Thursday, January 13, 2011


Recent events, commentary, and incriminations highlight yet again one of those recurring, almost primal human tendencies -- the reactionary reflex, or a sort of instinctive rejectionism. The enemy of my enemy as my friend probably wasn't the most insightful notion that Machiavelli gave us. It seems to be fairly common knowledge. Or fallacy. Maybe Machiavelli wasn't actually all that bright. Or maybe humans as a species have an innate proclivity for ruthless genius.

In any event, the instinct to respond to an idea one finds offensive by embracing its perceived opposite must surely be a part of our very biology. Maybe that's why its sometimes called a 'knee-jerk' response. Note that the embraced philosophy is not necessarily even an approximate opposite, only something which is perceived to be 'the opposite' by the person in question. Usually in today's carefully managed political debating arenas, the 'opposition' is some co-opted movement which has managed to set itself up as a sort of Hegelian dialectical counterpoise, eager to fill the synthetic gap and keep history rolling the the direction the plutocrats have ordained.

But the mistake in its purer form still occurs, and to my mind is often a highly interesting occurrence, particularly the 'rejectionist insight' that leads to the fit of passion. It is also instructive to observe the historical fallout, for though the revelation which spurs the response is often enough a profound insight, the rejectionist action recommended is most often stupid and destructive in the long term.

Machiavelli's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

Capitalist Dystopia

For those on the right, or at least the American right, faith in the market sometimes borders on worship of a deity. Friend of markets though I am, even I blanch at some of the praise heaped upon this incorporeal genius. In particular, there is a virulent strain of the 'efficient market hypothesis' going around that asserts, in effect, that 'the market' is always right. It makes no mistakes, least of all on pricing. It is omniscient, in other words. And no amount of monetary or government tampering has the power to sway its reckoning. Omnipotent, too. The perfect judge. A god.

This is clearly an untrue proposition, easily dispatched with a little commonsense, to make no mention of theology. But don't tell that to most modern practitioners of the subject, for whom it is -- gasp! -- an axiom of too many important theorems and postulates. There is too much theory, let alone ego, at stake, and a great deal of elaborate vocabulary and rhetoric has been invented to justify belief in what amounts to an article of religion. The best thing to do when one encounters a zealot of this faith is to smile and change the subject.

However, it is true, and remarkably so, that 'the market' under the guidance of free human decisionmaking -- those true individual reckoners of the marketplace -- is the best, most just and reliable allocator of resources discovered to date, and that the 'market price' under such conditions simply is what it is, which is inviolable without recourse to coercion. You may be correct to spot a mistake, but you'll just have to wait for the system to iron itself out to get the 'correct' price. You can't force market participants to sell at prices they refuse to consider. Or at least you're not supposed to. And as the saying goes, markets can stay irrational for far longer than you can stay solvent.

But whether they are the high-priests of the true-believers or more realistic in their free-market faith, those on the right have little trouble shrugging off the objections of market rejectionists as either anti-capitalist heresies, legitimate examples of market imperfection, or illegitimate interference by government. Frustrating as they may be, these kinds of market deviations (and deviant actors!) are 'explainable' and do not result in rejection of the capitalist thesis.

For others, however, the innate benevolence of 'capitalism' hasn't always been so obvious. Historically, this has frequently led to tragedy. For pre-revolutionary China, 'capitalism' in a practical sense meant anything from mercantilistic imperialism to rule by kleptocratic bureaucracy, mafia and warlordism. Mostly, it meant war, corruption, slavery, poverty, and abject misery.

Evidence in the real world can be a tricky thing, and it's little wonder that China found itself fleeing the hated 'capitalists' and into the embrace of Marx and Mao -- with all that that decision entailed. It was not wise, but certainly understandable.

One of the better conservative critiques of communism has been to simply point at its track record. The communist retort, that communism has never been properly put into place, is petty, but truth be told, so is the capitalist answer -- that every attempt at communism naturally leads to horrific outcomes. It hasn't been 'properly' put into place because it can't be made to work the way it is supposed to.

