Conceited Planners Fail – Free Markets Thrive

Woman admiring her hairstyle (OLVI007_OU920_F)

Capitalism is freedom – the consensual pursuit of happiness, free from the interference of conceited, coercive bureaucrats who think they know better – they don’t. Our next section in Chapter 5 of George Will’s new book The Conservative Sensibility (2019) is The Fatal Conceit.  That’s also the name of the last book written by Friedrich Hayek.  His thinking built upon the ideas of Adam Smith who made it absolutely clear that government has no business “superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employment most suitable to the interest of society”.


Hayek obliterated any argument that central planning can ever succeed in creating and maintaining a successful political economy. The study of economics used to be, and still should be, called Political Economy.  Politics is inescapable no matter how hard economists try to ignore it.  Ironically, markets freed from government control are the creation of government control.  Laissez-faire was planned.  It’s the only prosperous way to arrange economic affairs.  Chapter 5 begins with Hayek’s wisdom:  “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”


There is an irremediable impediment to government successfully constructing a rational economic order. Hayek explained why in 1945.  “The knowledge of circumstances of which we must make use never exists in a concentrated or integrated form, but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all separate individuals possess.”  Mankind stumbled upon the pricing system without understanding it.  And it works very well – except when damaged by the “impertinent obstructions” of conceited government planners.


George Will concludes this section with a vital point – everyone knows almost nothing about almost everything. And fortunately (yes fortunately because it is growing increasingly undeniable) this fact becomes truer every day.  As humanity’s stock of knowledge grows, so to does the amount that theoretically must be known, but practically and increasingly, cannot be known to the would be, overconfident, self-righteous social planner.


Evil dictator Benito Mussolini argued in 1929 that the more complicated civilization becomes, the more restricted the freedom of the individual must become. The exact opposite is true!  George Will concludes: “The more complex society becomes, the more government should defer to the spontaneous order generated by the voluntary cooperation of freely contracting individuals”.


Next week, we meet the Grumpy Economist. He’s a blogger so observant and on-point with issues addressed here that I’m surprised I’ve not encountered his work before.



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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property

Pursuit book on white background, 3D rendering

We begin our journey through Chapter 5 (Political Economy) of George Will’s book The Conservative Sensibility (2019) with the section entitled Capitalism as Soulcraft.  Shaping the morals and manners of its citizens is not something Government can or should do.  Rather, it is something Government cannot help but do.  Our legal and economic systems necessarily and cumulatively impact the thinking, behavior, expectations, desires, habits and demands of people living and working within it. – And in the U.S., it impacts them for the better.


America is a nation founded on enabling “the pursuit of happiness” for its citizens. A prior draft of the Declaration of Independence said it is self-evident that among humanity’s unalienable rights are those of “life, liberty and property” (John Locke’s original trinity).  Thomas Jefferson changed it.  Some think “pursuit of happiness” instead of “pursuit of property” is much different and better.  It’s not for two reasons: 1) In 1690 when Locke wrote of the sacredness of life, liberty and property, people were said to have property in themselves (in their bodies); and 2) the purpose of Government is to protect a property owner’s “zone of sovereignty”, to safeguard his or her possession of property.


Possession is not a trivial thing, be it possession of a house that provides privacy and security, possession of a car that confers mobility, or possession of the ability and time to undertake study and travel that educates and entertains. Property is the result of an individual’s planning and aspiring, of his or her choices and exertions…. This is not restful; freedom in a market society does not just allow striving, it requires it.  And the social churning that is a consequence of this dynamism can, and usually does, take a toll on security, and hence on serenity.  Tocqueville contrasted American society against Europe’s calm and immobile societies with their rigid hierarchies of class.   That’s the price we gladly pay for American exceptionalism, which eschews the European view that human purpose is to “while away the time as pleasantly as possible” and the purpose of a welfare state is to make that possible.


The morality of the American founders was Aristotlelian. The Greek word for happiness is linked to the Greek words for virtue and excellence.  In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote “the happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good actions.”  Happiness is not equivalent to wealth, honor, or pleasure.  It’s work.  The moral philosophy undergirding America is superior.  We should be proud of that.


Every U.S. citizen gets to write whatever they want in their lifetime pursuit book – pursuing whatever passions, desires and accomplishments they (not Government or anyone else) choose. We all have the inalienable right to fill our War Chest with property acquired along the path that we each choose to pursue.  And pursue we must; it is not an option because happiness is never an end state.  We are forever engaged in the pursuit of happiness, which is synonymous with the pursuit of property (if you’re working hard at it) – property, properly understood, is tightly secured possession of a carefully developed and elevated mind, body and soul – in addition to sufficient material wealth that supports all three.


Next week, we move on to The Fatal Conceit.


We’ve seen here many times and George Will’s book reminds us again that Hayek thoroughly explained how and why bad ideas are spread by arrogant thinkers.


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Envy Is Evil

Concept of business success and the envy of rival

George Will’s new book, The Conservative Sensibility (2019), particularly Chapter 5 (Political Economy – Rescuing the Great Enrichment form the Fatal Conceit), is a superb reiteration of what I’ve been writing about here for the last 4 years.  Attempted Government wealth re-distribution is not only ineffective (wealth cannot be confiscated only the fruits of wealth can be); it’s also immoral.  Redistribution encourages and rewards human envy.  George Will, quoting Robert Nisbet and others, writes:  “Of the seven deadly sins, of all the states of the human mind indeed, envy is the basest and ugliest.  It is also the most corrosive of spiritual and moral fiber in the bearer and the most destructive of the social fabric…Envy is a compound of covetousness, felt impotence, and nihilistic resentment of anything and everything that is honored in a culture.  Envy is the vice closest to pure and unmixed evil because, inevitably, it motivates lessening others though we gain nothing to ourselves.”


Don’t be misled by the title of the book. Patrick J. Deneen of Notre Dame Univ., whose ideas we engaged here (2/20/18-4/24/18 and 3/28/17–6/6/17 – good stuff! Go back and read his prescient thoughts), wrote a review of the book at The Washington Post last month, saying The Conservative Sensibility is not so much an argument for political conservatism as it is a sweeping tour of the philosophy of liberalism.  Deneen didn’t think it was conservative enough!


Last week we ended on the “spirit of capitalism”, which George Will anatomizes in his book. A special morality is deeply woven into our political economy and constitutional law.   The Founders of our nation knew exactly what they were doing.  They deployed the moral reasoning of Aristotle (remember Nicomachean Ethics from a few weeks ago?).  It’s sad that mainstream “progressive” thinkers have forgotten (or intentionally ignore and disregard, which is worse) the teachings of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Alexis DeToqueville, John Locke – and the wisdom of the founders – John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.


Let’s drive our War Chest wagon through Chapter 5 of George Will’s new book in the coming weeks. Chapter 5 is divided into seven sections:

Capitalism as Soulcraft – our economic system shapes the morals and manners of citizens…for the better

The Fatal Conceit – Hayek was correct – it blows my mind that Leftists/Collectivists ignore him (I think they’re just afraid to engage his arguments directly)

It’s Easy to Raise Snakes– Government initiated a State snake buying program to reduce the poisonous snake population – it did not go well as the title of the section indicates

Welcoming Waywardness – we should delight in the surprises and spontaneous order of an open, free market society

The Case for Progressive Taxation, Still Uneasy After All These Years – taxing the wealthy and then inefficiently handing that money out to whoever is deemed worthy by bureaucrats is problematic

Envy, Positional Striving and Andrew Carnegie’s Sixteen Cents – if you stole Andrew Carnegie’s fortune and re-distributed it to the earth’s population, everyone would have 16¢

Being Richer than Rockefeller – we forget how extraordinarily lavish our lifestyle is today compared to people who lived just a few generations earlier

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The Attempted Derogation of Mind and Property

robbery - skeleton hand with gun

A malevolence we must defend against is the false argument that mind and property have too much authority, are too valued.  Smart, wealthy people must be derogated by force for the greater good, so the argument goes – it’s a philosophy of resentment, envy and theft.  Our War Chest contains financial wealth, which protects capital and personal autonomy.  It should also contain awareness of an ideational enemy that threatens both the preeminence of mind and security of wealth.  Section 3 of Lionel Trilling’s essay, Mind in the Modern World (1972), has particular relevance to the subject.


The case against mind (and private property) continues to be litigated in our culture today. Our evil egalitarian opponent wants to level everyone, undercut mind and wealth in a never ending pursuit of social justice and quest for some yet unknown, undefined, future socialist utopia.


William Morris (1834-1896) wanted “neither the aggressivity of comprehension and control which a highly developed mind directs upon the world nor the competiveness and self-aggrandizement which obtain among those [who are smart]. He wanted no geniuses to distress their less notable fellows by their pre-eminent ability to tell the truth or be interesting, and to shine brighter than the general run of mankind, requiring our submission to the authority of their brilliance, disturbing us with novel ideas and difficult tastes, perhaps tempting some few to emulate them… to incur the pains of mental flight.” News from Nowhere (1890)


The attack on mind is analogous to the attack on wealth. Trilling writes:  “At a certain point in history money began to play a part in society which can be thought of as ideational.”  Shakespeare said money has the power to bring into question every certitude and every piety.  Good ideas, like money, are a mobile and mobilizing form of property.  As they come to have power in the world, it is plain that a peculiar power or status accrues to the individuals who conceive and organize them….. And it all comes down to power – those who have it, want to keep it, some who don’t have it, want to seize power using any manner available, no matter how immoral, via specious political argument or voting their way towards it rather than earning it, or otherwise acquiring it legitimately (inheritance for example).


Trilling writes: “The resentful view of mind cannot be wholly new, else the word “docile”, which originally meant only teachable, would not have long ago come to mean submissive.


[Think about that. Being docile used to mean being inquisitive, smart, teachable – now it means being meekly obedient.…uhm….that’s not as good as teachable – what a dramatic linguistic devaluation]


Trilling wrote that in our time, mind has been drastically devalued, and, as a consequence, resentment of the authority of mind has grown to the point of becoming a virtually political emotion.  It’s been happening a long time and is getting worse.


The armaments used to defend attacks on our weapons of mind and wealth are the weapons themselves. Wealth can be deployed to protect itself (by buying insurance and professional advice – attorneys, accountants, investment advisors).  Good, intelligent ideas easily thwart attempts to derogate their obvious value.  The ongoing attacks force an adoption of either an aristocratic-military world view of mind – Nietzsche’s will to power (fu#k off and die you lowly, unworthy, easily conquerable malevolent minds), or, what I prefer, the ethos of early capitalism worldview of mind – with the defining virtues of patience, the taking of pains, and the denial of spontaneous impulse.  The Sprit of Capitalism* includes a strong work ethic deployed to noble ends (family and charity).  Either way, heads we win, tails they lose.  We get to keep and enjoy our wealth and mind.  Government cannot steal them at gunpoint.



* I wrote here one year ago today 7/16/18 (which would have been my brother’s 50th birthday) that we are realizing a gradual return to the spiritual, moral roots of capitalism. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904) by sociologist Max Weber laid out the good, moral foundational ethos of capitalism, which is why it is so successful.  These moral underpinnings (bourgeois values) are still embraced by many of us.  The spirit of capitalism is not greed and consumption but rather the creation of wealth and order, increased productivity and the best use of resources.  Capitalism was born of religious faith, in Weber’s view, because some people developed an ethic that gives true meaning to their work.

This ethic includes a love of hard work for its own sake, orderliness, punctuality, honesty and a hatred of wasting time. Viewing our work as a “calling” (see my 4/11/17 post) results in the self-limitation of consumption and an ascetic compulsion to save.  We value personal discipline, gratitude and a sense being fortunate stewards of wealth, morality and knowledge – entrusted to preserve them for future generations.

