A bit of the wisdom in Genesis

As astute historians of the dismal science have appreciated, the first mention of the idea of scarcity is contained in the Old Testament. Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden illustrates a basic fact about the human condition that’s been codified in the first principle of economics.  What few appreciate nowadays is the significance of this insight for our collective worldview in the West.

What the Expulsion says about Adam’s and the human condition more generally is this: it is not thy neighbor’s fault that ye must toil for your supper; it is not on your neighbor’s account that you are forced to till the soil and tend livestock. It is the condition of all men that they must toil for their supper.

Like good news, good ideas rarely make headlines. We forget how much this idea shapes us and the culture in which we live. To see its effect, one has to consider counterfactual questions: what would life be like if the Book had said something different?  What if Genesis had said that evil men have caused you to suffer, or that History and its material forces have caused you to suffer—or any number of other things that turn brother against brother?

Though it’s never been studied, indirect evidence is found in the weakness of the idea of what anthropologists call “limited good” in Western societies (i.e., weakness when compared to non-Western ones).  Marx and the influence of socialism granted, Westerners have been disinclined to accept the idea that their neighbors are to blame for their misfortune—that the human condition might be fixed if only so-and-so could be brought to justice.

To be sure, Westerners individually and sometimes collectively have succumbed to the belief that disparities of wealth and other intangibles have been caused by others (and sometimes they are). But our better selves—or, rather, our Biblical selves—tend to suppose that our neighbors earned what they have, not that they’ve taken it from us. It is cognitive fact, I suggest, that this belief is only really possible once we’ve accepted that the natural state of things is scarcity, not plenty.

There is the interesting corollary, of course, in that we would never have escaped our condition as much as we have if it were not for this belief in scarcity. Indeed, we would have wallowed in squalor, forever seeking redress through redistribution if we hadn’t internalized this belief long ago.

George R. R. Martin’s prose “functional”?

Daniel Kaszor wrote the following in a review of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons over the weekend:

 “No one would call Martin’s prose more than functional…”

The NP’s standards for reviewers are slipping. From what I’ve read of it, Martin’s prose is some of the finest in all genre writing.  Granted, I’ve only read the first two chapters of Game of Thrones, but it’s impressive. I find it hard to believe that the quality of his prose has declined in the intervening years.

At any rate, I think it would have been better form for Kaszor to exemplify the faults and to offer a counter-example. I can’t really think of anyone who writes prose comparable to Martin’s.

The Civilizers and Self-Parody

In yesterday’s National Post Jeet Heer complained of the horrors of Rupert Murdoch, how his conservative and populist empire has debased us all.  Maybe it’s all true, maybe you believe Heer—that’s all beside the point for me at the moment. The interesting thing about his piece is that it perfectly illustrates an attitude that seems widely shared by journalists: the inability to avoid engaging in the very scurrilous invective they condemn on a regular basis.

First, I think it was notable that he had to go back to the 1980s to find examples of bigoted remarks about minorities, begging the question as to what atrocities have been committed this century (do editorial remarks made 30 years ago still count?).

At any rate, note this remark by Heer as exhibit one in my case:

The Sun has a long-standing habit of referring to the French as “frogs,” a term that gets thrown around quite a bit as if it were a clever witticism worthy of Oscar Wilde.

Heer made that remark two paragraphs after this one:

The comedian and actor Steve Coogan, himself an alleged target of the News of the World’s phone hacking antics, described it as “a misogynistic, xenophobic, single-parent-hating, asylum-seeker-hating newspaper.” Coogan’s characterization might be extended to the Murdoch press as a whole, which tends to go after any group that doesn’t adhere to the ideals of middle-class white society.

Notice the double irony: not only does Heer engage in the sort of invective that he claims the Murdoch Empire specializes in, but he quotes the spleen of a comedian like it was a “clever witticism worthy of Oscar Wilde.”

Given the proximity of these two remarks, one wonders whether the self-parody is intentional.

The problem with Hume’s “On Miracles” (and heroes in contemporary fiction)

I’ve always been of two minds about Hume’s “On Miracles” (it’s a short chapter in the Enquiry); and I’ve lately come to dissent from the modern criticism of heroism in literature for reasons not unrelated. So let me perform the marriage…

In “On Miracles,” Hume argues that we ought to use our own experience of what is possible and plausible as a criterion for belief in the second-hand reports of others (which, of course, includes historical reports). There’s a certain indisputable truth in that principle; indeed, the argument is almost too commonsensical to dispute.  When someone claims he’s been visited by his dead grandfather, for example, we should on principle find it harder to believe than when a man claims he’s been visited by the postman.

Yet this criterion—as a rule of thumb—is only as good as the experience of the person who applies it, which is where the contemporary angle and the counterexample come into view.  Consider that one of the most common criticisms leveled at heroes of fantasy and action films is that their characters and their deeds are wholly implausible.  Nowadays, you won’t find many heroes in literary fiction—even the name has been substituted by fiat for the far less ambitious notion of a “protagonist.”

But when compared to real historical heroes, even the characters in fantasy can seem like pikers.  Anyone who knows the historical deeds of Belisarius or Hernando Cortes could hardly be impressed by even the most extreme hero-caricature of the typical fantasy novel. Aragorn, the hero of the Lord of the Rings, for example, has nothing on any of these real historical persons.  And yet, we dismiss him as implausible—the stuff of fantasy—when he barely holds a candle to real heroes.

So what’s at work here? I think the same phenomenon that makes us assign fantasy heroes to fantasy also shapes our judgments of plausibility based on experience: our experience is circumscribed by (1) our democratic values and (2) our modern condition in a relatively peaceful, advanced industrial society. The belief in equality causes us to be prejudiced against the exceptional man, even though we may—as in all ages—naturally admire heroes for their derring-do, if only because we can live vicariously through them.

Similarly, our (mostly) safe and comfortable existence protects us from the sort of situations where heroes abide.  We are generally far removed from the dangers and the heroes who meet them head-on (like our soldiers) than people were in earlier times.  In other words, we just don’t have much experience of the heroic on which to base our judgments of what is plausible for a human being to accomplish.

That brings us back to Hume.  It seems like Hume’s principle is involved in the kind of paradox that renders such rules of thumb moot points: if you do possess a vast historical knowledge, your experience is likely broad enough to follow his rule; but if you already possess this depth of knowledge, the rule is superfluous, since you’ll already know what the rule is designed to help you learn. If, on the other hand, you don’t have a vast historical knowledge, the rule will make you dismiss the very real historical exceptions that constitute the broad experience necessary to apply the rule successfully in the first place.

Many will no doubt dissent from this opinion for various reasons.  The writer of literary fiction, for example, will dissent for pragmatic reasons. He’ll respond (with justification) that he has to accept the world as it is.  The heroes of old don’t sell books, even if one wanted to write one.  Perhaps.  But has anyone even tried in the last 60 years?

The much-misunderstood basic principles of economics

Listening to our media intellectuals can be hard on the head at the best of times, especially when it comes to intellectual things. No academic discipline is more often misunderstood and more often mischaracterized than economics.  My complaint here is not that commentators don’t understand money theory or derivatives, it’s that they don’t (or more likely won’t) get the basic principles correct.

The first principle of economics is not “homo economics,” i.e., it is not the assumption that human beings act rationally. The first principle of economics is scarcity, which means, as the everyday sense of the word suggests, that wants are unlimited and resources are limited. In consequence, all of us must choose between the things we want and prioritize when we want them.

Notice that scarcity is not an assumption open to debate; it’s a perennial, empirical fact about the human condition.  Argue all you want, then, about whether and how much this or that person should want or should have, the fact remains that we’ll always have to choose between toiling for our supper and eating it.

(As an aside, this last remark should suggest that the basic insight about scarcity is ultimately biblical: the writers of the Old Testament mythologized this insight in the exodus from the Garden of Eden. No more will Adam feast upon the abundant fruits of the Earth.  From now on, he’ll have to till the soil for his meals and build his own shelter. But this is a topic for another day…)

The corollary of the principle of scarcity—and the second principle of economics—is that people respond to incentives.  Responding to incentives is what economists mean when they talk about human beings “acting rationally.”  In other words, acting rationally (i.e., the much-ballyhooed homo economicus) does not mean that everyone behaves is a sober and reflective manner, calculating every move like little the Gary Kasparovs of their everyday lives.  Not at all; it simply means that we adjust to the world around us by making tradeoffs between the things we want to do and the things we can, based on the time and money we have. It’s a deceptively simple premise, which is likely why it’s misunderstood.

This notion of rational action, moreover, should put the lie to pseudo-argument against economics that some people act irrationally, and even the seemingly stronger argument that empirical evidence has been dug up to show that people don’t respond optimally to incentives.

It should be obvious that the first claim is a red herring.  That people don’t act rationally—where what’s rational is determined in accordance with some unspecified criterion—for the simple reason that economics makes no such assumption.  In fact, it would be amateurish to assume something as counter-intuitive as “everyone is a perfectly rational agent.”

The second is no less irrelevant, but it can seem like a more potent objection, because the notion of “optimal choices” does speak to the economic principle of responding to incentives. The problem with the objection, however, is that it supposes complete information or perfect analytical powers on behalf of actors.  It’s obvious that no one has complete information and (probably) none of us is perfect at picking the right course of action. So sure, people may be shown to consistently invest their money in the wrong place, for example.  But this only means we tend—when we do in fact tend—to make predicable miscalculations about our interests, not that we’re not forced to make such calculations in the first place.

In other words, the existence of sub-optimal choices doesn’t speak against the basic fact that people do respond to incentives.  If the price of cheese goes up, we may start eating bread instead or the reverse. Is this a wise tradeoff?  I don’t know.  The important thing is, however, that we respond in predictable ways, even when those responses could be construed as suboptimal (and thus irrational).

Now, none of this should be taken to mean that economics and economists are beyond reproach (so please spare this strawman rebuttal).  Even economists will admit that macroeconomics, for example, is a nebulous business.  But let’s be clear about the fundamentals so we know what we’re criticizing, instead of indulging in the same tired canards over and over again.

The Profound Pessimism of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau

Anyone who’s watched John Frankenheimer’s 1996 film adaptation (starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer) might think that H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau belongs to that sub-genre of horror where the scientific experiment goes dreadfully wrong. In the film, Moreau tries to genetically engineer a non-violent race of human beings, only to create animal monsters.  So, the lesson is that Moreau’s obsession with conquering evil causes him to transgress the most basic moral boundaries.  He is thus a variation on Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, where playing God makes one the hand-maiden of the Devil.

But if Wells’ Dr. Moreau (like Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein) is a Promethean figure, he is an infinitely more pernicious one.  Unlike the ‘bringer of fire,’ Wells’ Moreau is not motivated by lofty ideals.  He is not moved by the very human desire to transcend death (Shelley) or to engineer evil out of the human genome (Frankenheimer); on the contrary, Wells’ Moreau is driven by a pathological curiosity abetted by a sociopathic ego.

In other words, Wells’ Moreau is not a visionary whose noble intentions become a real-life nightmare; he is a pitiless, amoral experimenter, willing to inflict any amount of cruelty to vindicate his hypothesis that animals can be transformed into a human beings.  Wells’ Moreau is more mad scientist than misguided genius.

Some have also compared Wells’ Island to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, seeing Prendick’s experience among the Beast Folk as analogous to Gulliver’s life among the Houyhnhnms.  The similarities, however, are largely superficial.  No doubt, the experience of both Gulliver and Prendick changed the way they looked at humanity thereafter.  But the naturally law-abiding and stoic horse-people have little in common with the morally incontinent Beast Folk, whose mindless incantation of the “Law” is more to remind them of the existence of the “House of Pain” and how to avoid it than to provide a model for life.

Moreover, the resultant changes in Gulliver and Prendick bear little resemblance to one another.  Gulliver is inspired to follow an ascetic life, trading the luxury and frivolity of everyday existence for quiet contemplation.  Prendick, on the other hand, is traumatized, condemned to seeing the animal in real human beings as he originally saw the real animal beneath Moreau’s human-like creations. In short, Gulliver is improved by his experience (at least from his own point of view and in some sense ours) while Prendick is merely haunted by his.

So, Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau is neither a cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific hubris nor a satirical mirror in the excesses of contemporary life.  The book is really a profoundly pessimistic allegory about the human condition.  Moreau represents the naturally superior Nietzschean Overmen who shape the world and all within it into a form that serves their interests.  Like Moreau, they have created the Law that forces us, the human animals, into something more than the mere animals.  Thus, the Overmen’s civilization is maintained only through the threat of punishment (i.e., the “House of Pain”).  Like the Beast Folk’s, our humanity is ephemeral.  Our primal instincts are forever drawing us back to wallow in the mud.  In sum, our world, like the world of the Beast Folk, is just an invention of Moreau’s imagination—one contrived to further the intellectual pursuits that preserve him against the boredom caused by a purposeless existence.

One could expand upon this picture, of course, flesh out the details and draw some links with the text and the movement of the plot, but that is the general picture of the meaning of The Island of Dr. Moreau.

A note on academic strife

There’s some truth to the saying that faculty disputes are so big because the stakes are so small. Much the same might be said of disputes between students. Little can be lost (at least from a material standpoint) in either case by shouting down one’s academic peers.  But the reasons usually cited for this — i.e., the immunity conferred by tenure and the strong passions of the young — are not the main reasons for uncivilized behaviour in universities.

A combination of three things upholds civility in everyday life. In addition to good character and reciprocity is good old fashioned violence. When good character goes wanting, reciprocity takes up the slack as the most natural second fiddle, because we’d all prefer a civil atmosphere. But reciprocity has little purchase among professors or students, because neither is much beholden to more than a small clique of their peers, which, in most cases, belong to other departments or travel in different circles. That leaves violence, which works on construction sites and in factories, but academics have little stomach for throwing down the gauntlet.

One might suppose that this favorably contrasts academic social mores with the physical confrontations of the blue-collar rubes. But I think the opposite is true. Shouting, insults, finger-pointing and other intimidating body-language carry implied threats; thus, academics are more—not less—willing to be ruled by the violence. They are only disinclined to respond in kind in order to discourage such behavior in the first place.

Add to this the sometimes violent actions of student activists and it’s not a pretty picture. The social relations between peers comes down to one where those imbued with the moderation requisite for respecting others are expected to kowtow to those overcome by their passions. That’s not a happy state of affairs for a institution built on the free exchange of ideas.

Now, you may object that I’ve elided threatening behaviour and actual violence, as if the former were not a lesser evil than the latter.  But this objection ignores the very obvious fact that there is little difference between submitting to belligerent behaviour and submitting to actual violence—except, of course, that meek submission without objection is usually called cowardice.