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Is Naive Realism the Cure for Postmodernism?

Book ReviewsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Tue, March 12, 2019 07:05:22

Is Naive Realism the Cure for Postmodernism?

Quee Nelson, The Slightest Philosophy. Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2007.

Quee Nelson is a classical liberal who has written a book on metaphysics and epistemology, well received by many libertarians. Several libertarians told me it was a book I ought to read. It has received numerous compliments but, as far as I know, no serious discussion. I very much disagree with the main thrust of Quee’s argument and in this review I will try to explain why I disagree.

Quee’s book is entertaining, humorous, unpretentious, readable, and displays evidence of a lot of reading and thought. It’s a book about philosophy but one that clearly aims to include among its readership people who have not read much philosophy. This present review is the same kind of thing; it’s not the sort of review you would expect to find in a philosophy journal, but rather one on about the same level as Nelson’s book, that is, one which takes nothing for granted, which is inclined to ramble, and which does not hesitate to ‘naively’ address some elementary points.

I see this review as a kind of cognitive therapy for libertarians who think like Quee, but unlike most therapy, I am offering it for free. So, you have a real bargain here, and libertarians are supposed to love a bargain. I also see this review as an encouragement to readers to get involved in the marvelous intellectual adventure of philosophy, which entails coming to grips with real arguments at their strongest, and understanding why these arguments do convince intelligent people, rather than pulling faces at conclusions you don’t like.

Nelson claims to adhere to an unpopular, minority view in philosophy—naive realism. I adhere to a different unpopular, minority view in philosophy—critical rationalism. Critical rationalism may be better known as Popperianism, though there is a well-known law of nature that all Popperians have at least one major disagreement with Popper, so we should prefer the more impersonal term, ‘critical rationalism’.

However, on most of the issues covered by Nelson’s book, I adhere to the conventional, consensus, or default position among present-day English-speaking philosophers—representative realism. So, most of the time, I will be defending a fairly mainstream philosophical position against Quee Nelson, though occasionally I will come up with a critical rationalist twist.

Here are the main points I will be making in what follows:

1. Nelson calls herself a naive realist but never lets us know what ‘naive realism’ is.

2. Nelson misrepresents mainstream academic philosophy by claiming it is completely dominated by anti-realism.

3. Nelson mistakenly claims that postmodernism is rooted in skepticism about perception (and that it is derived from Hume and Kant).

4. Nelson doesn’t understand the force of the arguments of Hume and Kant.

5. Nelson mistakenly claims that idealism is a powerful movement in present-day English-language philosophy.

6. Nelson relies upon an argument against representative realism which is purely semantic and therefore inconclusive.

7. Nelson advances a theory about the historical causation of political outcomes by philosophical ideas, which is full of holes.

Naive and Representative Realism

Nelson tells us that she is arguing for “naive” or “vulgar” realism (pp. 2–3). She says she prefers the term ‘naive realism’ to ‘direct realism’, because she thinks that the latter could be taken to deny the complex causal chain involved in perception (pp. 10–12). But other philosophers who advocate what they call ‘direct realism’ don’t deny this at all.

David M. Armstrong argues in favor of direct realism in his 1961 book. As far as I know, this is the best case ever made for direct or naive realism, but although Nelson mentions this work (p. 9), she strangely does not say how much of it she agrees with, or whether Armstrong’s direct realism is the same, or roughly the same, as her naive realism. This is part of a general problem, that Nelson’s actual position, the delineation of what she calls naive realism, is elusive. The reader can only be puzzled as to what Nelson’s naive realism is.

All forms of realism agree that physical entities, such as tables, chairs, rocks, trees, stars, and clouds, exist independently of our minds. Disputes between representative realism (representationalism) and naive (direct) realism have focused on the question of whether, when we see an object such as a tree, we do so by means of seeing a mental representation of that object, or whether we don’t see any representation but only see the object itself. (I don’t approve of that way of framing it, but naive realists usually do frame it in some such way.)

A different distinction is that between common-sense realism and scientific realism. Some people think there’s a troubling conflict between these two. Common-sense realism is the view that the things we suppose we observe as we look around in everyday life exist, independently of our awareness of them. Scientific realism is the view that the entities described by physics and other natural sciences exist, independently of our awareness of them.

I don’t see common-sense realism and scientific realism as competing alternatives. My view is that where common sense and science clash, science is probably right and common sense even more probably wrong. So here my view is contrary to that of Nelson, who thinks that common sense trumps physics (pp. 7–8).

Common sense is not fixed. Today’s common sense among educated people is partly a product of science, or of the scientific modification of more old-fashioned common sense. It used to be common sense that iron boats could not float, and when gas lighting was first introduced, many people couldn’t believe that the pipes carrying the gas did not heat up. Common sense is an assemblage of theories, a product of culture, it consists of memes, it is inculcated into individuals largely by the use of language, it varies among cultures and among sub-cultures, it has evolved over the centuries, and it is always further revisable. Common sense often contains valuable suggestions and it should not be ignored, but it carries no authority.

It would be nice to be able to state Nelson’s own characterization of naive realism and proceed from there, but unfortunately this is not straightforward. She tells us (pp. 2–3) that naive realism is the view that the things we perceive “comprise” an external universe which doesn’t depend on our perception. This implies that cosmic rays, magnetic fields, and dark matter are not part of this universe (they either don’t exist or belong to a different universe).

We can probably assume that this is not what Nelson intended; what she might have meant is that the things we perceive are parts of a universe which also contains many other entities. But this also is unsatisfactory, because this definition would apply to all forms of realism, representative as well as naive. So, this definition would not identify what’s peculiar to naive realism. We never do learn how Nelson wants to define her own naive realism, so as to distinguish it from common or garden representative realism.

Again and again, she seems as though she’s just about to define naive realism, or her version of it, but then she simply defines realism, in a way which would include representative realism. To take just one example, she says that naive realists like herself have an “unwavering faith in the actual existence and intractable mind-independence of locomotives” (p. 10). Yet, allowing for some uneasiness about the word “faith”—but let’s not quibble—this is just as true of representative realists as of naive realists.

The closest Nelson comes to criticizing representative realism is with the brief section headed “The Irrelevance of Representationalism” (pp. 12–15). Here she complains that many different philosophers have advocated many different conceptions of whatever it is in the mind of the perceiver that links the perceiver with the perceived object. She complains about the profusion of terminology as well as definitions. And she says this doesn’t really matter, it’s a “technical side show,” because all that “really matters” is realism versus anti-realism, the question of whether perceived objects exist independently of the perceiver’s mind. But if you’re claiming to advocate naive realism, and you disparage its major alternative, representative realism, and many of your opponents are representative realists, it’s incongruous to say that the issue of representative realism doesn’t matter.

In another brief discussion of representative realism (pp. 5–7), Nelson addresses only the question of color realism. In fact, someone reading this passage with no previous knowledge of these issues might easily conclude that the distinction between naive and representative realism lies entirely in the color question. Galileo, Locke, and many others, have held that whereas some aspects of objects like shape and size are really ‘in’ the perceived objects, aspects like color, smell, and sound are generated in the mind of the human observer.

Today almost the only philosophers who discuss color realism at any length are those specializing in this issue, and most of them take the view that color is a real property of objects (see for instance the article by Johnson and Wright). However, this, if correct, would not entirely dispose of the color question, for there are certain apparent facts about colors (such as ‘There can’t be a reddish shade of green’) which, taken naively, seem to be undeniable facts about objective colors, but are in fact (so science tells us, and here I believe science) entirely due to the ‘design’, or specific structure, of our body’s perceptual apparatus. As Günter Wächtershäuser said, there’s more to vision than meets the eye.

Rejecting Realism

The historically most influential form of non-realism (unless you count Plato) was idealism, classically exemplified in George Berkeley, and fashionable at the end of the nineteenth century in the version known as ‘absolute idealism’, as taught by F.H. Bradley, J.M.E. McTaggart, and Josiah Royce. Idealism claims that all our knowledge is essentially mental and subjective, and therefore the only things we can know about are ultimately products of the mind.

Idealism has little following today. Opposition to realism mostly comes from cultural relativism or social constructivism, sometimes lumped together as ‘postmodernism’. Postmodernism has very little following among philosophers, but it has a huge following—it is almost the reigning orthodoxy—among academics in literary and ‘cultural’ disciplines.

Nelson conveys the impression, once or twice by direct assertion but much more often by insinuation, that non-realism is the dominant position among anglophone philosophers. But this is mistaken; probably most philosophers (meaning faculty and grad students in university philosophy departments) are realists. I will mention some indications of this fact, and of how Nelson misrepresents the current state of academic philosophy, as this review proceeds.

To avoid possible misunderstanding, I should add that philosophy as an academic discipline has become so specialized that many philosophers never have occasion to address metaphysical issues like realism, and also that some people I would classify as representative realists may not call themselves by that term. Representative realism is such a wide and general category—the obvious default category—that some adherents may not see the need for any identifying label.

For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I’m going to cover just two forms of realism—representative realism (representationalism) and naive (or direct) realism. I’m not going to offer my own distinction between naive realism and direct realism, as some writers do, but will treat these as equivalent. Nor will I give separate attention to different aspects of realism, such as truth, objectivity, and mind-independence. Since I am reacting to what Quee Nelson says, I completely neglect a number of important arguments and distinctions which don’t arise in her discussion.

In this review I’m concerned only with realism about perceived physical entities. Realism about moral or aesthetic matters would introduce a lot of additional considerations. Many people are realists about physical objects and non-realists about morality or aesthetics. When I use the term ‘skepticism about perception’, this is short for ‘skepticism about perception as informing us of a world of things independent of our minds’.

Misrepresenting Today’s Academic Philosophy

‘Realism’ may be crudely stated as the view that the universe is largely composed of entities which exist independently of any human awareness of them. For instance, if all conscious minds were to be wiped out, the stars and planets would continue to exist. This is a view I hold, in common with most philosophers.

