yet another attempt at a coherent answer:

I run hot and cold on the word “capitalism.” The institutional system? Fine with it. Would want more of it. But the word itself is less than perfect. (Like capitalism itself!)

AdamSmithA “capitalist” is not an advocate of “capitalism.” When I see the word used that way I flinch. A capitalist is someone who invests capital, specifically someone for whom such investment is a major source of income. Not all that many people are really capitalists.

But “capitalism” seems inapt for a more profound reason: the major institutional features of the capitalist system are

  1. extensive private property holdings
  2. self-ownership in one’s actions, meaning, especially
  3. free labor (not “free” in terms of price or fantasy, of course)
  4. free trade (unencumbered by prohibitions, regulations, etc)
  5. private markets in capital goods

Now, that last point might justify the term. It’s a profound concept that most people have no idea about. Even economists have balled it up.

But we traditionally note three factors of production: land, labor, and capital. And yet, when we use the word capitalism we identify the lack of criminal and governmental interference in the management of these factors by only one factor. That’s prejudicial. It’s rather lame.

There are huge demarcation problems associated with the word, too.

The economists of France and Britain began developing the science of the study of this set of institutions with the critique of a particular form of government policy, which Adam Smith called “mercantilism.” That’s a good term, an apt term, since it refers to the close relationship between some merchants and the State. It seems an apt moniker for the policy.

Under mercantilism, governments favors some over others, engages in various forms of protectionist trade restriction policies, and generally tries to keep production within a nation rather than outsource it (“free international trade” being the thing established, well-connected merchants most fear) while aiming to increase the supply of money (in the early cases, gold and silver) within the boundaries of a nation, and especially into the coffers of the king.

But mercantilism is not a bad term for what we have today, in many ways. Sure, international trade has been encouraged — but in a rather regulated way. The amount of regulations in America and Europe is astounding. The secular trend regarding this has been growth. And this hardly seems very “capitalistic,” if you mean it in the robust sense. And it certainly favors some capitalists and entrepreneurs and managers over their competitors, immediate and possible.

And yes, this feature makes a difference. The general effect of government regulation of markets — what Mises called “interventionism” and what Pareto called “restrictionism,” but which everybody else calls progressivism, fascism, democratic socialism, or the Administrative State — is to favor established business over upstarts. This is known. There is no real way around this. Current trends in hollowing out the upper-working class economy is largely a result of mechanization in combination with the suppression of small business by the regulatory state.*

So, while we certainly now live under “capitalism,” it is nothing like the laissez faire that economists dreamed up to regulate not business and market life, but the State itself (limited government being the flip side of laissez faire, with the constitutional limits it establishes being a form of anti-corruption regulation).

Recently, folks have been using the term “crony capitalism” to refer to the regulated/subsidized (“bailed out”) nature of current American economic policy. This reflects the old mercantilist practice of favoring well-connected insiders (“cronies”) at the expense of the masses of workers and entrepreneurs.

Anthony de Jasay calls the current form of governance/policy “the churning state,” since there is so much forced wealth distribution that we cannot really keep track of net winners  — instead, the interests and the transfers are merely “churned.”

I tend to dub the current mode of capitalism “neo-mercantilism,” but an adjective is in order: technocratic neo-mercantilism. The technocracy is important to this, for it gives college graduates cushy jobs while they pretend to manage “the economy.” Which doesn’t exist . . . but that’s another issue.

The crucial thing to understand about capitalism is that it rests on rights to private property (including one’s own body and person) and mostly unencumbered trade.

Destutt_de_TracyAnd trade, or market exchange, is pretty much what Thomas Jefferson’s favorite economist said it was, “a transaction in which the two contracting parties both gain. Whenever I make an exchange freely, and without constraint, it is because I desire the thing I receive more than that I give; and, on the contrary, he with whom I bargain desires what I offer more than that which he renders me. When I give my labour for wages it is because I esteem the wages more than what I should have been able to produce by labouring for myself; and he who pays me prizes more the services I render him than what he gives me in return.”