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Shh! I’m Listening to Reason


Not listening to reason is, by definition, unreasonable. So no reasonable person would do that, right?  Well, the tricky thing is reason (and truth and morality for that matter) is not fixed by one mind – not C.P. Snow’s, not F.R Leavis’.  Very smart, truly virtuous people fight vehemently over important moral matters.  Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), a fierce warrior against anti-reason, escorts us across the battlefield.


He begins with the objective fact that thinkers from the two cultures (science and literature) do not communicate with or even like each other. C. P. Snow argues that scientists are generally in the right of things and literary people in the wrong.  Why?  Because of the human condition – we all suffer and die.  He says there is a “moral trap” that ensnares art guys more than science guys.  “for it tempts one to sit back, complacent in one’s own unique tragedy, paying no heed to the circumstances of everyday life, which, for the larger number of human beings, are painful”.  Scientists, on the other hand, are “inclined to be inpatient to see if something can be done.”


Snow argues that Science brings humans together, whereas Literature separates them and is “self-regarding in its complacent acceptance of tragedy, which is not only indifferent to human suffering but willing to inflict it, which asks rude and impertinent questions about the present and even about the future”. Trilling is sympathetic to Snow’s argument because in “desperate days it always seems wise to throw some thing or someone overboard”.  Snow wants to disregard politics and literature as unhelpful and even counterproductive to relieving world suffering – it gets in the way of science.  Trilling disagrees, teaching us that “It is very hard to say what will save the world.  But we can be perfectly certain that denying the actualities of the world will not work its salvation.  Among these actualities, politics is one.”  In bad, desperate times, we can conceive of politics as nothing but power.  It cannot be disregarded.


The function of critical thought is “to see the object as in itself it really is”.   The tragic, overwhelming complexity of the human condition means that it is not always so easy to “to see the object as in itself it really is”.  Trilling felt that both Snow and Leavis failed to do that.  He knew that genuine understanding takes strain, tenacity and endless grappling with difficult, conflicting ideas.  Good thinkers are in the stringency business.  The real world has a punishing way with human purpose.  “Moral realism”, according to Trilling, gives mind its muscle, its magnanimity, its power to withstand its own weakness and not be put to flight by that which it has yet to master.


We cannot throw art or political discourse overboard unless faced with global obliteration – unless the ship is sinking. We similarly cannot tolerate the wholesale confiscation and redistribution of private wealth (or any other personal blessing) by a tutelary State, unless faced with an existential crisis.  The concluding paragraph of the book Science and the Good (2018) makes a good point; loosely quoting:


If we are not to succumb to the dread and darkness of the mind, we have no choice but to continue the hard work of making sense of the complex, confusing and conflicted realm of moral life. Science has an important role. But there is no substitute for history, literature, poetry, philosophy, music and the world’s great religious traditions – no substitute for understanding morality (and artistic expression) on its own terms as we struggle to fully understand our existence. 


Next week, we turn to a War Chest defense against attacks on reason that Trilling gave us 10 years after writing about the Leavis-Snow controversy. Mind in the Modern World (1973)

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The First, Second and Now Third Cultures


Certain writers today purporting to espouse truth and morality in order to light the way for those of us searching for answers are liars chasing power. They engage in facile, specious argument.   We need to dive deeply into the sea of knowledge to find truth and avoid being misled by polemic ideologues hiding beneath the murky waters of profound thought.


The Leavis-Snow controversy surfaced after the publication of Snow’s The Two Cultures (1959).  It is an example of the recurring debate among public intellectuals on the science vs. art culture war.  C. P. Snow felt strongly that the first culture, science, is a moral imperative because it alleviates suffering on a global scale by curing disease, feeding the hungry and saving the lives of infants and mothers.  Literary critic F. R. Leavis responded with a famous rebuttal that was so vitriolic, the magazine publishing it had to make C.P. Snow promise not to sue for libel.


Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now (2018) sides with C. P. Snow, holding that science is morally superior to art as a form of knowledge.  I tend to agree that if you have to pick one, you’d go with science for humanitarian reasons.  I also frown upon arrogant, snobby, condescending, artsy fartsy writers who sneer at science.  Pinker says they “write as if the consumption of elite art is the ultimate moral good.”  But let’s not be so hasty.  Art cannot dismiss science but neither can science dismiss art.