The mainstream view in English-language philosophy is that perceived objects do independently exist, and this has been the mainstream view since about 1910–1920, by which point the formerly dominant ‘absolute idealism’ had begun to be abandoned, mainly due to the work of Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore.

To a very large extent, current controversies about realism versus non-realism take the form of a battle between philosophers and non-philosophers. Realism has its stronghold in university philosophy departments while anti-realism has its stronghold among non-philosophers in humanities disciplines such as literary theory, sociology, and culture studies.

Nelson conveys the impression that academic philosophy is a bastion of non-realism. This is not true. She states that “a skeptical anti-realism” is “still more or less in the driver’s seat” (p. xii). In the world of English-speaking academic philosophy, no form of skeptical anti-realism has been in the driver’s seat since the 1890s.

Nelson not only falsely identifies anti-realism with mainstream philosophy, but also falsely roots present-day anti-realism in skepticism about perception. Skepticism about perception was originally at the root of idealism, the philosophical movement which had its heyday in the nineteenth century. Today’s anti-realism is normally rooted in cultural relativism and social constructivism, tendencies extremely popular among people in non-philosophy humanities disciplines and decidedly unpopular with philosophers. Cultural relativists and social constructivists rarely (if ever) make arguments which appeal to skepticism about perception.

The Professor and the Student

After the first two chapters, Nelson develops her argument by means of a dialogue between a “Student” and a “Professor.” She identifies with the Student, while the views she opposes are identified with the Professor. Her Professor is testy and dogmatic, shifty and evasive, making feeble arguments with a display of arrogance, and frequently saying things that are blatantly ignorant or silly, while her Student embodies sweet reasonableness, judicious fair play, encyclopedic erudition, and wisdom beyond his tender years.

The views preached by Nelson’s Professor are, taken in their totality, views which no one holds. They are views made up by amalgamating different philosophical doctrines (or selected portions of these doctrines) which Nelson doesn’t like, and which are unlikely to be simultaneously held by the same person. You will never find anyone who is simultaneously a Berkeleyan idealist, a Kantian, a post-Kantian, a Hegelian, a phenomenalist, a postmodernist, a Kuhnian, a pragmaticist, and a pragmatist, but Nelson’s imaginary “Professor” is such a chimera. In fact you would be extremely unlikely to find anyone who combines even two of these, though I admit that conceivably could happen. On almost every page, the Professor says something that no professional philosopher would ever say.

The net effect of this portrayal of the Professor is to further emphasize Nelson’s misleading claim that anti-realism is the dominant, orthodox, or mainstream view. Since Nelson purports to be arguing for naive realism, it would be more appropriate to have the Professor as a representative realist, or perhaps to have five interlocutors, representative realist, naive realist, idealist, phenomenalist, and postmodernist—with the understanding that idealism was included as a historical curiosity.

The Specter of Postmodernism

Nelson begins her book by talking for some pages about postmodernism. Why does she do this?

There’s no agreement about the definition of ‘postmodernism and I won’t try to come up with an authoritative definition. I will say that postmodernism in philosophy, postmodernism in the arts, and postmodernism in discussions of popular culture, are often very different, and attempts (including attempts by some of their followers) to represent them as being aspects of a single movement don’t work. The word ‘postmodernism’ has different usages, and in some of the more popular areas, it may have little, if anything, to do with non-realism or non-objectivity.

In philosophy, postmodernism is usually taken to refer to several French philosophers (including Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard), but these writers don’t follow a single party line, and it’s hard to arrive at a single doctrine which they all advocate. As an example of variation in the use of the term, the ‘postmodernist’ writings of the cultural-Marxist (or perhaps former cultural-Marxist) literary theorist Fredric Jameson, immensely influential among students of literature and popular culture, advance a concept of postmodernism which has little in common with that of the French writers labeled postmodernist, or with the concept of postmodernism as equivalent to social constructivism and cultural relativism, or with any kind of non-realism.

Philosophical postmodernism is often identified with the claims that ‘reality is socially constructed’, ‘truth is culturally relative’, and ‘there is no truth, only various interpretations’. Here I’m going to accept these positions as a rough working definition of philosophical postmodernism, which seems to broadly agree with the way Nelson uses the word. In this sense, postmodernism can be seen as a form of non-realism, since it denies that there is a single objectively true account of facts. But postmodernism is very different from old-fashioned idealism.

Use of the word ‘postmodernism’ to denote a style or movement of philosophy dates from the 1970s, but postmodernism’s influence on American literary and culture studies began earlier, when it, or something like it, was called post-structuralism, deconstruction, social constructionism, or constructivism.

There’s no dispute that some writers commonly labeled postmodernist have said things which cause our eyebrows to elevate. To take the most famous example, when archeological researchers, after examining the mummy of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, concluded that he had probably died of tuberculosis, the French philosopher Bruno Latour, sometimes described as a postmodernist, objected that this finding must be wrong, because tuberculosis hadn’t yet been ‘constructed’ by medical science in ancient Egypt, and therefore couldn’t have existed at that time!

You misunderstand the situation in philosophy today if you don’t appreciate that the majority of philosophers, including French philosophers, view Latour’s assertion as totally hilarious, just as I do or just as Nelson (presumably) does. Notice that the way of thinking that leads Latour to suppose that tuberculosis didn’t exist until the medical concept of tuberculosis was ‘constructed’ is not like old-fashioned idealism and has nothing to do with skepticism about perception.

Scholars in literary and ‘cultural’ disciplines have lower IQs and less exacting standards than philosophers, and these disciplines are happy hunting grounds for Marxism, Freudianism, postmodernism, and other fanciful belief systems currently rejected by philosophers. (I wish I could add feminism and critical race theory, but I have to acknowledge that even professional philosophers are often susceptible to these unsightly conditions.) These disciplines taken together have a much higher head count than philosophy departments. (Last time I looked, some years ago but I doubt it has changed much, faculty and grad students in philosophy departments in the US amounted to about 7,000, whereas disciplines such as history, sociology, psychology, religion, and ‘culture studies’ each amounted to several times that number—I’m including women’s studies, African American studies, and so forth, among “culture studies.”)

Postmodernism is one of a succession of French philosophical tendencies, beginning with existentialism in the 1940s, which came into anglophone, mainly American, literary theory and from there into more popular discussion, largely bypassing anglophone philosophy. Generally speaking, these tendencies had proportionately far more support from American non-philosophers than from American philosophers or even from French philosophers. Most French philosophers were never existentialists and never post-modernists.

So, the recurring pattern is that a trendy but distinctly minority ‘coterie’ movement within French philosophy is transmitted into American literary and ‘culture’ disciplines, gets media attention, is swallowed by pundits, educational bureaucrats, and other ignoramuses, and is resoundingly rejected by American and British philosophers, who then occasionally offer criticisms of that tendency. (Perhaps even before World War II, Bergsonianism might have followed much the same pattern, but I don’t know enough to be sure of that.)

Nelson says: “Unfortunately postmodernists didn’t get that way on account of ignoring the teachings of the philosophy department, but on account of sincerely imbibing them. The terrible truth is that postmodernism is what happens when honest, intelligent people read the canonical philosophers and believe them” (p. x). This “terrible truth” is, at best, a wild and unsupported surmise, and Nelson offers no corroboration for it. But it does explain why Nelson begins her book with postmodernism even though the great majority of her book is not about postmodernism and the great majority of philosophers are not (in any sense) postmodernists.

Her claim is that postmodernism (though she acknowledges that most philosophers reject it) follows from what most philosophers believe, and that is, in her account, Hume’s and Kant’s views on perception. But it is not remotely accurate that postmodernists became postmodernists because of the Humean-Kantian views on perception they learned from “the teachings of the philosophy department.”

If it really were the case that postmodernism were due to Hume and Kant, we might wonder why the great majority of philosophers, familiar with Hume and Kant, have no time for postmodernism, while people in literary and ‘culture’ fields, knowing nothing about Hume or Kant, subscribe to postmodernism. We might also wonder why postmodernism waited till the 1960s to put in an appearance, instead of beginning in the eighteenth century.

The Downfall of Idealism

Indeed, we might take our curiosity about history further and wonder why non-realism in the form of idealism dominated English-language philosophy until the 1890s, and was then rapidly dislodged from this dominant position by Russell and Moore, since when representative realism (in various forms) has had considerably more influence. (Probably the major rival of representative realism would be phenomenalism, which I will not pursue here, except to say that it owes something to Hume and nothing to Kant.)

The story of how the dominance of idealism in anglophone philosophy was (rather dramatically and suddenly) overturned is told in Peter Hylton, Russell, Idealism, and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy. It’s true that Russell later moved to a position known as ‘neutral monism’, an attempt to avoid both idealism and realism but which Karl Popper claims is fundamentally similar to idealism (Realism and the Aim of Science, pp. 90–91). However most anglophone philosophers didn’t necessarily accept neutral monism and probably continued to embrace some form of representative realism. Many of them became materialists. We can define materialism (or ‘physicalism’) as realism plus the view that reality consists entirely of what used to be described as ‘matter in motion’ but is now more fashionably rendered as ‘particles in fields of force’.

A good insight into what happened to philosophy in the English-speaking world is provided by A.C. Ewing’s fine book of 1934, Idealism: A Critical Survey. Ewing was a realist, at a time when avowed idealism had become a rapidly dwindling minority among philosophers. He wanted to explain just what the disappearing idealism had been and why it was demonstrably incorrect, while preserving certain valuable insights he believed some idealists had contributed. Ewing’s book is a respectful autopsy on idealism; it gives a meticulous account of the arguments which had led earlier philosophers to embrace idealism, and the more recent counter-arguments which had led them to abandon idealism.

Many of these counter-arguments were not so much demonstrations that idealism was wrong as demonstrations that arguments in favor of idealism were flawed. Remember, Aristotelian or syllogistic logic had recently been replaced by modern logic, and this was a big deal.