This is an elaboration of Condillac’s chief notion in his 1776 treatise. How this made sense in terms of value and distribution — how to think about it precisely — took another century of stumbling by economists. The work of Carl Menger and William Stanley Jevons, especially, clarified the exact nature of mutual benefit through exchange.

And it is indeed this concept, of ex ante mutual benefit in trade, that is the most essential feature of “capitalism.” The mutual benefit aspect is the core aspect. And it is why freedom — a division of responsibility and a general lack of coercive bullying — is the key concept, the entelechy, of the very idea of capitalism.

And it is what politicians of nearly all parties — and their supporters — attack daily, to the hobbling of civilization.

twv

 

* John Kenneth Galbraith’s notion of “countervailing powers” gets it exactly wrong. Big Government to adjudicate between Big Business and Big Labor is a nice model, and all. Nice and technocratic. But it ignores how things really work. These powers do not countervail, they reinforce each other. It just so happens that the Reinforcing Powers of the major institutional forces bolster each other up, at the expense of the masses. Which is why technocracy is anti-democratic and would only have a chance of working without free access to government bureaus and power centers. Only by setting up a caste of trained technocrats could government really ride herd over business in general. And only by prohibiting the right to petition one’s government — lobbying — and the revolving door between government and the private sector, could Galbraith’s vision even have a hope of a chance. And still, I hazard, the outcomes would likely be horrific, for reason described in The Road to Serfdom: the worst would get on top, because giving some people unchecked power of control over others cannot be a recipe for civilized life.
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What’s the difference between classical liberalism, anarchism, and libertarianism?

answered on Quora:

Most of the answers given [on Quora] so far concentrate on the terms liberalism and libertarianism. I discuss these two terms, and the two main varieties of anarchism, too, on a blog post I recently wrote: “Grand Theft L-Word.”

IMG_2863So I will summarize: Classical liberalism is today’s term for 18th and 19th century liberalism. Most scholarly people, and most who all themselves libertarians, understand this. But many people today, perhaps not so well read, think “classical liberalism” is FDR’s ideology. This is an error. But carelessness and ignorance are the leading causes of lexical drift, so maybe that will become an accepted truth some day. But, as of now, the truth is, “liberal” was taken away from individualists by collectivists, and the remnant started using the designator “libertarian.” It, however, had already been taken up by anarchists of a variety of stripes, so things get complicated.

IMG_4661Anarchism is the term for a variety of anti-statist philosophies all of which oppose political governance through The State. But those on the ideological Left think that the reason to oppose the State is because it props up private property and trade, and does so with its laws and institutions. But individualist anarchists opposed the State because they see monopoly political governance as a chief opponent of private property, and a perverter of trade — and they want a rule of law, and think such a thing can emerge without the institutions of defense and adjudication to claim or practice any kind of territorial sovereignty. Individualist anarchists insist that all alliances among individuals and institutions be built on explicit contract, not fake “social contracts” that are nothing more than the result of bluster, duress.

The modern terms for individualist anarchism are “anarcho-capitalism” and (more confusingly) “libertarian anarchism.”

None of these terms are incontestible. It is worth noting that the first coherent exponent of the individualist anarchist position, Gustave de Molinari, a Belgian economist of the French Harmony School, never referred to his system of “competitive government” (see “The Production of Security,” 1849) as anarchistic. He considered himself a liberal, and argued extensively with socialists of all varieties, including those many incoherent advocates of “anarchism.” A better term for the Molinarian proposal was devised late in the century: panarchism. But it has never caught on.

img_4664In the late 19th century, many of the more radical classical liberals had abandoned Liberalism for “individualism.” See the writings of Auberon Herbert (who coined a term for his variant, “voluntaryism”), J. H. Levy, and Wordsworth Donisthorpe. A mere generation later H. L. Mencken used that term to defend a simple market-based republicanism in Men versus the Man. More radical forms of individualism were revived by Albert Jay Nock, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand in the decades after, and at mid-century this group in America took “libertarian” from the anarchists. And then these anarchists manqué reinvented the Molinarian idea, and things got even more confusing.

