation, to seek out selective facts in support of favored thought while ignoring or attacking contrary evidence, to bully those who point out its inadequacy with argumentum ad verecundiam — particularly when that authority had been a priori deified — are all acts of the pseudo-scientist. Swaddling such naked theory in mathematics does nothing to improve its relationship to measurable outcomes, or make it more a real science.
Moral argument should have no more suasion in the science of economics than it does in geology, or physics, or astronomy. As yet, however, allowing morality and wishful thinking to creep into macroeconomic thought has turned if into philosophy with pretty graphs and nice equations, with scientific rigor still a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.
Now that we have once again entered the annual time of the new year resolution and the attendant run on self-help books (and e-books) to help inspire us to improve ourselves, we even hear of such efforts — and their entirely unsurprising bad ends — on the scale of nations.
The bad end of self-improvement efforts is not surprising because it is so very nearly universal, but before we delve into the human nature — or is it a particularly American human nature?– that insists on believing that if only a measure of self-control were added to our lives then all things could improve, from melting pounds to eliminating deficits, perhaps it would be profitable to take a look at the one measure that did, once set one part of the world on the path toward prosperity, low corruption and — yes — democracy.
Let us consider first which countries have achieved this: The Netherlands came first, then England with Scotland close behind, then Germany. Also, on a different scale we have Switzerland, one half of Belgium, Canada (by extension, mostly, from England), Luxemburg and — eventually — the American Midwest. France was — and is — a laggard, and we all know of the state of South Europe and much of the rest of our little globe. Then let us consider what they have in common – and that is, without exception, a particular brand of Christianity — namely early forms of Protestantism that did away with the idea of salvation via works and substituted grace, or faith, into the equation.
Without exception these societies, when at the height of their development, far from mouthing platitudes about camels and need-eyes saw wealth instead as a big sign of divine favor rather than a result of sin, and so they honored the work of finance and commerce that were the main route to its acquisition. By contrast, all the other cultures denigrated all self-interest and viewed wealth acquisition with suspicion — not that they could succeed in banishing all wealth, but because gains were sinful it was a priori no worse to get at them through sinful means like theft or conquest.
To bring this overlong discourse back to where it started, the only way for a society to join the club of nations prosperous because of the efforts of their people rather than merely their minerals (or certain plant-based powders), one must begin by inviting preachers of the most intolerant, hell-fire breathing, patriarchal, Calvinist persuasion, setting them loose to convert the populace, and then waiting two or three hundred years for their efforts to begin to bear fruit. This would appear to work a great deal better than demonizing their wealthy for not wishing to give away large portions of their fortune or demagoguing the so-called “fair share” of taxation to pay for profligacies of the unproductive.
There seem to be only two broadly viewed mechanisms of control of populaces by elites: government by force and government by fraud. In either case, the ruling elites always take care of their own interest and perpetuation first, regardless of long-term interests of their polities, well-being of their subjects or any notion of allegiance to their own stated ideologies. With the latter method — as it is practiced in much of the world — it would be dissembling, hypocrisy, and division of natural allies by carefully rationed patronage that are the most important tools of the elites’ perpetuation. In the rare instances when ideologies trump interests, the elites in question merely self-destruct, and all too often take their polities along into perdition.