What markets are for

Kevin D. Williamson wrote a few years ago about the true function of markets, which is not “competition,” but something else:

Complex though it is, the iPhone is also a remarkably egalitarian device: The president of the United States uses one, as does the young Bengali immigrant who sold me my coffee this morning. But you can bet that her children do not attend schools as good as those that instruct the Obama daughters. The reason for that is politics: not liberal politics, not conservative politics, not bad politics, but politics per se. …

The problem of politics is the problem of knowledge. The superiority of market processes to political processes is not in origin moral but technical. The useful knowledge in any modern society is distributed rather than centralized — and, as Read intuited and as modern scholars of complexity studies confirm, there is no way to centralize it. Ludwig von Mises applied that insight specifically to the defects of planned economies — the famous “socialist calculation problem” — but it applies in varying degrees to all organizations and all bureaucracies, whether political, educational, religious, or corporate. Markets work for the same reason that the Internet works: They are not organizations, but disorganizations. More precisely, they are composed of countless (literally countless, blinking into and out of existence like subatomic particles) pockets of organization, their internal structures and relationships to one another in a constant state of flux. Market propositions are experimental propositions. Some, such as the iPhone and the No. 2 pencil, are wildly successful; others, such as New Coke or Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo, are not. Products come and go, executives come and go, firms come and go.

Politics isn’t dynamic in the way that markets are. Politics is both centralized and nostalgic, which means a few people who claim to act on expert knowledge work to impose what are promised as systemic solutions. When other enterprises become too rigid or ineffective, they fade away. Yet:

A political establishment is a near-deathless thing: Even after the bitter campaign of 2012, voters returned essentially the same cast of characters to Washington, virtually ensuring the continuation of the policies with which some 90 percent of voters pronounced themselves dissatisfied. No death, no evolution. Outside of politics, human action is characterized by evolution and by learning. And what are we learning? How to take care of one another, which is the point of what we sometimes call capitalism. (Don’t tell Ayn Rand.)

As a civilization we evolve, but not all constituencies or groups within a culture evolve at the same rate. Some never do. Politics by its nature must be slow and deliberate and considered to be good at its function; the opposite of markets. Even the roots of positive change are misunderstood, especially what we call “free market capitalism:”

It is remarkable that we speak and think about commerce as though competitiveness were its most important feature. There is, as noted, a certain Darwinian aspect to economic competition — and of course we humans do compete over scarce resources. But what is remarkable about human action is not its competitiveness but its almost limitless cooperativeness. Competition is one of the ways in which we learn how best to cooperate with one another and thereby deal with the problem of complexity — it is a means to the end of social cooperation. Cooperation exists elsewhere in the animal kingdom, but human beings cooperate on a species-wide, planetary level, which is a relatively new development in our evolution, the consequences of which we have not yet fully appreciated.

So distribution is preferable over centralization, which is another way of saying that it would be better to have fifty different state governments with wide latitude over state-level decision making than one central government deciding vast national policy.

We want a culture closer to the people not only to make it more participatory, but also to avoid the political equivalents of “Touch of Yogurt” shampoo becoming our only nationally-approved haircare product.

Clarence Thomas on silence

Clarence Thomas abstained for something like a decade from asking any questions during oral arguments. At the University of Kentucky a while ago he explained why:

“I don’t see where that advances anything,” he said of the justices’ questions, according to the Associated Press. “Maybe it’s the Southerner in me. Maybe it’s the introvert in me, I don’t know. I think that when somebody’s talking, somebody ought to listen.” …

We have a lifetime to go back in chambers and to argue with each other,” he said. “They have 30, 40 minutes per side for cases that are important to them and to the country. They should argue. That’s a part of the process….I don’t like to badger people. These are not children. The court traditionally did not do that. I have been there 20 years. I see no need for all of that. Most of that is in the briefs, and there are a few questions around the edges.”

It’s Thomas’s perspective here that reassures my sense of why bringing cameras into the Supreme Court would be harmful to the functioning of the court. Too much temptation for justices to talk simply to be seen talking and to appear wise, rather than listening to those making their case, referring to the briefs, and judging their best.

We live in a very loud culture. Anyone or anything observing silence as a means to combat (useless) loudness, is worth applauding.


A day without yesterday

Commonweal published a great article on the history of the Big Bang theory a while back called ‘A Day Without Yesterday’: Georges Lemaitre & the Big BangI had a dozen years of Catholic schooling, and don’t ever remember learning about Georges Lemaitre.

And if I don’t remember learning about the origins of the Big Bang theory and its Catholic developer during my Catholic school years, I’d guess it probably wasn’t taught in the typical public school, either:

Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966) [was] a Belgian mathematician and Catholic priest who developed the theory of the Big Bang. Lemaitre described the beginning of the universe as a burst of fireworks, comparing galaxies to the burning embers spreading out in a growing sphere from the center of the burst. He believed this burst of fireworks was the beginning of time, taking place on “a day without yesterday.”