In the 1960s, a simple newsletter called Innovator had begun its life as Liberal Innovator. Other samizdat journals abounded in this decade, and by 1972, the Libertarian Party had been formed by Ayn Rand fans who had given up on Nixon’s heavily statist Republican administration.

The Libertarian Party has always harbored both so-called anarchists and “minarchists” — advocates of a strictly limited minimal (“nightwatchman”) state — and, increasingly in recent years, hordes of vague “constitutional republicans.”

Amidst this confusion, I sometimes clarify by recalling an 1830s political movement, Loco-Focoism. Since I am agnostic about the ultimate legal and political status of an ideal free society, I often call myself a “LocoFoco agnarchist,” the latter term a droll coinage of an erstwhile colleague of mine, the Reason writer Jesse Walker.

“Neoliberalism,” an ugly term for libertarianism, classical liberalism, or just pro-market conservatism and globalism, is a pejorative often used by Europeans and leftists. I know of no libertarian who can stand the term. The fact that it is used by witless leftists of the Naomi Klein variety helps explain that.

It is worth noting that Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce coined a simpler term for the anti-fascist, anti-statist liberal revival: liberism.

It has not yet caught on. It seems that Croce was not a supporter of laissez-faire, though, so the propriety of appropriating it for modern individualist liberalism is open to question.

And now you should be able to see the rationale for my preferred term for all these terms for private property, rule of law, free trade individualists: “individualist liberalism.”

It hasn’t exactly caught on either.

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“Diversity is our strength” makes sense only if expectations of — and demands for — agreement and unity are low.

This more than implies limited government. Indeed, the more diverse a population, the steeper will be the diminishing returns to government growth. Political hormesis becomes quite pronounced when cultures differentiate in close proximity.

Droll, it is, then, that the people who make the most public fuss about “diversity” today seem most united in insisting upon increases in the size and scope of government.

Precisely the wrong lesson to draw.

Indeed, any society increasing in both cultural diversity and government scope sets itself up for a major disintegration, either in a war of all against all, financial crack-up and civil unrest, or, most likely of all, tyranny.

Though this thesis is very old — it was a major conjecture (amounting to a central theory) of classical liberal social science in the 19th century — modern social sciences (social psychology, sociology and anthropology) have revived the notion pretty strongly in recent times, though I know of no consensus or unified approach as was present 150 years ago. (The dominance of cultural Marxist ideology prevents that.)

So, my progressive friends, you have a choice: extensive state controls and cultural homogeneity or diversity and limited government. One or the other . . . or accept a spectacular crisis — which your policies are now inducing.

It seems to me that the prime reason for the increasing political tension of our time is indeed the flowering of this basic entelechy — that is, the wedding of diversity to government growth.

What progressives do not realize is that their shotgun marriage of social looseness and strong, centralized government, is setting up today’s “conservatives” for the role of tomorrow’s big government “progressivism” . . . and libertarians to play the naturally antagonistic role of cosmopolitan universalists.

The coming realignment will shock the world. And it may happen fast, as legitimation crises are wont to prove: await the dissolution cascade.

For my part, one of the reasons I became enamored of classical liberal policy and libertarian principle, oh so many years ago, was my preference for diversity.

twv

Just as “left” and “right” are relative to one’s position vis-à-vis up and down and forward and back, Sartre’s dictum that “existence precedes essence” is true only depending on the direction of a particular philosophical transit.

And I see no reason to privilege one trek over another.

More valuable is Santayana’s counter to ancient rationalism: “essences are promiscuous.” That is, essences are infinite and non-determinative of existant matter.

Existents have many essences. That is, for every existent there is an infinity of essences. And which one may or may not be relevant to any tale or problem or accounting depends on the exact nature of each tale, problem, or accounting.

This is a relativism of essences.

It is not a relativism of truth, however.

