Saturday, March 11, 2017


Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. The good work which our philological experts have already done in the corruption of human language makes it unnecessary to warn you that they should never be allowed to give this word a clear and definable meaning. They won’t. It will never occur to them that democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting, and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them. Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether “democratic behaviour” means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same.


”If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?”

In recent years the West has grown very rich and productive by leveraging technology and analytical skills. You can boast of Chinese or Indian or Hellenist or Roman civilizations (and the more we learn the grander their accomplishments look)—but nothing on Earth had the scope and power and inclusion of the modern West. It would not have risen so high without the others (including the forgotten plant breeders in South America and Asia), but although other civilizations had the same opportunity none produced and distributed so much wealth and knowledge.

I don’t hear the horrid phrase “information economy” as much as I used to, but I see no shortage of people who still think it would be a good thing. And no shortage of people who have no clear idea of where food comes from, or why education costs money, and so on.

We’ve shaped a lot of our attitudes and procedures to honor and reward those analytical skills and production. A little history shows this wasn’t always so—sometimes the tradesman is despised; often warriors are the most highly honored. You can argue that we’re rich because we honor service, and I think that is part of the story (Rodney Stark’s Why the West Won has another take on it).

Is this a stable way to organize society? Can we keep growing like this forever? No and no.

First, there doesn’t seem to be any stable way to organize people. Second, Darwin has a word or two for us. The birth rate has dropped through the floor among those clever and productive people. After a while there aren’t going to be very many of us.

This latter problem is masked by immigration. But if our culture succeeded in spreading throughout the world, and everyone was part of the rich West, there’d be no place to immigrate from.

And in the meantime, it has not escaped notice that not all immigrants value the same things as us Westerners. Everybody loves the trappings and the productivity, but what makes it go is the reward for service and analytical skill here. It is not hard to find places deficient in both—even in the West. You have no reason to expect that the Western culture will stay the same, and therefore no reason to expect that the preconditions for continued growth in productivity and wealth will still be there. So no—this will not grow forever and ever into the stars.

I’ve read but not been able to verify that typically through history the richer have had more children than the poorer. Perhaps when wealth reaches a high enough level this reverses—Octavius tried all sorts of things to encourage Romans to have children, and the Swedes and Spanish wound up in the news for their proposals along those lines.

We’ve built an amazing machine that is feeding and clothing and sometimes healing at a wonderful rate. If we focus on the machine, its inputs and operations and output, we necessarily focus on things and rules, not people. Things and rules risk becoming the most important things, especially when we start believing our own advertising. We want the machine to grow, so everybody eligible needs to be a part of it. “Don’t stay at home, go work in the machine!”

You’ll notice that more religious people are, other things being equal, both more generous and more fertile. They are encouraged to focus on things besides stuff and procedures. If I read correctly, the ancient Chinese, with their emphasis on filial piety, similarly reproduced themselves at all economic levels. But my source may not have been answering that exact question, so I’m not sure.

Without children we’re rich in stuff but don’t have much of a future. Herbert Spencer would say our society isn’t “fit.” Darwin didn’t coin that phrase.(*)

But it gets worse. If you’re reading this you are one of the elite. You read well enough to read for pleasure and instruction, and you seek out that instruction. I can readily point you to people who don’t read for pleasure, and some who read only with difficulty. My wife works with some illiterate people. No amount of job training will put one of those people in the job I do at work. None. Just because these folks aren’t part of your circle doesn’t mean they aren’t there—and there’s not that much for them to do.

In other society with clear roles and expectations they can almost all marry and raise children. We don’t supply much of those. We have little work for them, and what there is gets almost no respect. We joke about "burger flippers" as though that were demeaning. We supply the unemployed with food and clothing and shelter, but not with anything useful to do.

The devil finds work for idle hands to do—and has.

Some dream of a world where robots do all the work and people pursue arts and philosophy. I work with some of these dreamers. Those folks live in their own bubble. For most of us that sort of life will never be an option--we need some other ways of participating in communal life.

The pleasure palace is so tempting—entertainment and interesting work to do—but only some of us can work there, and those who do tend to get caught up in it and leave no heirs. I can look around at work and see examples. We had 2 children when I got my PhD, but that’s not so common—the special high intensity training you endure excludes a lot of time for family, so people often have kids later. Screwtape’s point applies: the behavior that an “information economy” likes isn’t the behavior that will preserve it.

Parenthetically, monks and nuns don’t have kids either, but generally the rest made up for it.

Making room for lower skilled people in the machine would probably make the machine slower and more expensive. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the unemployed/currently unemployable were physically better off on the dole than in a land with more expensive food and stuff. I, unlike the Unabomber, claim no answers and no plans. I notice that, as expected, raising the minimum wage increased the amount of automation and reduced the number of low-skill jobs. On the other hand, without something like that, those without rare skills can wind up in a race to the bottom in wages.

Paul’s question suggests that a different way of looking at things might help. Of the people I’ve worked with over the past few decades, typically only the oldest had done any military service, and quite a few of the younger folks disdain it. War is destructive, and they want to be part of a constructive and learning machine. It turns out that doesn’t make wars impossible (funny that).

We have to honor non-“machine” skills too. It isn’t hard to honor things like military or firefighter service—it’s been done lots of times, and with a little coaxing almost anybody can say nice things about them. It’s a little harder to honor chimney-sweeps and baggers, but it’s worth a try. Making sure there’s economic room for them to thrive is harder.

(*) Please never use the phrase about an individual. I'm talking about the society as a whole, not particular people. Some people can't marry, some can't raise children, some are ill, some can't conceive children, some are called to celibacy--I know examples of all of these.

No comments: