Isn’t it by a legal fiction that the accused are, in this country, said to be “innocent until proven guilty”? The fiction is important.

Similarly, it is by dialogic fiction that you are instructed to regard 

  • your interlocutor as honest, 
  • open to new information as well as unfamiliar logic, and as 
  • earnest in a desire to resolve cognitive dissonances.

Further, in political argumentation, we assume that everybody wants everyone else to be healthy, wealthy and wise. We assume good will.

All these assumptions about arguers have been shown to be incorrect. 

Our biases have been exhaustively examined by psychologists, and our intellectual limitations demonstrated as surprisingly vast. Similarly, the glee with which people wish to harm some others puts the lie to any universal notion of good will. And, to add a twist to the knife, some of us old arguers have come to expect the most ugliness from the loudest professors of benevolence; we know that ill will is ever-present in politics and government, at least.

And yet the dialogic fiction of benevolence retains its importance. It provides the groundwork for change, and for the reciprocity that is necessary for a free society.

And it is not just “those others” who are nudged to better behavior. Even when only one person in a debate behaves according to the fiction of general good will, that person is improved. 

twv


Virginia author James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) wrote comic romances (a term perhaps less confusing than “romantic comedies”) on a set of themes. One of these themes is expressed in the idea that there exist women too beautiful for many men safely to look at.

In The High Place: A Comedy of Disenchantment, young Florian espies the sleeping Melior (ensorcelled in a castle ensconced upon a High Place) and it unsettled his life, sending him into a flagrantly immoral life of lust, murder, and (in the end) world-shaking cataclysm.

In Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, the title character — having been given a temporary visage of youth — finds himself with the opportunity to remove a sleeping Helen of Troy’s blanket, but cautiously refrains. This restraint allowed him to return to his normal life as a pawnbroker, and bargain with Koschei the Deathless for the retrieval of his wife from distant realms, to take up her former position as his nagging partner.

Mere fantasy? The peculiar obsession of a perverse mind?

I doubt it.

Sexual selection is powered, in great part, by enticement based on beauty. Flowers are beautiful, the peacock’s feathers are beautiful, and so can be women (to varying degrees). The more beautiful the more likely to attract the bee or the mate, and thus the greater the beauty the more likely they are to procreate, thus spreading the world with more beautiful beings. In some species it is the male that displays the more elaborate enticements to mate, the peacock and peahen being a prime example. In Homo sapiens, it is the woman who attracts chiefly by physical beauty — and the men more moved by that beauty. But, admittedly, among humans the variety of sexual attractions and sexual strategies makes everything vastly more complicated than a themed story.*

But this is a major force in life and its evolution, not a mere technical display, an acquired habit of culture, as so many of today’s trendy people pretend to believe. Lust for — and enchantment with —  sexual beauty is built into our psyches, well, most male psyches, anyway, as amply demonstrated in science and literature. And it rules, often with the whip hand. Beauty suffuses nature, and the lust for beauty spurs life to continue. Further, because it runs so deep, it can be as (or more) powerful than the drive for mysticism, for the numinous.

Carl Gustav Jung suggested that organized religion exists to curb the unsettling power of mystical experiences. By formalizing the Divine, and limiting it to certain rites, places, times, it allows for mundane life to continue.

Traditional marriage and family life did something similar. The mundane curbs the sheer transcendent power of Beauty. To prevent destruction.

Nowadays, the most beautiful of women are plucked from obscurity, farded to perfection, and paraded about for all to see. This alone — with instantiations from modeling, to acting, to pornography (which some would say and was once widely believed were all allied arts) — may be a major factor in modern culture . . . to the unsettling nature of family and community life.

If Cabell were right, this modern development leads to disaster for some men, and perhaps a problem for many men as well as most women. The disaster might be a bit more humdrum than the one perpetrated by Florian.

Behind all the romance, irony, symbols, and elegant prose, Cabell’s philosophic argument was that the natural curb for this aspect of sexual bedazzlement is marriage: one woman to one man, quickly followed by motherhood and fatherhood, thereby speeding up the process known to all: nature’s universal answer to all enchantments, including life itself. Decline and Death. Mother Sereda bleaching all. That suffices to dull the beauty in life.

twv

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* Of course there are anomalies, outliers to life’s main story. Gay men and lesbian women look on the world of beauty and sexuality rather differently, each. And certainly confirmed bachelors like me have a different perspective on the story than do married men and, of course, women. But the central story will always be the one that directly carries on the regeneration of life. We outliers must recognize our place. And when society bends to the outlier, to make their stories central, as it seems to be doing now, we can expect cataclysms. Brave New World was not Utopia.

img_3081(from The Lesson Applied, December 1, 2011)

The good folks at Coca-Cola really want to innovate. They probably admire the late Steve Jobs. They’ve lots of neat ideas. Helping polar bears is one of them. So, to honor the polar bears (or at least ballyhoo their cause and plight), Coke folk changed the color of the can of their main product, Coca-Cola™. They made it white. You know, “polar” color.

And then came the uproar.

Coke buyers didn’t like it. Many returned the product, thinking that it was either Diet Coke (whose silver can is, actually, very similar to the new white can) or else a modified product. A few Coke drinkers said that the drink tasted different. There was general confusion, as reported in the Wall Street Journal:

Mel Cyr, a 17-year-old Coke drinker from Sheboygan Falls, Wis., said she and other teenagers attending this week’s National 4-H Congress in Atlanta scratched their heads after seeing the white cans. “You can’t change something that’s classic,” said Ms. Cyr.

4-H delegates from Wisconsin said their chaperone was mistakenly served a regular Coke on the flight to Atlanta from Milwaukee after requesting Diet Coke. “The flight attendants were really frustrated” and apologized for the mix-up, said Sara Harn, 17, of Brooklyn, Wis.

Obviously, this is another innovation from Coca-Cola that didn’t take — reminiscent of the infamous “New Coke” of a few decades ago. Coca-Cola’s clientele was so negative that the august Atlanta company switched plans, and is now switching back to the red cans we all know and love, far ahead of schedule.

A lesson for us all. Consumers are sovereign. You can innovate up and down your line, but if consumers aren’t buying, you aren’t selling.

The doctrine of consumer sovereignty was defended, in the 20th century, by two curmudgeonly economists, W.H. Hutt and Ludwig von Mises. The word choice was spot-on. “Consumers are sovereign” doesn’t mean that producers are meaningless. But the sovereign(s) have the last word; it’s the sovereign who must be pleased.

And that’s what capitalism is all about.

This lesson is probably hard on the innovators at Coca-Cola. Take the lame ending of that Wall Street Journal article:

But Ed Rice, the 81-year-old chief executive of Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company, a longtime Coke distributor in Springfield, Mo., thinks the white can was innovative and engaged consumers. He downplayed confusion between the cans.

“If you put the cans side by side and blink, you might have to take a second look,” said Mr. Rice, who loaded his first Coke truck in 1945. “But I think there’s a distinct difference.”

Yes. But not distinct enough.

And besides, the customer is always right. Well, right in the one way that matters most on the market, right in being sovereign.

12/01/2011

I support “science,” I guess, but not this Saturday’s Earth Day “March for Science.” Why?

Well, because it proved ridiculous? A bizarre twist on virtue signaling? A risible parade of partisans pretending to be “above politics”? 

Let me suggest the crucial distinction, the key to my incredulity, by way of a question:

If scientists practice science, who practices scientism?

Science is the accumulation of knowledge by means of public testing, and the falsifiability of claims is its standard, marking its boundary with other domains of belief. Scientism, on the other hand, is the use of “sciencey” factoids, hypotheses, fantasies, arguments, theories, procedures, and, alas, even the conclusions of scientists, sans any practical recognition of fallibilism or process context. That is, scientism is science-as-dogma, science-as-rite, science-as-shibboleth, etc.

Scientism is what you find most regularly in popular discourse. Scientism is what you find most often in politics. Scientism is what you will most likely find in . . . The March for Science.

Alas, “being a scientist” is no guarantee against practicing scientism some of the time or even most of the time. Many scientists revert to scientism when they wander outside their field of specialization. Not a few practice it part-time within their chosen realm. Almost all embrace the practice when they seek funding.

But what do we call a practitioner of scientism?

I suggest: “sciencist.”

Sciencists are those people who think they like science, but love scientism all the more, and cover for their ignorance and bigotry and embarrassing blind spots by extolling Science as their God and Bible all in one. They piously march to prove their loyalty.

Too bad self-flagellation is not in sciencey vogue. I would not mind seeing these people bleed.

Just a bit.

Oh, and remember: the proper place for scientism isn’t the safe space of a university, a congress, or a parade. It is in your library, under the heading SF.

twv

N.B. “Scientism” has its origins as a technical term in a few peculiar contexts, most especially in the critique of logical positivism and reductionism. I am expanding on the usage of F. A. Hayek and Karl Popper. The image, above, is from Popper’s Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (1972; 1989). While Hayek and Popper saw scientism as the mistaken identification of a few procedures used by scientists as defining of science itself, and therefore worthy of emulation by all intellectuals, I am taking a more sociological view of that sort of attribution error and applying it broadly. Scientism is not unlike racism and sexism, to my way of thinking. At core, racism is the “making to much of race” by improperly imputing modal (but not defining) features of the race to all or any individuals who belong to it. It is attribution error by improper discrimination. Scientism “makes too much of science” by taking some common but not defining features of science and holding them as a standard. In academic settings, this can be seen in the over-valorization of measurement, say, and applying it where measurement does not work. In popular science-mongering, it is not procedure that is over-valorized, but certain findings or conclusions and even funding rationales. Most “isms” that we use pejoratively involve similar confusions of part for whole. Scientism as discussed by Hayek and Popper and others is an academic error. The scientism I am talking about could be called vulgar scientism. And since even academic scientism is a vulgarization of science, the vulgarity of everyday scientism is . . . doubly vulgar.

In the early and middle 1980s, “comparable worth” became a celebrated cause of the feminist left. The idea was to equalize wages among occupations, particularly between, for example, a well-paid occupation that tended to be manned mainly by men and a more poorly remunerated occupation mainly performed by women. The examples given at that time were often truck drivers vs. secretaries.

I witnessed several public debates on the subject, way back then. And having just begun to study economics, I quickly came to regard proponents of the “comparable worth doctrine” (CWD) as utopian lunatics. Their glee in concocting regulatory schemes was over the top, and their arguments were always and in each case economically illiterate. They looked upon all wages as mere artifacts of custom and power, never productivity. Notions like “marginal product” and “imputation” and even “supply and demand” never rose to coherence, or even the level of mere mention.

I remember one absurd discussion, where a young man argued against a then-current objection commonly made to the CWD — that comparing truckers to secretaries was comparing apples to oranges. (That is, the occupations were different enough that no wage equalization effort could make sense.) He said that the beauty of CWD was that (quoting from memory) “we mix the apples and oranges and get fruit punch, and then divvy out equal amounts!”

You see what I mean by economic illiteracy.

Now, I did not go on to become an economist. It never became my job to investigate the statistic artifacts of the period to test the doctrine. Or any other. But I did notice that in the State in which I lived, the CWD became the official doctrine of one institution: government.

My guess is that many a low-wage government and contractor job were upped to a higher level, according to some “comparable” “worth” (of a labor theory of value variety) and that taxes were quickly increased to cover.

It might be good to check to see whether this did actually happen. I would be surprised if it did not.

I am getting at something here. There is a difference between government wages and business wages. They are figured and set differently. Unlike in the market sector, politicians can and do set State employee wages. And take credit for the hikes.

The taxes? They tend not to talk much about the taxes hiked to pay for the greater drain on resources. In markets, wage hikes must be merited by business success in voluntary markets, within a context of competition for scarce consumer attention. In politics, the checks and balances are much less integral with the process. There is a high degree of arbitrariness to government worker remuneration.