One thing we should be clear about is that, historically, idealists were no less respectful of the objectivity of truth than realists. They didn’t suppose that they could make up the truth about reality according to their taste, or that any theory was as good as any other. They thought that the only reality we could know was constructed by our minds; they did not think that we had any discretionary control over the way this happened. Confronted with the contention that the Copernican account of the solar system is no more or less objectively accurate than the traditional account of some hunter-gatherer tribe (a view now commonly held in literary and culture-studies circles), Bradley, McTaggart, or Royce would have had pretty much the same response as Russell, Quine, or Searle, including astonishment that any functioning biped could countenance anything so ridiculous.

Idealism held that we’re not free to choose for ourselves the way in which the mind shapes reality: this is something involuntary, determined independently of our will. Idealists and realists would agree completely on the facts of astronomy, mechanics, or medicine; it’s just that idealists considered these facts to be inescapably and irreducibly molded or ordered by our minds, while realists maintained they were descriptions of a reality which was independent of our minds—though of course the descriptions themselves were products of our minds.

In one sense, idealism is the diametric opposite of postmodernism, because idealism holds that the necessary structure of the mind—the same for all minds and indeed for all possible minds—determines how we must inescapably conceive of the world, while postmodernism holds that different and contradictory ways of conceiving the world can be equally valid (a view that would have been quite baffling to idealists). This diametric opposition was understood by at least some of the originators of postmodernism, who deliberately included Kant and Hegel among the ‘moderns’ they were repudiating.

A Misleading Depiction

One of the misleading things about Nelson’s account is that she supposes that because Hume and Kant are ranked by knowledgeable people as outstanding philosophers, therefore philosophy students are encouraged to read them uncritically. This is ludicrously far from the case. No one is taught Hume or Kant in a philosophy course without being given a barrage of standard objections to their arguments. The student will be told about naive realism, representative realism, and perhaps two or three forms of non-realism, the points in favor of each of these positions and the points against. There will be explanations of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, including criticisms which explain why much of these authors’ work is not accepted by philosophers today.

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is acknowledged to be difficult (though no more difficult than, say, first-year college physics minus the math; Nelson’s contention, p. 143, that no one can make any sense of it is mistaken), and the student will probably use a short published ‘commentary’ or introductory guide. A short commentary will draw attention to things in Kant which can’t be accepted, things which are problematic because of specified objections, things where there is dispute about exactly what Kant meant (with attention to the vulnerability of what he meant on each interpretation), and so forth.

Anyone who regularly talks to a lot of faculty and grad students in philosophy departments knows that postmodernists are very thin on the ground, whereas they’re very thick in literary and ‘culture’ disciplines. The year before Quee’s book appeared, a little book by Paul Boghossian came out, Fear of Knowledge, straightforwardly debunking “relativism and constructivism” from a very conventional philosophical standpoint.

Here Boghossian points out that “anti-objectivist conceptions of truth and rationality” are generally rejected within academic philosophy, and as a result, there has been “a growing alienation of academic philosophy from the rest of the humanities and social sciences, leading to levels of acrimony and tension on American campuses that have prompted the label ‘Science Wars’” (Fear of Knowledge, p. 8).

Despite its simplicity and brevity, Boghossian’s book was favorably reviewed in prestigious philosophy journals. The review by Harvey Siegel concludes: “Boghossian has wise things to say concerning the contemporary split between ‘academic philosophy’, which by and large rejects the target views [relativism and constructivism], and the rest of the humanities and social sciences, which, unfortunately in Boghossian’s view as in my own, are far more welcoming of them.”

The truth is that contemporary philosophy tends to be realist and philosophers suffer because of their opposition to the fashionable anti-realism prevalent in other humanities disciplines. Meanwhile, Nelson spreads the story that mainstream academic philosophers are responsible for the non-realism of these non-philosophers, a story which is some considerable distance from the truth.

Nelson maintains that postmodernism derives its anti-realism from Hume and Kant and in general from skepticism about perception. But if you look at the arguments proponents of postmodernism offer for their anti-realism, you find that they appeal to cultural relativism and social constructivism, not to skepticism about perception, and if you look at current philosophical critiques of postmodernism, such as Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge, you find that they barely mention skepticism about perception.

To take another example, in his excellent little introductory book on metaphysics, Peter van Inwagen, a realist philosopher well acquainted with non-realist thinking gives an account of idealism, the arguments for it and against it (pp. 58–67), and here discusses skepticism about perception, and separately he gives an account of modern non-realism, what I have been calling postmodernism, the arguments for it and against it (pp. 93–108), and here he doesn’t mention skepticism about perception.

I have said that Nelson gives the false impression that anglophone philosophers are predominantly non-realist. Mostly she does this by innuendo and rhetorical spin, but on page xi, she offers two pieces of direct evidence for her claim.

The first is a reference to John Heil as cited in Michael Devitt’s book Realism and Truth. Heil reported in 1989 that the number of current books advocating anti-realism exceeded the number of pro-realist books. This doesn’t tell you how many philosophers belong in one camp or the other, and the realist Devitt seems to acknowledge (p. xii) that his earlier impression that anti-realism was “rampant” was mistaken.

The second piece of evidence Nelson reports as follows: “One of the latest books from Oxford University Press still assures us of “our epistemological enlightenment, where we have corrected our ordinary, naive view, and accepted that external items are not accessible to sense-perception.” Here Nelson conveys the impression that the stated view is alive and kicking among philosophers, and perhaps that being published by Oxford University Press is a seal of approval for a work’s conclusions.

The book referred to here is by John Foster (1941–2009), well known as that peculiar and possibly unique anomaly, a contemporary advocate of Berkeleyan idealism. Oxford University Press publishes dozens of philosophy books every year, few of them advocate anti-realism, and almost none of them advocates idealism. John Searle’s 2015 book advocating direct realism (naive realism) was also published by Oxford University Press.

If you do a quick online search for reviews by philosophers of Foster’s books, you’ll easily find half a dozen, and if you read them you’ll find that almost all the reviews mention, in passing, the odd, bizarre, or unfashionable nature of Foster’s idealist position.

So, Nelson’s reference to Foster is misleading, and it is part of a seriously misleading pattern.

Where Hume and Kant Were Coming From

David Hume (1711–1776) thought that “philosophy” showed that belief in a ‘real’ world, existing independently of our awareness of it, was unfounded and indefensible. Since Hume was by temperament a hard-headed Scot, he found himself unable to accept this conclusion. He never did accept it, and he spent much of his life discussing the world based on the assumption that realism is true.

As Hume himself puts it, though “profound and intense reflection” leads to skepticism anent the world of independently-existing physical entities, “carelessness and inattention” come to the rescue, and anyone briefly convinced by skeptical arguments will find himself returning to realism within an hour (A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 218).

This is often called “the Humean shrug.” Though he believes that “philosophy” demonstrates that realism is indefensible, he thinks we have no alternative to accepting realism, even though we can only do so on completely slapdash and illogical grounds, because our rational faculties are overpowered by habit and short attention span, which automatically cause us to accept realism as a practical matter. Hume found this conclusion unwelcome, but he couldn’t see any way out, and he went on to take realism for granted in all his writings on religion, history, society, and economics.

Hume’s starting point is empiricism in the strict sense. Empiricism in the strict sense is the view that all human knowledge comes from experience or observation, which involves relying on the evidence of our senses. We accumulate knowledge by observing the world around us and by performing logical operations on our observations. We have sensory experiences, and from these we deduce the existence of tables, chairs, mountains, stars, and the rest of it. We start with an empty mind, a ‘tabula rasa’ (blank slate), and anything that gets into our mind gets there from observation, and therefore comes through our sense organs, such as our eyes and ears.

‘Empiricism’ in the looser, everyday sense means that we should take empirical evidence very seriously. All schools of philosophy are empiricist in this platitudinous sense, and from now on I will use the word ‘empiricism’ to mean only strict or empty-mind empiricism.

The impulse behind empiricism is the conviction that our view of the world is, or ought to be, derived from evidence about the world, and should not be prejudiced by gratuitous preconceptions. Since our evidence about the world can (according to empiricism) only be the information we get through our senses, our view of the world has to be derived from what our senses tell us, and from that alone.

Empiricism thus gives rise to the empiricist project or challenge: show that our common-sense or scientific ideas about the world are or can be derived from our observations of the world, and from nothing else, by a process of pure deduction.

Hume concludes that this cannot be done, that we can’t get, by any rationally defensible method, from accumulated observations (or sensory experiences) alone to a common-sense theory of the world (involving material objects, space and time, arithmetic, cause and effect, and so forth). For example, no observation of the world can ever, by itself, give us good evidence for causation. Hume acknowledges that some truths, such as 2 + 2 = 4, can be established by logical analysis, without any appeal to experience. But these are what Hume calls “relations of ideas,” not specific claims about material reality.

Since empiricists normally start out by wanting to be able to accept realism, empiricists down the centuries have labored long and hard to come up with a defensible way to reason from the evidence of the senses to the existence of physical entities (from now on let’s stipulate physical objects, except where otherwise stated, as the easiest type of physical entities to talk about).

Unfortunately for the empiricist project, once we accept that everything has to be deduced from the evidence of our senses, what ultimately must follow is that all our knowledge about the world is inferred from or constructed from our sensory experience. But since all our experiences are necessarily subjective and mental, this seems to imply that our view of the world is composed of elements that are subjective and mental. Thus, empiricism has sometimes led to idealism, the view that the world (or of any aspect of the world we can think about and talk about) is itself made up of subjective mental elements.

Some philosophers, to this day, agree with Hume throughout (only in broad outline, of course; all Hume scholars accept numerous detailed criticisms of Hume). They are empiricists who agree that empiricism shows realism to be rationally indefensible and they agree that we are in practice bound to accept realism, and thus they defend the “Humean shrug.” Hence the realist Willard Quine’s remark that “The Humean predicament is the human predicament” (quoted by Nelson, p. 38). Others are still trying to find a way to rehabilitate empiricism by reasoning from observations alone to an objective world of physical objects, or in other words, by demonstrating that induction can be valid. Some still hope to refute Hume’s demonstration of the impossibility of valid induction by deriving induction from Bayes’s theorem (a well-known theorem in probability theory). Good luck with that.