How so? Truth is a function of propositions . . . or, if you prefer, a function of maps, and maps are arrays of essences conceived as mirroring or directing us through the realm of the objects of our attention — one realm of which includes, not surprisingly, the (or some) set of existents.

Existents are one kind of object; essences another; and when the latter maps the former in a more or less serviceable way, we have truth.

So, which precedes the other is irrelevant — from the aforementioned Promiscuity Theory of Essence. Emphasizing existence as taking precedence over essences, or vice versa, cannot be bedrock, for it all depends on where we start the story of our intellectual transit.

Essentialism? Existentialism?

If we start the story from our embarrassingly humble origins as a gamete pair or a baby or the first grader on the bus to school’s first day, existentialism is obviously the better story. But if we begin intellectually, as every philosopher qua philosopher in fact does — in medias res, as it were — within a vast realm of signs and portents and rumors and concepts and memeplexes, then essentialism cannot help but capture our imaginations.

One might be tempted to call this viewpoint “relativism,” but that will not do, will it, seeing as how we must reject a relativism of truth for a relational set of essences mapping existence?

But “Relationalism” is ugly.

Philosophical promiscuity, with the tip of the hat back to Santayana?

Who himself called this perspective “critical realism.”

twv

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There is nothing more boring than the NFL. Not even golf.

But, I confess: these last few weeks have gotten rather entertaining. To witness conscience and folly collide, in real time — pop the popcorn, bring out the beers (or in my case, smoked baby clams and whiskey). And to witness the fall in honor of an inexplicable national pastime? Instructive.

Full disclosure: I may never have watched a professional football game all the way through. I cannot remember, exactly. I have seen a few minutes here or there. I happened to be watching at the famous moment when the runner with the ball got his leg horribly broken, snapped like kindling. That was unpleasant, and I hoped never to see anything like it again.

That moment, by the way, is imprinted in memory as having taken place at about the same time as the Challenger disaster. But I so rarely think about football I could be off by a decade and never know it.

I played football for three seasons in my early teens, for no better reason than that it was expected of me. I was not interested enough to learn the rules. Or have any informed thoughts on the subject — even after being made third-string quarterback.

But it did have an important personal lesson for me: disappointing people is something you can get used to. Indeed, people who expect a lot of you do not necessarily have your interests at heart. They want you to do well for their benefit, according to their terms, even if you secretly despise their values.

As I did.

Yes, football was a metaphor for my position in society. I came to exult in avoiding what others wanted . . . in cases where I had no interest in their goofy beliefs, whims, hankerings, agendas.

One of the next culturally expected things I gave up, after the sports cult, was patriotism, as in respect for the flag. I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance a year after I ceased showing up for football practice. It was the 1970s, and I was not impressed by what these United States had become. And the symbology of flag-pledging patriotism seemed tribal at best, utterly orthogonal to justice — or what I understood of the original intent of my favorites among the Founding Fathers.

I could not, in those long-ago vanished days of my youth, imagine Thomas Jefferson insisting that normal citizens salute the flag, much less pledge fealty to it.

Ridiculous. The very idea struck me as ludicrous. I knew that Jefferson thought of Virginia as his country.

So, today, my youthful heresies collide. National Football League players are kneeling instead of standing during the National Anthem. Or staying out of the arena until after the melodic leaps and inapt vocal stylings of “To Anacreon in Heaven” are over.

On the face of it: more power to them.

As for the President’s reaction, it is a sort of knee-jerk patriotism expressed in the standard mouthings of the vulgar tongue. Trolling of the highest order. He gains a lot of sympathy from a huge hunk of the vast (and quickly shrinking) NFL audience. Trump has nothing to lose.

But you know who does have something to lose? Those multi-millionaire NFL entertainers who do not seem to understand that they are throwing the game . . . all in the name of their alleged “cause.” Which, they tell us, is the cause of cop-on-black violence.