I suspect something similar happens in government regarding minimum wage jobs. I know of a number of positions paid by tax funds through contracts with the state. Many of them — particularly the temporary ones — are minimum wage jobs. (Elder care, some seasonal fishery services, and a few others come to mind.) When the minimum wage requirement is raised, budget requirements are raised, and politicians shrug “cost of living” and approve a budget hike, leading directly to raised contract worker wages.

We often say, with varying degree of inaccuracy, that “consumers pay” for minimum wage hikes. (Consumers do pay, but usually indirectly.) More accurately, taxpayers pay. Quite directly.

twv


A late, lamented neighbor of mine once defined “just war” as “mere war.” That was a quip.

A rather cynical one.

When I read just war theory, as a teenager, the most important point, I determined (in this rarefied and rarely consulted domain of thought), was this:

In contemplating intervention into a conflict with which one’s own country is not directly involved, it is not enough merely to determine which side is more nearly in the right. One must also have good reason to believe that, by intervening, one’s State could win and establish a stable and  just peace.

Even if you know who is in the wrong, if there is no likely way of “winning,” or if one’s intervention is not likely efficacious to establish a peace, entering into the conflict is immoral.

A recent study of just war theory and history by Laurie Calhoun suggests that most uses of the tradition, especially in recent times, have been to cover for gross, murderous immorality. Not to limit warfare.

As near as I can make out, this is largely because the tradition is almost never treated seriously or rigorously in the manner indicated above.

It is telling that I have not once heard, in recent public discussion over the Syrian intervention, one mention of just war theory.

twv


Man was created for social intercourse; but social intercourse cannot be maintained without a sense of justice; then man must have been created with a sense of justice. [T]here is an error into which most of the speculators on government have fallen, and which the well known state of society of our Indians ought before now to have corrected. [I]n their hypotheses, of the origin of government, they suppose it to have commenced in the patriarchal, or monarchical form. [O]ur Indians are evidently in that state of nature which has past the association of a single family; & not yet submitted to the authority of positive laws, or of any acknoleged [sic] magistrate. [E]very man, with them, is perfectly free to follow his own inclinations. [B]ut if, in doing this, he violates the rights of another, if the case be slight, he is punished by the disesteem of his society, or, as we say, by public opinion; if serious, he is tomahawked as a dangerous enemy. [T]heir leaders conduct them by the influence of their character only; and they follow, or not, as they please, him of whose character for wisdom or war they have the highest opinion. [H]ence the origin of the parties among them adhering to different leaders, and governed by their advice, not by their command.

[T]he Cherokees, the only tribe I know to be contemplating the establishment of regular laws, magistrates and government, propose a government of representatives elected from every town. [B]ut of all things they least think of subjecting themselves to the will of one man. [T]his the only instance of actual fact, within our knolege[sic], will be then a beginning by republican, and not by patriarchal or monarchical government, as speculative writers have generally conjectured.

Thomas Jefferson to Francis W. Gilmer (June 7, 1816)

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The reason people accept the institutions of the State in their lives also explains why they often demand horrific tyrannies. Once you give a special role for the State, it is hard not to identify that “special role” as tyranny.

The very core notion of the State looks like usurpation. Statism — including support for socialism, fascism, and the imperial presidency — is there in the kernel of accommodation to any and all political governance.

This is why democratic-republicanism is so unstable, and perhaps why hard-core Republicans and Democrats in America often enthusiastically yammer for outrageously criminal policies.

twv

No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him: every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society; and this is all the laws should enforce on him: and, no man having a natural right to be the judge between himself and another, it is his natural duty to submit to the umpirage of an impartial third. [W]hen the laws have declared and enforced all this, they have fulfilled their functions, and the idea is quite unfounded that on entering into society we give up any natural right.

Thomas Jefferson to Francis Gilmer (June 7, 1816)

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I started with quotations, aphorisms, the main points of which I thought obviously egregious. But some of my friends liked them. So I continued. I next put up statements of my own that I found especially idiotic — common pieties of our age. Some liked them; others objected. I reminded the latter, only, what day it was.

So here, in no particular order, with the names of the initial “likers” greened out…. Statements none of which are true, each of which has something disturbingly wrong with them.

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