Quee’s Student and Professor make a total hash of Hume’s problem of induction. The Student comes out with inane remarks, and the Professor, since he is just Quee’s other glove-puppet, has no idea what to say and burbles irrelevantly. Nelson’s Student triumphantly asserts that something can be logically possible but physically impossible (p. 210), as though this were something Hume hadn’t thought of! Of course, Hume’s point here is precisely that the conclusion that something is physically impossible can never be deduced from observations alone.

Where do we get the notion that anything is physically impossible? It’s not a truth of logic, so according to empiricism, it must be derived from observation. What Hume has seen is that the claim that something is physically impossible is a conclusion supposedly derived from a finite number of instances, applied to an infinite number of instances. As we might say today, it is a conclusion derived from an infinitesimal bit of spacetime, applied to all of spacetime. Any such supposed inference is deductively invalid. (It is invalid according to modern logic and it is also invalid according to the more primitive and incomplete Aristotelian or syllogistic logic known to Hume.) So, Hume’s question is: What’s the basis for this conclusion, since it is not a truth of logic nor a logical inference from observations? A universal generalization, such as a scientific law or a piece of folk wisdom, can never be deduced from observations alone.

Hume demonstrates the incompatibility of empiricism and realism, but Hume doesn’t address the fact that this conclusion leaves it open which of these is to be discarded. He seemed to take for granted that empiricism is equivalent to “philosophy,” or at least, to high-quality philosophy. However, instead of rejecting realism, we can consider rejecting empiricism.

If empiricism be discarded, then we don’t have to start with an empty mind which is then filled with information from observations. We can start with a mind which, before it experiences anything, is already furnished with preconceptions or expectations. According to this approach, the human mind is not a blank slate at birth; it has plenty already written on it (by billions of years of natural selection, but neither Hume nor Kant knew that), and without that stuff that’s already written on it, the mind would be unable to form a picture of the world.

If this is right, then to defend realism requires abandoning empiricism. One way to abandon empiricism is to say that the mind is not tabula rasa but has built-in preconceptions. We can’t form a mental picture of nature without putting something of ourselves into our picture of nature, right from the get-go. This is what Kant thinks, and to this extent, Kant is right.

Kant maintains that the mind comes equipped with general faculties which impose ‘categories’ on our experience. These categories include time, space, causation, and number. Kant holds that, since these concepts cannot be logically derived from the data of experience, they must be already innate in the mind. He considers them indispensable preconditions to having meaningful experiences of the world, and not themselves logically derivable from experience of the world. This leads him to make a distinction between noumena (things in themselves) and phenomena (things as they appear to us in experience). We can’t experience things without ordering them according to the categories, and so we can never get at pure ‘things in themselves’ (things as they are before they are ordered by the categories).

Kant maintains that all observations are the combined product of external reality and mind-imposed ‘categories’, and that we cannot get anywhere by questioning these categories. For instance, we can’t conceive of objects existing without their existing in space. We cannot but conceive of objects as positioned in space, and we cannot question the fundamental nature of spatial relationships, because our minds are so constructed that we can only make sense of the world by thinking of it in terms of spatial relationships. Later neo-Kantians got rid of ‘things in themselves’, and thus became more unambiguous idealists, but this was a departure from Kant.

Everyone now accepts that no one can defend original Kantianism, not only because of the anti-idealist arguments of Russell and Moore in the 1890s and 1900s, but also because of Einstein’s revolution in physics. One of Kant’s assumptions (a very widely held assumption in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) is that Newton’s theory of celestial mechanics simply has to be true. Newton’s theory includes the Euclidean conception of space. We now accept that Newton’s theory is false and that space is not Euclidean.

Euclid is correct in the sense that the theorems follow from the axioms, but the axioms do not correctly map reality. Euclid’s world is fictional and therefore Newton’s world is fictional. The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line and the square of the hypotenuse is not equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, because spacetime is curved, something which Kant assumes that we can never seriously entertain as a possibility. Because of this, present-day Kantian metaphysicians like Michael Friedman have to accept that the ‘bounds of sense’ are much less constraining than Kant allowed, though they persist in maintaining that there are some bounds there.

If empty-mind empiricism can’t give us realism, whereas we can hope to get to realism by accepting that the human mind has built-in preconceptions, one possible conclusion, at first glance a very natural one, would be that some kind of guarantee of the truth of some propositions, perhaps very general propositions, is innate in the mind. That’s the way Kant reasoned.

But this step of Kant’s is mistaken, according to critical rationalism. Critical rationalism combines the ‘Kantian’ view that the mind has to contribute something logically prior to all experience with the ‘empiricist’ view that there are no guarantees of the truth of any claims about the way the world is, even the most general claims. (For a clear exposition of the critical rationalist position, as it emerges from the criticism and refutation of Hume and Kant, see Realism and the Aim of Science, pp. 31–88.)

(There is much more to Kant than I am mentioning here. For example, I am saying nothing about his argument from the “antinomies” or his use of the transcendental type of argument, both of which give him additional reasons to reject pure empiricism and supplement empiricism with self-evident truths known independently of experience.)

Critical rationalists say that Kant is right to conclude that the mind cannot make sense of the world unless it has built-in preconceptions which it tries to impose upon the world, but Kant is wrong in thinking that these preconceptions have to take the form of unquestionable, immovable truths. From a critical rationalist point of view, humans have an innate drive to jump to conclusions about the world, a thirst to believe in theories, along with the capacity to abandon any individual theory and replace it with a new and different theory. These theories can’t be inferred (by any valid logical process) from experience but can be suggested by experience, and once formed, can sometimes conflict with experience, and therefore can be tested against experience, possibly leading to their abandonment and replacement with new theories.

The mind is not a passive recipient of observations, but is an active explorer. Any active explorer has to begin with expectations or preconceptions. Observation must always be preceded by theory (including the unconscious theories which we only become aware that we held when they are surprisingly contradicted by experience).

The Ascent from Naivity to Physics

A classic argument against naive realism is the illusion of the bent stick. A straight stick half immersed in water looks (to someone with no prior experience of half-immersed sticks and not having been told about optics) as if it were bent. Usually, most of us learn at some point in childhood that the stick is not really bent, even though it looks bent.

Nelson’s Student has a fine old time ridiculing this point by appealing to the fact that most of us have experience of half-immersed sticks or have been told about optics (pp. 56–64). But this entirely misses the point. (Indeed, it implicitly denies the point, which is absurd. A straight stick half-immersed in water does indeed look bent.) It is question-begging to appeal to the common-sense conclusions we have accepted, as data, when what we are evaluating is precisely the claim that those conclusions were arrived at invalidly—that there is no logically sound way to get from experience to those conclusions.

Learning that the bent-looking stick is straight is one of many corrections we make to the infant’s ‘naive realism’ as we go through life. Another well-known case is the understanding that objects in the distance look smaller because they are further away. This understanding is not automatic but has to be discovered.

Traditionally, the BaMbuti Pygmies lived in the forest and never left it, their visibility always restricted to about a hundred yards. Colin Turnbull went to live among the BaMbuti to study them, and he took one of them outside the forest to the plains:

“As we turned to get back in the car, Kenge looked over the plains and down to where a herd of about a hundred buffalo were grazing some miles away. He asked me what kind of insects they were, and I told him they were buffalo, twice as big as the forest buffalo known to him. He laughed loudly and told me not to tell such stupid stories, and asked me again what kind of insects they were. He then talked to himself, for want of more intelligent company, and tried to liken the buffalo to the various beetles and ants with which he was familiar.

“He was still doing this when we got into the car and drove down to where the animals were grazing. He watched them getting larger and larger, and though he was as courageous as any Pygmy, he moved over and sat close to me and muttered that it was witchcraft. . . . Finally when he realized that they were real buffalo he was no longer afraid, but what puzzled him still was why they had been so small, and whether they really had been small and had suddenly grown larger, or whether it had been some kind of trickery.”

I grew up in England, where ambulances have a clearly marked two-note siren. As a child, I was vaguely aware that when an ambulance went by me, the pitch of its siren would drop. (According to my recollection, the fall in pitch was well over a whole-tone, in fact nearly a third, but this seems incredible now, and perhaps my memory has exaggerated it. Of course, the exact drop would depend upon how fast the ambulance was going.) I am sorry to say that I never figured out by myself that the drop in pitch was an illusion, caused by the fact that things emitting a sound and moving away from the hearer are perceived as having a lower pitch than things emitting the same sound and moving towards the hearer. It was only when I read about the Doppler Effect that it suddenly dawned on me that this was the explanation of something I had heard many times without paying attention (and, by the way, that I was an idiot). I surmise that there might even be some adults who never learn this, and continue to think that the pitch of a sound has dropped when really it has remained the same.

When I was four or five, I spent the summer with my grandparents in Rothesay, Isle of Bute. Walking with my grandfather I pointed to the sky and said “What are those white things?” He looked at me intently and said “Clouds,” or since he was a Scot, “Cloods.” I surmise he had a puzzle. Was I seriously retarded, or could it be that children from English cities had never seen clouds?

I had a puzzle, which, being an introvert and half-Scots, I would never mention. Did he mistake my question as referring to those big fluffy white things which were, obviously, duh, clouds? Or was he correctly answering my question, and was it the case that those objects I was asking about really were a special, rare type of cloud? Soon after this, I came to understand that these small semi-translucent circular white objects were not in the sky at all, but in my visual apparatus, that they were ‘floaters’ (and, by the way, that I was an idiot). My sharp awareness of the floaters was temporarily enhanced by the unusual experience of a ‘big sky’, undistracted by buildings, tall trees, or other objects.

We repeatedly make corrections to our picture or theory of the world, as we learn by trial and error to interpret the evidence of our senses more accurately. The naive realism of the toddler gives way to the less naive realism of the adult, and then to the even less naive realism of the scientifically informed adult.

You might wonder what happens in the first few weeks, months, and years following birth. We have recently come to know a lot about this, thanks to Alison Gopnik and her colleagues. The answer is that even more elementary ways of interpreting the world have to be learned by conjecture and refutation, or trial and error, the only way they could be arrived at. The fact that objects can continue to exist when they disappear from view has to be discovered by trial and error. Some of these things we learn so fast that it seems likely we have an inborn proclivity to learn them. For example, contrary to what used to be supposed (on the basis of armchair speculation), the baby understands he is an individual separate from the rest of the world by no later than the first few weeks after birth.

We learn from science that the Sun does not move across the sky, instead, the appearance of the Sun’s movement arises because the Earth is spinning. The stars do not twinkle; the appearance of twinkling is due to the interference of our planet’s atmosphere. We sometimes see a rainbow in the sky but there is no object there, corresponding to this rainbow; it’s a trick of the light. There is no pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow, not just because there are no leprechauns, but because there is no foot of the rainbow. There is no water in the desert in the experience of witnessing a mirage; another trick of the light. A pain in my toe is not in my toe at all; my brain makes a map of my body and the pain is in the ‘toe’ part of that map—hence, I can experience a completely genuine pain in my toe even if my legs have been amputated.

As we learn more and more, our realism becomes less and less naive. Educated people take for granted that the vast majority of the volume of a solid object such as a granite rock is empty space, and that there is more heat in an iceberg than in a red-hot poker, though these assertions, now common sense among the scientifically literate, would have sounded like mystical riddles as recently as two hundred years ago.

Bertrand Russell famously made the remark, quoted by Nelson, that “Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false.” (The Slightest Philosophy, p. 68).

Russell was fond of paradoxical-sounding bons mots, but the truth stated here, slightly misleadingly for paradoxical effect, is not a genuine paradox. When science corrects naive realism, the scientist replaces naive realism with a less naive realism, and this is in principle no different from the corrections a normal adult non-scientist has been making all her life. When a correction is made, all the previous observational history of the person making the correction is re-interpreted. Some parts or aspects of the earlier naive realism are preserved in the not-so naive realism that supplants it. The person, so to speak, checks to make sure that nothing she did when getting to the new theories relies upon the now discarded parts of the old theories.

Science refutes many notions held by naive realists, but it does so in such a way that we can (and do) adapt our common-sense notions to certain corrections by science. In doing so, science explains the partial or approximate truths contained in our early version of naive realism. It is a key part of critical rationalism that false theories, including theories once held to be true but now acknowledged to be refuted, can continue to be very useful.

The air of paradox in the Russell quote arises from our tendency to read it as saying that science is somehow indebted to uninformed naive realism. Although this is true in terms of chronological progression, it is not true in terms of the logic of statements. By the time someone is undertaking scientific enquiry, they have corrected and replaced their earlier naive realism. Thus the statement “Naive realism leads to physics” is parallel to “The belief that the Earth is stationery leads to the belief that the Earth is moving,” or “Newton’s theory of gravity leads to Einstein’s.”

Common sense is a set of theories of how things are, and as we become more scientifically educated, we understand that common sense uninformed by science includes false theories which require correction, though often false theories that have some workable approximation to the truth within a limited range. But a new common sense emerges among scientifically educated people. The new common sense is less naive than the common sense of the scientifically illiterate. The old picture is abandoned and the new picture is closer to the truth.

The new-born baby’s naive realism is corrected and revised, eventually leading to the very different naive realism of the toddler, which is further corrected and revised leading to the very different naive realism of the adult. If the adult paid attention in high-school science (and if the teacher still teaches any science instead of leftist ideology), his realism will be even more different and his conception of the world even more accurate. But the picture always remains incomplete; it may be indefinitely modified and improved.

If we ever get an opportunity, it would be fruitful to analyze the ‘common sense’ of a feral human, such as one raised by wolves. (Thanks to the techniques developed by Gopnik and others, we can now analyze what babies, and presumably feral humans, think about the world, even though we can’t literally ask them.) Past incidents of this phenomenon seem to show that the feral human is, once past a certain age, permanently unable to learn some aspects of even the most naive form of normal adult ‘common sense’. I conjecture that such a research project would find that exposure to language is essential for arriving at the adult’s naive common-sense view of the world. If so, this would indicate that mere observations of physical objects would never be enough for the child to acquire the rudiments of common-sense understanding. Even the most naive common sense of which we are normally aware is a highly elaborate theoretical system that might require an input from culture, especially language. If this were true, it would predict that a child raised from birth by a single adult in an isolated cottage, where the adult didn’t talk much, would be mentally retarded.

The Semantic Argument for Naive Realism

Nelson has an argument, which she apparently thinks is an argument for naive realism, which I can summarize as follows:

Skeptics have claimed that when we think we see external physical objects, what we really see are impressions, or appearances, or sensations, or sense-data from which we infer the existence of external physical objects. But this is wrong because we really do see external physical objects.

Her Chapter 3 is particularly concerned with this issue, though it makes numerous appearances elsewhere in her book.

The thing you have to be clear about when approaching any argument like this is that it is semantic. It’s not talking about the way things are in the world, independently of our discussion, but only about the rules governing the way we talk about things in the world. Here the assertion is that we’re not allowed to use the verbs ‘see’ or ‘perceive’ in a particular way, even though that way is part of actual English usage. If you fail to grasp this point, you will be bewitched by mere words and unable to talk any sense about actual perception.

The simple fact is that in English, we can use ‘see’ or ‘perceive’ either to refer to the experience of seeing or perceiving, or to refer to the experience of seeing or perceiving when that experience is appropriately linked to the existence of an independently-existing object seen or perceived.

Nelson supposes that the word ‘see’ must be used either for seeing a physical object (when it’s really there, and the appropriate causal connections between the object and our visual apparatus are in place), or for having the experience of seeing a physical object (when this might be a hallucination, and the object might not be really there, or the appropriate causal connections might not be in place).

In correct English, the word ‘see’ can be used for both, and it has several other meanings too (such as ‘understand’, ‘ensure’, or ‘match a bet’). Many words in natural languages have several meanings, sometimes related, though distinct, other times not obviously related. Take the word ‘table’ for instance. And I recently wrote an article in which I discussed two quite different though related meanings of the word ‘fact’.

Nelson’s “Student” and “Professor” go on for page after page arguing to no effect because they don’t acknowledge the simple truth that the word ‘see’ has both meanings in English. This is allowing yourself to be bewitched by words.

Nelson says that “if the relationship between your brain and your retina is called ‘seeing’, then we’re going to need a new word to refer to the relationship between your eyeball and a boat on the horizon” (p. 53). No, that is simply a false statement about English usage. We have to accept that, in the English language, the word ‘see’ has more than one meaning, just as many other words do. The word ‘see’ can be a phenomenological report, describing a subjective experience, or it can be a claim to have had that subjective experience in an appropriate causal relation to a real external object.

Both uses or senses of ‘seeing’ occur in English. It’s somewhat ironic that Nelson gives a chapter the title “Seeing Things.” ‘Seeing things’ is a standard and very common term in English for hallucinating—seeing things that aren’t there and don’t exist at all.

It’s a fact about the English language that ‘see’ has more than one meaning, and can be used to apply to subjective visual experiences with no external correlate. If you were instructing a foreigner learning English that the word ‘see’ could not be used in this way, you would be telling him an untruth and impairing his grasp of English.

You might wish that ‘see’ did not have this meaning in English (and the corresponding term in, at least, all closely related languages I’m aware of, such as French, German, and Spanish). You might propose that we adopt a different convention for epistemological discussions, and get rid of this meaning of ‘see’. This is what some philosophers, including some quoted by Nelson, have proposed. You might even make this proposal as a linguistic change in the English language, the way some folks advocate that we should load the language up with 272 pronouns to stand for 272 ‘genders’. But as things are, the use of ‘see’ to denote the experience of awareness of a mental image is normal, correct English.

The fact that there is a logical gap between our experience of seeming to perceive an external object and the actual existence of the external physical object is not a fact that can be made to go away by any mere analysis of terminology.

Since I was reviewing Nelson’s book, I skimmed through John Searle’s recent book in which he advocates naive realism, though he prefers to call it “direct realism.” Searle is an outstanding philosopher and I was much impressed by his work on intentionality and on consciousness (though I was already prepared for the possibility that he might screw up badly, because of his really terrible attempt to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’.)

I found that he has an argument essentially the same as Nelson’s. Searle says that we “directly” perceive external physical objects, and that when we mistakenly think we’re perceiving an object (mistaken because there’s really no object there) we’re not actually perceiving anything.

This argument, in its Nelsonian or Searlian form, is a linguistic or semantic argument. It is pure talk about talk, and even as such it is false. It claims that what we mean by ‘seeing’ is seeing an external physical object, and that therefore it must be wrong to say that we ‘really see’ some intermediate mental entity between ourselves and the external physical object. This is simply a false allegation about correct English usage. Other writers, some of them quoted by Searle, who say that we only ‘see’ in the sense of having a visual experience, and that we don’t really see external objects, are of course equally wrong.

Thus Nelson’s and Searle’s arguments (really the same argument) fail. We can be said to see something intermediate between the object and ourselves. But also, it’s not essential to talk that way. In other words, it’s a fact about English that ‘seeing’ (in one sense) can be used as synonymous with ‘seeming to see’ (where ‘see’ has another sense). We can put the same point differently by saying, for example, by saying that we can have the same visual experience whether or not there is really some external object (and precisely the appropriate external object) causing that visual experience. Whether or not we choose to say that the experience without the object is a case of ‘seeing’ is simply a question of freedom of choice within linguistic convention and gives us no information whatsoever about perception or epistemology.

The fact that the Nelson-Searle argument is purely semantic can be confirmed by translating the traditional discussion of perception, including the arguments for representative realism, into Nelsonian or Searlian terminology. Instead of saying that we ‘see’ an immediate ‘object’ of sensory experience, we can say that we ‘seem to see’ or that we have ‘a visual experience of’. The arguments are unchanged by this translation, and still make the same sense, confirming that the Nelson-Searle argument is exclusively about the meanings of words.