Now, this might be admirable, were it not for three things:

  1. When you compare blacks killed by police to whites killed by police, and figure in instances of police-suspect interactions, the percentage of whites killed by police is higher than blacks so killed — that is, to repeat, measured against criminal investigations/police interventions. Why? That is obvious, even upon a cursory look at crime stats. The number of blacks who commit crimes, as a percentage of the population is alarmingly higher than that of whites, it is all out of whack. The ratios indicate that cops might actually be giving blacks some cautious leeway. Racial justice is not the issue.
  2. Besides, why take it out on the U.S. flag? Police are run — funded, managed, and directed — by city, county, and state governments. Most policing is not a federal matter. Acting as if it were so is stupid, uninformed. Witless.
  3. And, it should not be forgotten, these entertainers are under contract. But the collective bargaining agreement has little to say about ceremonial performance while the rule book has become less specific about patriotic observance. Still — most importantly — they play to entertain an audience.*

I hazard that these violence-whores desperately misjudge their social function.

Not only are they entertainers, but they are the “heroes” of the cultural institutions closely associated with the armed forces. “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” as the saying goes. And this idea, that the sportive is tightly wedded to the military, cannot be utterly lacking in merit.

And this is why professional athletes, more so than most civilians in American society, are tied to the American nation state (as instantiated in the federal union and especially in its military). Seeing that this is the case, they should probably know their place.

But if these athletes continue to flout custom and rite, fine with me. And if they do so to the degradation of their idiotic sport’s somewhat puzzling high standing in American culture, no skin off my nose.

Setting aside my schadenfreude, if I can, I will here earnestly wish them the best with their cause — properly construed.

If they want to help their local “hoods,” fine.

But the way to help inner-city African-American populations is probably not to alienate Americans outside of those urban hellholes. They need the goodwill of the American people at large.

And, from what I can tell, they are fumbling the ball, if not offsides.

twv

* I originally wrote two sentences in this passage about failure to perform according to contracts, but looking over the collective bargaining agreement (available online), it now seems to me, two days later, that much of what I had read about this subject proves less than reliable. 9/27/2017

A friend passes on a news report she saw in Minnesota:

Third graders kneel for the national anthem at their football game, and turn their backs to the flag.

A sign of the times. The United States no longer sports even a hint of a unified nation, and the general government is approaching bankruptcy . . . if at the speed of Zeno’s arrow.

IMG_4603The coming collapse? Perhaps soon.

The people, even the youngsters, are preparing for it.

Two questions:

  • Will we mitigate the calamity of our fall?
  • Who shall be our Odoacer?

As for me, I have not changed my tune. I advise a new political movement, one with a very specific program: put the federal government into Receivership.

twv

“Eleven” in “Base Eleven” would be written as “10.”

Eleven in Base Ten, on the other hand, is a palindromic prime. The next such number on the list is “101.”

img_1711When I was in grade school, my first fifth grade math teacher corrected me more than once for my habit of enunciating that number as “one hundred and one.” He was much exercised by that locution’s unacceptability.

“That is ‘one hundred one,’” he instructed, carefully eliding the “and.”

“‘One hundred AND one,’” he informed me, triumphantly, “means ‘one hundred and ONE TENTH!’” And he wrote the number down in “numerals”:

100.1

I was very frustrated. I had not been taught to defy my elders, much less my teachers. But I was vexed, for I knew B.S. when I heard it.

I even knew and understood the grounds for my heterodoxy. I was more than familiar with older English writing and speech. The King James Bible was the most important book in the house I grew up in. And I knew that Abraham’s wife was recorded to have lived up to but not beyond “one hundred and seven and twenty years” of age. I understood that the “and” signified addition, and saying “and seven” did not mean “7/10ths,” but seven ones, and just so “one hundred and one” was not “one hundred and one tenth” but, technically, “one hundred and one ones.”

I was right. My teacher was wrong to have censured my lack of conformity to fashion, at least so dogmatically, so lacking in perspective.

But at age 10 — or should I write “X”? — I lacked the courage, and perhaps the requisite verbal quickness, to challenge him. I knew the truth, but could not express it.