After decades of struggle, other scientists came to accept the Big Bang as fact. But while most scientists — including the mathematician Stephen Hawking — predicted that gravity would eventually slow down the expansion of the universe and make the universe fall back toward its center, Lemaitre believed that the universe would keep expanding. He argued that the Big Bang was a unique event, while other scientists believed that the universe would shrink to the point of another Big Bang, and so on. The observations made in Berkeley supported Lemaitre’s contention that the Big Bang was in fact “a day without yesterday. …

In January 1933, both Lemaitre and Einstein traveled to California for a series of seminars. After the Belgian detailed his theory, Einstein stood up, applauded, and said, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” Duncan Aikman covered these seminars for the New York Times Magazine. An article about Lemaitre appeared on February 19, 1933, and featured a large photo of Einstein and Lemaitre standing side by side. The caption read, “They have a profound respect and admiration for each other.” …

It took a mathematician who also happened to be a Catholic priest to look at the evidence with an open mind and create a model that worked. Is there a paradox in this situation? Lemaitre did not think so. Duncan Aikman of the New York Times spotlighted Lemaitre’s view in 1933: “‘There is no conflict between religion and science,’ Lemaitre has been telling audiences over and over again in this country ….His view is interesting and important not because he is a Catholic priest, not because he is one of the leading mathematical physicists of our time, but because he is both.”

A fascinating article for understanding how one man’s ideas (initially derided by the scientific establishment) came not only to win the praise of luminaries like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, but ultimately to transform our understanding of the universe. Like so much else with scientific discovery, I’d bet someday we’ll realize that this theory is terribly wrong in important ways.

Seeing money in new light

Robin Wigglesworth, an editor at Financial Times, shared the following excerpt on Twitter from a book recently. I’m sharing it here because it’s a small way to see the value of money, and its uses, in a new light.

For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.

This is provocative and feels true, but it can also be taken way too far. Isn’t money, in practice, just as friendly or hostile to the common good as those who wield it? I think it’s true to say that money is a “trust system,” but it doesn’t stand alone in serving as a bridge for “almost any cultural gap.” Plenty of other things do that, including religion. In scripture, it’s love of money that is condemned as “the root of all evil.” Not money in and of itself. In other words, what’s called out as wrong is a dysfunctional love. What’s called wrong is a worship of a secondary thing as if it were a first-order good. It’s called wrong for the effect that any sort of warped love will have on the human heart.

And while money in and of itself doesn’t discriminate in its uses, it certainly takes on a value the moment it becomes an instrument of human will rather than an abstraction.

Man before man

I was reading Ben Cosgrove’s reminiscence of the ~20,000 year old Lascaux cave paintings recently:

September 12, 1940. A warm afternoon in Dordogne, in southwestern France. Four boys and their dog, Robot, walk along a ridge covered with pine, oak and blackberry brambles. When Robot begins digging near a hole beside a downed tree, the boys tell each other that this might be the entrance to a legendary tunnel running beneath the Vézère River, leading to a lost treasure in the woods of Montignac. The youngsters begin to dig, widening the hole, removing rocks—until they’ve made an opening large enough for each to slip through, one by one. They slide down into the earth—and emerge into a dark chamber beneath the ground.

They have discovered not merely another place, but another time.

In the cool dark beneath the sunlit world above, the boys found themselves in “a Versailles of prehistory”—a vast series of caves, today collectively known as Lascaux, covered with wall paintings that, by some estimates, are close to 20,000 years old. In 1947, LIFE magazine’s Ralph Morse went to Lascaux, becoming the first professional photographer to document the breathtaking scenes. Now in his late-90s, Morse shared his memories of that time and place with LIFE.com, recalling what it was like to encounter the strikingly lifelike, gorgeous handiwork of a long-vanished people: the Cro-Magnon. …

“For permanence, the finest pigments of civilized Europe have never rivaled these crude materials.”

Lascaux, and places like it that survive as tangible reminders of the truly epochal prehistorical history of mankind, can be daunting to think about. I sometimes think about the man or woman of 10,000 or 20,000 or 40,000 or 100,000 or more years ago. What the world (this same world) was like for them. What they understood their lives to be.

It’s in the light of their lives that I think of evolution. And I think of evolution as naturally squaring with Lascaux and and how places like it square with a God-shaped reality.

Lascaux and places like it speak to the possibility of a sort of folkloric memory of what was lost in the loss of relationship with God in a more grace-filled, Edenic state of being. This folkloric memory might have survived the loss of that grace-filled time and might have resulted in our very literal, animalistic devolution that has been changing (in our experience) over millions of years worth of time. It’s not at all improbable to me that the natural, literally animalistic consequence of our separation from God would nonetheless leave us with echoes of the natural law—of a faint memory of beauty and goodness and truth.