Other Arguments for Direct Realism

Searle, of course, gives other arguments for what he calls direct realism, and I won’t try to cover most of them here. I will mention one argument, because it’s very simple, and he finds it completely convincing while I find it totally unpersuasive. The same argument is given by Armstrong—both of them acknowledge getting it from Berkeley (who used it to argue against representative realism and therefore in favor of non-realism).

Searle’s argument is that representative realism claims that the sense data (or whatever we want to call the subjective experience of perceiving) resemble the object perceived. He says this can’t be right because the object perceived is invisible and undetectable except via the sense data, therefore the sense data and the object cannot be said to resemble each other. He claims this is like saying I have two cars in the garage which resemble each other even though one is completely invisible (Seeing Things as They Are, pp. 225–26).

But how can Searle avoid saying that the experience we have of seeing something has some resemblance to the object seen? If it doesn’t, it can’t allow us to conclude that we are ‘seeing things as they are’, can it?

Anyway, this argument proves too much, because it rules out all cases of becoming aware of B through awareness of A, where there is no other way to become aware of B. Searle’s argument would imply that it must always be wrong to say that a model we have mentally constructed of some phenomenon we have detected resembles the phenomenon. And this is trivially false.

For example, consider the technique of observing the structure of deep layers of the Earth by means of tomography. (Think of the guy looking at the computer screen in Dante’s Peak.) There is no other way to observe this structure except through tomography, but we don’t therefore conclude it’s meaningless to say that the graphic which appears on the screen resembles the structure of the deeper levels of the Earth.

You might object to this that it is not a pure case of perception, since we are using normal vision to look at the graph on the computer screen. This is actually irrelevant, but if it bothers you, imagine that, some time in the future, when for some reason it becomes vitally important to be aware of changes in the structure of deep levels of the Earth, people’s brains are wired to the tomography equipment, so that they don’t look at a screen but just see the graphic as a visual experience. People would be perceiving the structure of deep layers of the Earth, by dint of the fact that they were having a subjective experience of seeing something which resembled the deep layers of the Earth. Searle would have to say they are directly perceiving the deep layers of the Earth and Nelson would have to say they are naively seeing them.

After all, what does ‘resemblance’ mean, in the context of perception? It means that the mental entity gives us information about the external entity perceived. For example, a histogram showing the weight by age of the US population resembles the distribution of weight by age in the US population, and we can say this because the former gives us information about the latter. Again, if it bothers you, imagine that people’s brains are wired to the output of the research organization which collects and processes this statistical data, and they then have the experience of seeing a histogram. We would then be perceiving the distribution of weight by age in the US population, and we could say that our experience of perceiving the histogram (which would exist only inside our skulls) resembles the actual distribution of weight by age in the US population, something that we would have no other means of observing.

Someone might feebly object that providing information is not the same as resemblance, but in that case we can say that representative realists don’t need to employ the word ‘resemblance’. The representative realist can simply say that the experience of seeing, when it is veridical, gives us information about the object seen.

We come up with the hypothesis that physical objects exist, in order to make sense of our subjective experiences of perception. Generally, we come up with this hypothesis in our first couple of weeks outside the womb. How can that seriously be disputed?

If I have two cars in the garage, one of which is invisible, and we’re thinking about the hypothesis that properties of the visible car are caused by properties of the invisible car, then it makes perfect sense to say that the visible car resembles the invisible car. This assertion would be the statement of a hypothesis, a guess, a surmise, a conjecture, of course. But all our statements or beliefs about the world are hypotheses, guesses, surmises, or conjectures. They can never be anything else, or so I surmise.

The title of Searle’s book is Seeing Things as They Are. But this might be taken as hyperbole. Aside from optical illusions, which are everywhere, our perceptions are highly selective: we don’t see an object’s mass, chemical composition, electrical charge, radio-activity, ultra-violet ‘color’, or temperature. There could be an organism which saw all these, but did not see size, shape, or color in the human-visible range. Presumably such an organism would, according to Searle, also be seeing things directly (or, according to Nelson, naively) and ‘as they are’, even though its visual experience or sense-data would be very different from ours. Presumably a bat which perceives objects by echolocation also perceives things, naively or directly, as they are. And the same goes for a dragonfly or a paramecium. So, there could be many quite distinct ways of ‘seeing things as they are’ which were vastly different. I won’t say this is an incorrect use of the phrase ‘seeing things as they are’, but it’s a bit different from the most natural and immediate understanding of that phrase, according to which there would be just one form of visual appearance which could be called ‘seeing things as they are’. In that sense, there is no such thing as seeing things as they are, and never conceivably could be, because there are many different ways of seeing things, not one of them privileged over the others. In that sense, we can only see things as they are represented, though we can speculate about the accuracy of the representation, and even subject it to tests, perhaps improving it.

Is There Some Representational Entity between Perceiver and Perceived Object?

People who defend naive or direct realism sometimes frame it like this: when we perceive a physical object, there is nothing, such as a mental state or distinctive subjective experience, intermediate between us and the object.

This strikes me as so absurd that it is not even intelligible. Nonetheless, naive or direct realists do tend to use turns of phrase that evoke it. They seem uncomfortable with any admission that there is anything which might be called sensa or sense-data. The vague notion that it’s possible to deny the existence of any ‘intermediate entity’ may be what unconsciously lies behind the appeal to the purely semantic argument I refuted earlier.

Nelson agrees that “it’s hard to object to the claim that we can perceive an oncoming freight train only by means of data we have gathered by means of our senses” (p. 14). Indeed, very hard! This looks like a grudging admission that sense-data do exist, but one page later, Nelson refers to “representationalist reifications,” insinuating that the data we have gathered by means of our senses don’t really exist. (To reify is to culpably treat an abstraction as though it had concrete existence.) As we read on, later in her book, we continue to get the feeling that Nelson has a hard time letting go of the ‘absolutely unmediated’ theory.

Some naive realists apparently feel that if they grant the existence of something intermediate, such as a person’s subjective experience identical to that involved in perceiving an external object, they will have given the representative realist a foot in the door. That’s right!

Historically, some sense-data theorists got themselves into a pickle because, being mostly materialists, they felt they had to try and explain sense-data in terms of the physics of perceptual processes. If my experience of seeing a tree is not the tree (obviously correct), and not in the tree (also obviously correct), then perhaps it’s somewhere in my optical apparatus, such as in my retinas or in my brain. Hence the many different views and coined jargons in this area. But I would say that we might not yet know enough about subjective mental processes to explain them in worked-out physical specifics. (There can be little dispute that the subjective experience of perception occurs somewhere inside the perceiver’s skull.)

We can explain the essential point here and elsewhere in purely phenomenological terms (we can stick to the subjective experience without trying to translate it into physics or physiology). Whether we see a tree or have a hallucination of seeing a tree, we have a certain type of visual experience. The visual experience is common to seeing a tree and hallucinating seeing a tree. (It’s also common to a third type of possibility, for instance that we’re seeing a hologram of a tree.) That visual experience of seeing something is the kind of thing that used to be called a sense-datum. The term ‘sense-datum’ is currently still in some bad odor (which arose because of many philosophers’ involvement, in the 1950s and 1960s, with the vogue for ‘linguistic philosophy’ or ‘ordinary-language philosophy’, derived from J.L. Austin and the later Wittgenstein). I don’t care whether we rehabilitate it or drop it. We can call it a perceptual-seeming experience, or whatever. It is something that objectively exists, as any subjective experience objectively exists, and in the case where the perception is veridical, it is intermediate between the perceiver and the external object perceived.

I will briefly mention one elementary blunder often made by naive or direct realists I have talked with. They think that seeing something on television, or in a mirror, or through a telescope is indirect whereas seeing something with the naked eye is ‘direct’. This distinction is bogus. If seeing something with the naked eye is direct, then seeing something on television, or in a mirror, or through a telescope must be direct.

I see some things with the aid of spectacles. I could use contact lenses. Or I could have laser surgery on the lenses of my eyes. It should be obvious that there is no distinction in principle between these three. My body has equipment, and it can make no difference in principle if I artificially modify or augment my body’s equipment. When Armstrong or Searle call themselves ‘direct realists’, the directness does not lie in the causal process of perception, but in the alleged non-existence of the sensory experience as an object of perception.

Some deaf people can be cured of their deafness by installing a cochlear implant in their skull. This equipment works on completely different principles than the natural human apparatus of hearing. But, after a bit of practice by the patient, the result (when the operation is successful) is very similar (as described in Michael Chorost’s book Rebuilt). It is clear that we can’t reasonably say that the cochlear implant is any more or less direct than the natural system. Artificiality in itself does not make perception any less direct (and epistemology fails unless it easily encompasses cyborgs).

If any perception is direct, then all perception is direct. However, as a matter of fact, all conscious perception is indirect, and can only be indirect, in the sense that the experience of perception is not the external object perceived, and persons do conjecture the existence of the external object perceived to account for their experiences of perception.

Is This a Hallucination which I See Before Me?

In an attempt to head off the implications of the fact that people sometimes hallucinate—seeing things that aren’t there—Nelson (through her glove-puppet Student) maintains that hallucinations are always misinterpretations of something that’s really there (pp. 74–75). So there are no genuine hallucinations, only misinterpretations of things perceived. This bold claim heroically contradicts everything that psychologists know about hallucinations.

For example, there are about one million sufferers from Parkinson’s Disease in the US, and over a third of them experience hallucinations, most commonly seeing someone they know who isn’t really there, often someone who has died (Oliver Sacks thinks that these hallucinations are not due to the disease, but to the medications). These Parkinson patients see a real person, large as life, in complete detail, every hair in place, a few feet away from themselves.

Are these sick people misinterpreting a speck of dust or a ray of light as a human being? There’s no evidence for this, and if it were true, the gap between the objective stimulus and the hallucinated object would be enormous; for most purposes the situation would be the same as an apparent perception with no external stimulus at all.