Prior to that day, my main reading interest had focused almost exclusively upon science. There existed, at that time, plenty of kids’ books not merely about geology and astronomy and chemistry and the like, but also about the major scientists who had made the most important discoveries. After this time, my interests shifted. A more human realm, somewhat more philosophical, became my stomping ground — a realm that allowed (encouraged) its subjects to take a wider view of alternative nomenclatures and customs.

Interestingly, that very teacher was pushing “the new math” at that time, and vexing the whole community in the process. He did not teach it well; he was not that novelty’s most reliable advocate. Almost no one in my class, anyway, “got it.” We did not see the point. And somewhere in the back of my head a heresy was developing: what if teachers did not teach the pure unadulterated truth? What if they sometimes pushed B.S.? I knew of one instance of B.S. for sure, and about math of all things — or the logic and semantics of math, anyway.

How much else was wrong, even nonsense?

Mathematics never became my bag, though logic did. Math teachers, on the whole, struck me as not very bright. And as for me, I dulled to the subject.

Leaving me here, at night, tonight, thinking fruitless thoughts about Base Eleven. How would one write out the natural numbers in that somewhat hypothetical “new math-y” system?

0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, X, 10. . . .

But, to carry on, 11 (“twelve” in Base Ten, probably to be said something like “onelf” in Base Eleven), 12 (“thirteen” in Base Ten but “twelf,” no?), 13 (“thirtelf”). . . .

It beats counting sheep.

twv

 

KimJong-un-rocket-man

Trump’s “Rocket Man” epithet was of course funny.

All the non-witless agree. But there is more to the story.

Scott Adams explained on Periscope how it is funny. It really is about Trump finding the boundary of “good taste” (political etiquette; verbal rectitude) and deliberately crossing that borderline. The joke works not because it is, itself, hilarious — stand-alone it’s worth a mere chuckle — but because the quarter of the audience that expresses shock and dismay make it funny.

Two birds with one rock, man. Humor depends upon a logical catastrophe, as John Allen Paulos has explained so well. We laugh when the logic slips and our grasp on categories shifts, when something or someone in one category falls into a lower category (occasionally the reverse). In the case of “Rocket Man,” not only does a dictator get a demotion, but Trump has yet again tweaked the sensibilities of his critics.

“Something for the fans.”

In a follow-up talk, Adams notes how it proved to be more than that. Trump effectively took away one of Kim Jong-Un’s goals: the “prestige thing.” Trump’s belittling of the dictator, Adams perceptively argues, effectively took out of the negotiation room one whole issue.

“Rocket Man” became “weaponized.”

It all depends on the full frame. “A month ago, every time Rocket Man launched a new rocket, how do you think he felt?” Adams asks. “I’m gonna guess proud. Probably good for his ego. Made him feel important, made him feel like he was a big player on the world stage.”

That must be right. The dictator surely felt the bigger man because of the rocket launches, because of his threat. “Powerful. Bold. . . . his T-count went up a little bit.”

After Trump’s mocking monickerization, however, “he will feel that the entire world is laughing at him.”

Correctly feel, I might add.

Trump, Adams argues, effectively took Rocket Man’s nukes away from him in terms of honor — with a simple two words. Without touching a nuke . . . or dropping one.

I must admit, I worry about a dictator stripped of his last shred of pride. What does he have left, now, but his life? Even his power may taste like sawdust.

But there’s no doubt that the negotiation game has changed. And, short term, this may be quite advantageous to nearly everyone but Kim Jong-un. (The loss of honor will eat away at the man, though. That could be quite bad.)

Trump’s “linguistic kill shots,” as Adams dubs them, amount to something important. At first blush, this routine may seem not too much different from schoolyard taunting. But there is a difference. It is not the “slow kid” or the “ugly girl” who receives the brunt of the ribbing, the humiliation; it is not the lowly or the powerless: in most cases it is the cultural elites, the people who have cultural power, the people who have determined for decades what may or may not be said. They are the ones who take the hit.