Doesn’t this idea, of man post-Eden becoming quite genuinely less, actually add more drama and verve to genesis than the Protestant’s literary literalism?

In this we can see how folkloric memory, literally the lore or stories of a people, would play a vital role in pre-recorded history in capturing the essential truth of a thing even if shorn of the specifics. That folkloric memory could eventually produce Genesis in a legitimate and divinely inspired way, with the only detail that what we remembered at the time as something like “days” in fact meant eons, literal ages of our animalistic period when beauty and life and a lingering consciousness in the hearts of man persisted, until the time had come for Christ to call us home.

This possibility makes much more sense to me than the idea that conscious flesh has developed of its own accord on a rock (or rocks) suspended within an impassable void which is itself a mystery whose essential nature is unknowable.

Conservatism and love

Roger Scruton gave a great interview about a decade ago that’s worth revisiting in its entirety. I’m sharing just a few parts that I think are worth looking at, if you don’t read the whole piece.

You have described conservatism as ‘loving the world for what it is.’ What do you mean by that?

Conservatism involves, as you say, loving the world as it is – not all of it, but that which we can receive as a gift from the dead. It means recognizing that it is easier to destroy than create. It involves an attitude of friendship towards the community, rather than a desire to remake it in obedience to some all-encompassing goal. And so on.

What distinguishes conservatism from classical liberalism?

The problem with classical liberalism is that it never pauses to examine what is involved in ‘not harming others’. Do I leave others unharmed when I destroy my capacity for personal relationships, through drug-taking, promiscuity, or porn addiction? Do I leave them unharmed when I stupefy myself with pop music? I have nothing against individualism, so long as it is recognized that the individual is created by a community and by the moral constraints that prevail in it. The individual is not the foundation of society but its most important by-product.

You write about the need to conserve a wide range of things: the traditional family, sexual taboos, nature, foxhunting, viable farming communities, the nation-state. What do these things have in common?

All the things you mention are forms of, or preparations for, love. This is true even of fox-hunting, which is founded in the love of horse and hound, of place, landscape and climate, and of the community that has grown in a place and made it a home. You can easily discover this from the remarkable fox-hunting literature in English, from Fielding to Sassoon and beyond.

In what way are sexual taboos a preparation for love? Because they protect the possibility of a normal sexual relationship?

A normal sexual relationship is one in which desire takes a personal and accountable form, which puts mutuality above gratification, and which envisions a long-term commitment as its fulfillment – a commitment that permits the partners to get beyond mere desire. This kind of normality is threatened by the cult of youth, by the new kind of sex education that makes technique more important than restraint, and by the fear of commitment. Pornography should obviously be removed from the public sphere: but the problem is that the line between public and private has been dissolved by the internet, and only radical measures could now be contemplated. If they are not introduced, however, I fear that human sexual relations will be so damaged that they will gradually retreat to a kind of universal narcissism.

Many people consider conservatism a form of romantic nostalgia, an irrational reverence of the past. How would you respond to that? Is conservatism a romantic movement?

Every form of social and political belief that lies before us today is related to the Romantic movement, for that is the archetype of our ongoing attempt to live by our own devices. This is more true of socialism than of conservatism, in fact – socialism being a kind of diseased nostalgia for the future, which is yet more damaging than nostalgia for the past. And this word “nostalgia” – what does it mean? The longing for the nostos, the “homecoming”, the Heimkehr, which is the heart of all serious thinking about our time on earth. You must simply distinguish the negative from the positive forms of it. The Renaissance was a great movement of nostalgia towards the classical world; and look how it shook things up!

Diversity and multiculturalism

This interview with First Things’s R.R. Reno contains something worth thinking about:

R.R. Reno: We have to have a welcoming, pro-immigration society that is capable of maintaining social unity. I would argue that you can’t have multi-cultural democracy—there are no multi-cultural democracies. They’re all in states of civil war or parts of empires.

Green: Well, but the United States is a multi-cultural democracy.

Reno: No, it’s not. It’s very homogeneous. When foreigners come to the United States, they’re always shocked by how homogeneous we are. We just do a very good job of assimilating people and making them into Americans.

Green: So if by “multi-cultural” you don’t mean a diversity of religions, a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, a diversity of national origins, and a diversity of individual political ideologies—all of which the U.S. has—what do you mean?

Reno: Shared heritage, common identity. When you’re traveling abroad and you meet another American, it doesn’t matter if they’re Asian, African American, or whatever—you hang out with them, because you have shared habits of mind and sensibilities.

Green: So you’re pointing to a cohesive sense of national identity.

A culture is a holistic, comprehensive force that binds a people (a diverse people) together. I think it’s telling that the interviewer considers “multiculturalism” and “diversity” to be interchangeable.