All true enough, but can capitalism? Does it not have its own backsliding tendencies?  If practical communism which isn't actual communism is to answer for its crimes, isn't capitalism also liable for the outcomes of it's own practical implementations? Can the obvious damage wrought by 'capitalists' and their activities rightly be so lightly brushed off as imperfections of execution, or as 'that isn't capitalism'? As we watch the West sink into fiscal quicksand of its own making, is it or is it not legitimate for the rest of the world to say 'capitalism did this'?

Be all that as it may. Embracing the 'opposite' philosophy, or what is often worse, constructing an opposing philosophy ad hoc in rejection of some evil frequently turns out to be an act of embracing an even greater evil.

For most people most of the time, philisophy is an enterprise best done in the affirmative.

Destroying Human Institutions

The act of embracing or constructing an opposing philosophy when one observes some wrong is often a display of great personal maturity. Most people most of the time are too unobservant, too invested in their own status quo, or too weak to make such changes. Changing one's philosophy can be a tremendous display of character. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes it can be an act of extreme pettiness.

When it is, a second effect often kicks in -- the destruction of otherwise virtuous institutions. For this historical example, I'll turn to the first century.

When Jesus left the disciples, they were in something of a pickle. They had been told to follow Him, and He had up and left. So, the disciples did all anyone could have expected of them -- the best they could. And it wasn't a half bad show of things. Within a few centuries they had mostly displaced the other religions of the Mediterranean and were well on their way to defining the course of history for the foreseeable future.

But a millenium and change into things, the situation soured. Understandably, after such a long period of time some aspects of the church as a human institution had decayed, and people got mad about it. Which is also understandable.

The problem came with the proliferation of rejectionism that followed. Perhaps some splitting and division of the church was justifiable, and a desire to read and interpret the Bible with one's own eyes is commendable. But rejection for the sake of rejection is not, and today we have groups that seem to identify themselves more against other members and practices than they do with the faith itself. We now have a hyper-divided, broken church that often can't seem to agree on even basic points and a significant fraction of which are not even an approximate representation of the original faith at all. In many quarters a certain anti-intellectual 'fundamentalism' has taken over, as in, a purely literal understanding is the only acceptable approach, opinions of those free-thinking sinners and perverts be damned. That is decidedly not a reasonable or constructive attitude, but it's the 'lesson' some have taken from the mistakes of a few clergy long ago.

Today we see a similar kind of destruction with respect to our own Constitution. The citizenry and the major parties are too wrapped up in a simplistic, dualistic vision of the world and passionate rejectionism of one anothers' vision of society to live together peacefully under one Constitutional roof. The pettiness of their hatreds and smallness of their perspectives has subsumed their libertarianism -- with its spirit of voluntarism and respect for duties and boundaries -- that made the original document work. Words like 'democracy,' 'rule of law,' and 'rights' mean vastly different things than they did even one-hundred years ago, mainly because the mass of us intend them to. The old meanings would be useless and irrelevant to the modern debate. We're all statists now, and the Constitution is not.

The Enemy of My Myself?

The obsessive projection of dualism on every situation whether appropriate or not is yet another source of error and embarrassment stemming from simplistic rejectionism. We have just witnessed an excellent example in the various responses immediately in the wake of the attack on Congressman Giffords (And yes, I said Congressman.)

Within moments, the airwaves were filled (and bizarrely, still are) with idiotic statements of utmost certainty blaming the killer's motivation on 'vitriolic' conservative propaganda. Why? Apparently, purely on the grounds that the victim was a Democrat. Apparently, ergo the killer must have been some version of a Republican. Any reasonably informed observer should have had three important reasons to be skeptical immediately jump to mind, namely -- Lee, Harvey, and Oswald. I did. I did not, however, have the least suspicion that the gold standard would be implicated.

Generally speaking, it's a pretty safe bet that a politically motivated act of violence will not have been perpetrated by a conservative. I'm not sure why. Maybe conservatism just isn't all that appealing to psychos. But on the whole, for whatever reason, a cursory survey of modern history will bear out that it rarely happens.

But if your entire psyche is consumed by your own petty place in the present petty and artificial dialectic, you probably wouldn't know. And you probably think Hitler was a right winger, too, because he's not like you.

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