And in the case of Rocket Man, he who took the hit is someone with outrageous, horrifying political power. A man utterly deserving of any put-down we can deliver.

In this context, the litany of complaints about Trump’s rough language seem, increasingly, to be vapid and even stupid.* Schoolmarmy.

The schoolmarms naturally object to his example. What will the kids do? Will bullying go back on the rise? Perhaps.

But they miss something. Trump’s not the bully. That’s not the right metaphor. He’s the smart-ass who mocks the principal and the teachers in the hallway and, if the jocks misbehave or abuse their power, the jocks, too.

It’s not “Truth” to Power, of course. Not exactly. Trump is saying not that the Emperor has no clothes, but that the empire’s hangers-on and petty enforcers have their flies open.

And that our biggest enemies are dicks.

Keep those pocket-rockets docked, boys, or the Donald will getcha.

twv


 

*The piling on of boos and hisses, sad-faces and disses by world leaders is just the usual bit of U.S.-bashing. It is cheap credit for the world leaders. It is pathetic.

One of the great political achievements of modernism was the demotion of our protectors from lords to public servants. This was the advance brought by republican and democratic reforms.

Alas, the project did not quite go far enough, did not quite get that “master”/“servant” relationship right. Tyrannies were let in the back door.

And in “post-modernism,” the moral universe was nearly upended. We see our protectors as oppressors (until our tribe takes on the protector role, of course) and the victim as the hero. This is not wholly in error, but close.

Not seeing oppression where it exists is a grave error, I insist. But treating victims as heroes, or even trumps in political debate, is to sow the seeds of worse oppression.

It is not merely an error. It is perverse.

twv

I’ve seen a number of attacks on “empathy” recently, even a book, Against Empathy. I usually get a few sentences into one of these exercises in counter-narrative and shrug.

They seem a bit like the resentments of jilted lovers: the denigration comes from dashed love. Or else it’s just wanton contrarianism.

But what is the error? Let me guess. Perhaps too much is made of empathy, these days. Maybe because we live in an intellectually stilted, post-modern era, empathy has been forced by our cultural narrowness and the general lack of humanistic education to serve beyond its natural capacity.

Empathy isn’t everything in psychology or ethics. But it is something. Perhaps two or three somethings.

My working model, since my earliest philosophical speculations (adaptations from Plato, Aristotle, Smith, Spencer, et al.), has been that empathy is pretty important. A cardinal virtue, even.

In my old schema, it is the other-regarding virtue of our emotional life, a check on unbalanced temper as it applies to others, or even oneself conceived objectively (especially one’s self as conceived at a distant time, past or future).

But it is not justice. It is not truthfulness. (My two other other-regarding cardinal virtues.) They are linked, as are all the virtues, but a person can excel at one and be deficient in others.

And like all the virtues, a person may likely be born with an aptitude for some but not others. That is, a person can take naturally to one virtue, but be clumsy (at best) about others. Why, I’ve even known folks to be reflexively just in their social dealings, but almost congenitally imprudent. (Prudence being the self-regarding virtue of the active life.)

A person possessing empathy but lacking justice can be dangerous, to self and others. Indeed, one might define human moral error as an imbalance of the virtues, a lack of the full set. Maybe the vice at the heart of what we call the “moralistic” is the mania that results from cultivating one virtue to the exclusion of others.

So empathy isn’t everything. It certainly is not love, or faith, or hope (none of which are cardinal virtues to my reckoning, two perhaps not being virtues at all).

Empathy also is not prudence, or temperance, or the savviness with concepts that, for want of a better word, I call wisdom.* Empathy’s earliest serious investigators, Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer, who discussed its importance under the name “sympathy,” never assumed or even implied it was.

But empathy’s lack of status as the be-all and end-all of sociality or personal development or ethics does not mean it is nothing, or even “not much.”

twv


* My old list of cardinal virtues is not traditional. They are all mentioned, above, but here they are in order:

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