In any case, arguing for skepticism about perception by appealing to hallucinations or illusions is ultimately merely illustrative and rhetorical. If, as far as we could tell, perception were always one hundred percent veridical, there would still be a logical gap between the subjective experience of perceiving an object and the independent existence of that object, though I admit it might then be tougher, as a practical matter, to get anyone interested in that fact.

Searle says that he prefers the term ‘direct realism’ to ‘naive realism’, because ‘naive realism’ has become associated with a group of philosophers known as disjunctivists (Seeing Things as They Are, p. 15). The fact that Nelson seems to deny that one can have the same subjective experience when hallucinating as when seeing a real object makes me surmise that possibly Nelson is a disjunctivist. But since I haven’t read much of the literature on disjunctivism and since Nelson’s definition of naive realism is so very obscure, I’m not sure of that.

Armstrong’s Three Arguments against Representationalism

I have said that Armstrong’s 1961 book is the best statement I have seen of a case for direct or naive realism. Armstrong starts by assuming that in the theory of perception there are three live alternatives, representative realism, direct realism, and phenomenalism. Armstrong has a chapter on the refutation of phenomenalism (much of which I agree with) and a chapter on the refutation of representative realism, in which he presents three arguments.

First, he says that according to the claim that sense-impressions are the only immediate objects of perception, we can have no reason to believe that there are physical objects. But, as I have pointed out, talk about what is or is not an immediate object of perception (or immediately perceived) is nothing more than talk about talk. If we recast the same point in different language, we remain with a logical gap between experience and external objects, and so the same objection applies to direct realism. The direct realist does not deny that a subjective experience of perception is essential to perception, nor that the subjective experience of perception is not the external object perceived, nor that the properties of the subjective experience of perception are not the properties of the external object perceived.

Armstrong states that if the representative theory is correct, “we have no evidence at all for passing from the immediate perception of sense-impressions to the mediate perception of physical objects” (p. 29). This is pure Hume, and as far as it goes, properly interpreted, it is perfectly correct.

Armstrong then considers the point that although we have no inductive evidence of the existence of the physical world, “we might form the hypothesis of the existence of the physical world; and, having formed it, we might find that it served to explain the regularities and irregularities in the flow of our sense-impressions” (p. 30). This is excellent, but Armstrong avoids the natural conclusion with the following interesting passage:

“The objection seems just, and blunts the edge of the argument. But it does not turn it altogether. For surely we are not prepared to degrade bodies into hypotheses? We want to say that our assurance of the existence of the physical world is far stronger than any assurance we could obtain by indirectly confirming a theory. If the Representative theory were true, it would be proper to have a lurking doubt about the existence of the physical world. Yet such a doubt does not seem to be proper” (p. 30).

This passage begins with a careless slip, since it is not bodies themselves which are being “degraded” into hypotheses, but our assertion or belief or theory that there are bodies. We may want to say that our assurance of this or that is stronger than any assurance we could obtain by indirectly confirming a theory, but if so, that want must be forever unrequited. The assurance we get from indirectly confirming a theory is the strongest possible assurance for any statement or belief. That’s as strong as it gets. Some might say that logical truths are stronger, and I don’t dismiss that out of hand, however no one claims that the existence of physical objects is a logical truth. The whole passage tends to confound our subjective feelings of conviction with what we can logically demonstrate.

Armstrong’s second argument is the one about resemblance, which I have already refuted in reference to Searle. And again, the essentially semantic nature of the question as posed by Armstrong and Searle means that the objection simply reappears with direct realism, for, setting aside the language of direct and indirect perception, the fact remains that the subjective experience of perception has qualities quite different from the objective properties of physical objects. This logical gap cannot be made to go away, which is of course why we ought to acknowledge that the subjective experience represents the physical object.

Armstrong’s third argument I find difficult to understand. He claims that it makes no sense to think of a physical object that can in no way be “immediately perceived” (p. 33). Again, this is leaning heavily on the semantics. He says that we can’t say that all perception of external objects is mediate, because this implies that they could be immediate, and if they could be immediate they must sometimes be immediate (that doesn’t sound like a fair summary, as it is so obviously wrong, but it is the best I can make of what he says on p. 33).

This kind of reasoning is fallacious. Just as we can entertain the possibility that there are no disembodied minds, no living things that don’t respire, or no particles lacking relativistic mass, so we can entertain the possibility that there are no examples of conscious perception without a subjective representation which is distinct from the external object perceived (but which conveys information about the object perceived and in that sense resembles it).

Political Implications of Epistemology

Views like Nelson’s have often been prevalent among libertarians, usually stemming from Ayn Rand, though as far as I noticed (Nelson has no index) Rand is not mentioned by Nelson. And I don’t know whether Rand, though she was certainly extremely naive in some ways, would have admitted to being a naive realist.

Libertarians who embrace certain metaphysical or epistemological views often believe that these views are somehow congenial to libertarianism, whereas any views they find unconvincing are the first steps to the Gulag. I criticized some of these theories about the link between epistemology and politics in my 2002 article ‘Ayn Rand and the Curse of Kant’ and here I will just add a few observations.

As Nelson seems to uneasily acknowledge, historical claims about the causal relation between philosophy and politics have nothing to do with the merits of the philosophical theory in question. For instance (an example she mentions, p. 140), supposing it to be true that Darwinism caused the Holocaust, this would have exactly no bearing on the truth or value of Darwinism as a scientific theory.

So, even if it were true that skepticism about perception had to lead to the Gulag and the Final Solution, this would not affect the question of whether skepticism about perception is sound or reasonable. But it would be saddening, and to some discouraging, if it were the case that the dissemination of a sound (or even minimally defensible) philosophical analysis led by necessity to a horrendous political outcome. I don’t think we have to worry about that, because the kind of historical causation from philosophy to politics advanced by Rand, Peikoff, Kelley, and Nelson clashes with the historical evidence at so many points.

Nelson gives us no extended discussion of politics in this book, but she sprinkles in brief remarks about politics here and there. Here are some examples.

She repeatedly associates David Hume with Nazism (pp. 222, 231, 239). The only tangible link mentioned is that Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottlieb Fichte each admired Hume and each influenced German nationalism. So this, as Huck Finn might say, is a stretch.

She attributes Jonathan Edwards’s role in the Great Awakening, and the fact that some of Edwards’s followers burned books, to the fact that Edwards held to a quasi-Berkeleyan idealism (pp. 228–230). But many evangelical preachers with more impact than Edwards, such as the Wesleys and Whitefield, don’t seem to have been influenced by skepticism about perception. Evangelical ‘revivals’ may be explicable by common factors such as residual Christian beliefs among the population at large, plus people’s innate desire for an all-embracing theory that will help to make sense of their lives, plus the new theological idea (preached by the Moravians and from thence transmitted to John Wesley) that a kind of emotional born-again experience could provide the believer with assurance of salvation.

Book burning has been an occasional feature of Christianity for two thousand years. Edwards was a Calvinist, and the Calvinists sometimes burned books, two centuries before Edwards (or Berkeley). The Calvinists in Geneva not only burned Servetus’s writings, but, just to be on the safe side, burned Servetus too. It’s excessively creative to scan the history of Christian book-burning, find this one preacher who was a philosophical idealist, and attribute the book-burning by some of his followers (not by him) to his idealism (of which those followers were probably unaware). Nelson says Edwards was “inspired” by his idealism, which goes beyond the evidence. Robert Lowell wrote a poem perhaps implying that Edwards was inspired by his observations of spiders, equally a stretch, though more forgivable in a poem.

Out of all the dozens of evangelical preachers, who are realists, just one of them is (in his philosophical writings unknown to the wider public) an idealist. Therefore idealism causes evangelical revivals. The logic is certainly . . . impressive.

Since I have already warned that I might ramble, I will also draw attention to the fact, often briefly mentioned in the literature on Berkeley, that there is a tension between idealism and Christian doctrine. Berkeley, a bishop in the Church of Ireland, had to watch his step. The Bible is realist. The teaching that God became flesh in Christ does not easily harmonize with the notion that flesh is nothing more than an idea in the minds of various persons. Genesis 2:7 tells us that God made man out of the dust of the ground. So, the dust of the ground predated man. And so on.

The fact that proponents of traditional religion would sometimes point to the skeptical literature to support their resort to ‘faith’ doesn’t have the ominous ramifications that Nelson imputes to it (pp. 40–41). There are many such historical facts; people use whatever arguments they find to hand. For instance, defenders of traditional religion will sometimes say that science keeps changing its mind (which is true), while some sacred scripture stays the same (also true). This shouldn’t make us look askance at the fact that science is always open to revision.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Christian teachers pointed to skeptical arguments as showing how we couldn’t rely on our own abilities to get at the truth, and should therefore accept what Christianity taught. Nelson apparently concludes that philosophical skepticism strengthened belief in Christianity. But does Nelson really suppose that if these skeptical arguments hadn’t been published, those Christian teachers would have volunteered that Christian doctrine was open to doubt? In any case, this was just one response. The more orthodox line was that basic elements of the religion, such as the existence of God, could be demonstrated by natural reason.

One of Nelson’s cute throwaway lines is: “A Cambodian guerrilla deep in a steaming jungle carries a paperback copy of Rousseau, and the next thing you know, a million people are dead” (p. 17). Did I somehow miss the memo that the Khmer Rouge renounced Marxism-Leninism and went back to Rousseau? This would imply, for example, that the Khmer Rouge must have repudiated collectivism in favor of private ownership.

Although historians disagree about the extent of Rousseau’s influence on the American Founding Fathers, no one would dispute that there was some appreciable influence. A thousand times more likely than a Khmer Rouge soldier carrying a copy of Rousseau is one of George Washington’s soldiers carrying a copy of Rousseau or Hume, and this would account for the fact that the United States immediately became a totalitarian dictatorship. Oh, wait . . .