Lionel Trilling’s 1962 essay on the Leavis-Snow controversy concludes that they jointly demonstrated how far the “cultural mode of thought” can go in excess and distortion. They were both wrong according to Trilling.  Let’s find out why next week. Trilling is a remarkably cogent writer who deploys relentless, intricate reasoning to prove his points.


The first culture is science, the second culture, supposedly in opposition to it, is art or literature. People in those respective fields are worlds apart. There is a “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between them.  But a new third culture, according to John Brockman, is developing via an ongoing dialogue among new thinkers (scientists, philosophers, et al) who are replacing traditional public intellectuals by addressing the public directly.

These guys (Pinker is a contributor) are on the frontier fringes of human knowledge – unsuppressed by the liars in mainstream media, academia and government.


In order to understand why and how this new third culture emerged, we have to study the dialectic of the old controversy like Trilling did – understand the tension between the first two cultures. This is not a question of educational theory or an abstract contention as to what kind of knowledge has the truest affinity with the human soul.  “What we address ourselves to is politics, and politics of a quite ultimate kind… the disposition of the modern mind.”


NOTE: my use of the word “liar” is simply to stress the point of false certitude among arrogant intellectuals.  Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex gave us some nice caveats on 7/16/19 and 7/17/19 about referring to someone as a liar who is “honestly reporting their unconsciously biased beliefs”.


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The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent


Why do I write this blog every week? Because I have to – I see it as a moral duty.  There is a “Moral Obligation to be Intelligent”, which is the title of an influential 1915 essay by John Erskine (1879–1951).  That essay and the ideas of literary critic Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), who was Erskine’s student, came to my attention after reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now (2018), where I learned of the “Leavis-Snow Controversy”.  As moral agents, we should be aware of this cultural intellectual flashpoint in history.


I’ll get to the Trilling’s analysis of the Leavis-Snow controversy, but first let’s take a quick peak at Erskine’s essay:

“The disposition to consider intelligence a peril is an old Anglo-Saxon inheritance… [there is a] casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and heart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced – full mind, starved heart – stout heart, weak head”.


It’s an entertaining article – not just for the substance, but also for its style. Erskine uses literature as an “instrument to prod us with” in making his point that intelligence is a supreme virtue that gives rise to dutiful obligation.  He says if you passionately admire something (like literature or whatever) but do not know why, then you’re a dumbass.  But here’s how he puts that:

If we love [great authors] and yet do not know what qualities their books hold out for our admiration, then – let me say it as delicately as possible – our admiration is not discriminating; and if we neither have discrimination nor are disturbed by our lack of it, then perhaps that wise man could not list intelligence among our virtues.


Erskine acknowledges that intelligence isn’t the only virtue. Steadfast will became the hallmark of righteous character, first among German thinkers, and remains a key virtue today.  Honor, strength, will power, endurance and bravery are important character traits but they are no substitute for intelligence, which along with wealth is a treasured blessing.  We have an affirmative moral duty not to squander our blessings.  Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), explains it this way, as I wrote here on 10/24/17:

Wealth is emancipation, rendering us master of our own time and powers, enabling us every morning to say this day is my own. Schopenhauer writes that wealth reaches its utmost value when it falls to the individual endowed with mental powers of a high order – doubly endowed by fate with both wealth and intelligence, enabling one to accomplish “what no other could achieve, by producing some work which contributes to the general good, and redounds to the honor of humanity at large. Another again, may use his wealth to further philanthropic schemes, and make himself well-deserving of his fellow-men. But a man who does none of these things, who does not even try to do them, who never attempts to study thoroughly some one branch of knowledge so that he may at least do what he can toward promoting it – such a one, born as he is into riches, is a mere idler and thief of time, a contemptible fellow.”


Don’t be a contemptible fellow. Next week, we move on to an epic battle of ideas – C. P. Snow (1905-1980) vs. F. R. Leavis (1895-1978)

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