How might metaphysical anti-realism lead to hideously repressive forms of government? Two stories are detectable in Nelson. The first is that being skeptical about perception, or doubting objective reality, directly has the effect of making you more prone to totalitarian views. The second is that skepticism about perception historically caused romanticism (which includes disbelief in the efficacy of reason, or valuing emotion above reason), and romanticism historically caused totalitarianism. That’s where Rousseau comes in, since he has been seen as the father of romanticism. But Rousseau influenced Kant, not Kant Rousseau, which looks to be the wrong way around.

A problem with historical cause-and-effect stories like this is that they depend on numerous thinking individuals reacting deterministically in a specific manner to a specific situation. So, people who are skeptics about perception must be bound to respond by valuing emotion above reason (and anyone who values emotion above reason must not be doing it for any other reason than skepticism about perception). But if they’re bound to, why does it take generations for them to do it? Then, someone who values emotion above reason (and we must assume that there’s nothing else to romanticism) must respond by becoming politically totalitarian in outlook (and there must be no other reason why anyone would become totalitarian in outlook). If any of these postulates doesn’t hold, the theory is in trouble.

Other questions follow thick and fast. For instance, German metaphysics when the middle-aged Kant started his revolution, was dominated by the rationalism of Christian Wolff. Would something less or more anti-realist have come along if Kant had died at the age of fifty-six, or would Wolffian rationalism have continued? I suggest we just can’t say. Were Rousseau’s proto-romantic writings somehow connected with skepticism about perception? I doubt it. And is it self-evident that Rousseau’s influence, in its net effect, favored totalitarianism? Nelson alludes to something called “romantic totalitarianism” (p. 231). Really? Is that a thing? If the works of Byron, Berlioz, or Poe somehow advanced the cause of totalitarianism, must we accept the corollary that Balzac, Stravinsky, or Joyce fought back on liberty’s behalf?

What tends to happen with believers in such a wondrously far-fetched story is that they cite a few cases which comply with the story, or cases which their own limited knowledge enables them to falsely suppose comply with the story. However, a few compliant cases do not really corroborate such an ambitious theory of historical causation. All cases, or at least a big majority, must conform, or we ought to discard the story.

For example, what made a lot of people support totalitarianism in the twentieth century? What we find, if we look at the evidence (and I have looked), is that totalitarianism emerged out of economic collectivism. And people became economic collectivists for specific, identifiable reasons: popular theories about economics pointed to collectivism. These economic theories owed nothing to skepticism about perception or to romanticism.

So, to take one strand out of many (but the most prominent strand), if we examine the historical record of those who became socialists, and more particularly Marxists, we observe a number of things. They were epistemological realists, and they denounced skepticism about perception as the worst philosophical crime. They were not romantics by ideological background, but if anything, anti-romantics, adherents of what has sometimes been called scientism or ‘scientific ideology’. They had quite specific reasons for thinking that socialism was both preferable to capitalism and the inevitable successor to capitalism, and these reasons (the most important of which I enumerate in ‘Ayn Rand and the Curse of Kant’) had nothing to do with romanticism and everything to do with a self-consciously ‘rational’, scientific approach.

Nelson’s epistemological views are similar to those of dialectical materialism, the ruling ideology of the USSR. Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism has essentially the same anti-skeptical metaphysics as The Slightest Philosophy, and The Slightest Philosophy (leaving out the few sentences directly about politics) would have been heartily applauded by the ideological commissars of Soviet Communism in its heyday. The Slightest Philosophy could, making allowance for references to more recent developments, have been written by a very devout Communist Party member circa 1930. (I know, you’re wondering whether this means that The Slightest Philosophy will cause a million or more deaths. I hope not, but we can’t be too careful.)

How does it come about that the first and greatest totalitarian regime of the twentieth century, and a major causal influence on all the others, had a strictly imposed official philosophy which made a huge point of insisting that skepticism about perception is philosophically the root of all evil? Why did Communist philosophers always talk about perception exactly like Quee Nelson?

Nelson alludes to Frederick Engels’s 1843 claim that German philosophy ought to culminate in communism (pp. 30–31). But if we look at this remark by Engels, it should be understood in exactly the opposite way to Nelson’s construal.

The young Marx and Engels, formerly Young Hegelians, were suddenly converted to the atheism, realism, and materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss. This conversion signified a conscious and systematic rejection of idealism. Engels considered that Feuerbach’s materialism brought an end to German philosophy and directly pointed to communism (though Engels thought it was a failure on Feuerbach’s part that he did not perceive that materialism implies communism, just as presumably Nelson might think it a failure on Quine’s part that he didn’t see that realism implies laissez-faire capitalism). It’s no exaggeration to say that in Engels’s thinking as in Marx’s, it is the total repudiation of all idealism and the unconditional acceptance of realism which points to communism.

Engels’s slightly coy statement in his brief article of 1843, quoted by Nelson, was succeeded by The German Ideology (1846) and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886), where Engels’s and Marx’s hostility to idealism and their view of a tight connection between materialism and communism are spelled out in great detail. Just to be clear, I don’t accept that any metaphysical or epistemological theory implies or causes any social or political theory, much less any political movement. Yet it would be easy to formulate a thesis that the rejection of skepticism about perception and the embrace of metaphysical realism lead to totalitarianism; after all, we observe that totalitarians are usually motivated by certainty, not doubt. I don’t think there’s anything in such a thesis, but at least it would not be as spectacularly contrary to the historical evidence as Quee’s thesis is.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell has the Party boss O’Brien propound the theory of “collective solipsism,” according to which reality is whatever the Party says it is. Nelson says that Orwell is “caricaturing collectivist epistemology” (p. 31). But was there, as a matter of fact, any collectivist epistemology to caricature? I discuss this point in my book on Orwell (Orwell Your Orwell, pp. 307–311).

Although O’Brien’s argument is a remarkable anticipation of some aspects of social constructivism (these had been prefigured by Otto Neurath and by Mannheim’s ‘sociology of knowledge’ but it’s doubtful that Orwell knew of these), we have to be clear that no actual totalitarian regime has ever employed the “collective solipsism” type of reasoning, and it’s very unlikely that any actual totalitarian regime ever could, because totalitarian regimes, when they tell untruths (or even truths which they find it useful to draw attention to), always intend to communicate that what they say is true by the traditional absolute and objective standard of truth. Orwell is not caricaturing any existing “collectivist epistemology” but inventing a fictional epistemology in order to caricature totalitarian practice.

Notoriously, the Communist parties would sometimes suddenly switch their position on various issues, saying the opposite today of what they had said yesterday, and sometimes propagating falsehoods to help justify the current party line. Actually, this aspect of Stalinism was barely noticed by most non-leftists, while non-Communist socialists like Orwell were always acutely aware of it. The Wobblies even had a song about it (“Our Line’s Been Changed Again”).

Orwell applies to this phenomenon the type of satire he had learned from Jonathan Swift: he has the totalitarians preaching what he considers them to be practicing. The Communists never did preach anything like this; in fact, as fanatical adherents of materialism, a form of metaphysical realism, they always preached the opposite.

Orwell’s hero Winston Smith expresses the view, against the Ingsoc Party, that “reality is something external, objective, existing in its own right.” It doesn’t surprise anyone knowledgeable about Communist thinking to learn that the leading Communist ideological authority Rajani Palme Dutt, responding in 1955 to Nineteen Eighty-Four, commented that this remark by Winston Smith states what is in fact the Communist view (Meyers, George Orwell, pp. 287–88).

Finally look at this sentence by Nelson: “In the same century that Heidegger, Habermas, and DeMan imbibed totalitarian collectivism as National Socialists, Althusser, Gramsci, Sartre, Camus, Putnam, and Rorty imbibed it as international socialists” (p. 30). You might think that Nelson is here giving us evidence—looks like quite an accumulation of evidence!—for her historical thesis. But exactly what does this all amount to?

What three writers “imbibed” (one of them as a child, one as a young adult, the other in middle age) hardly shows that their distinctive philosophical views resulted from the ideology they imbibed, or vice versa. After the war, none of these three showed any obvious political influence of National Socialism. It’s not playing fair to smear Habermas because he was a schoolboy under the Third Reich. Heidegger seems to have cheerfully embraced the National Socialist regime partly because of career opportunism. To what extent he was a realist or an idealist is sometimes debated (this is the ambiguity of Husserl’s legacy, though Heidegger’s ‘being in the world’ has been seen by some as an attempted answer to Humean skepticism), but at any rate he was no romantic and he didn’t endorse National Socialism before it came to power or after it had been overthrown. De Man (presumably Paul, not his uncle Henri/Hendrik) wrote some antisemitic stuff in Nazi-occupied Belgium, apparently for reasons of self-preservation and self-advancement (for he discreetly helped out individual Jews he knew). After the war he promoted deconstructionism in literary theory. He doesn’t appear to have been influenced by skepticism about perception. He wrote a book on romanticism, which might be considered an unmasking of romanticism’s pretensions.

Gramsci and Althusser were both materialists, therefore hardcore realists (Gramsci’s concept of revolutionary praxis is not, despite what you sometimes hear, a departure from philosophical materialism; there is a question mark over Althusser’s last writings, but they have had no influence). Neither Gramsci nor Althusser were romanticists. Sartre and Camus were philosophical realists and in their literary output decidedly unromantic. Putnam and Rorty vacillated on the question of realism and they were not associated with romanticism. Of course, they had generally leftist worldviews, and that may be what bothers Nelson, but that’s the predominant fashion amongst all twentieth-century intellectuals, including the realist and anti-romantic ones. Some of the harshest attacks by realists on postmodernism have come from leftists (Chomsky, Detmer, Eagleton, Sokal).

So, all in all, if we deconstruct Nelson’s flurry of names, we just don’t find much corroboration for her historical thesis. Nelson’s method, as she scans a lot of historical data, is to pick out a handful of instances which seem to confirm her story, while ignoring the far greater number of instances which starkly contradict it.


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The Libertarian Alliance

LibertyPosted by David McDonagh Wed, April 25, 2018 14:06:49
The Libertarian Alliance [LA].

This is an alliance between classical liberals and anarcho-liberals. It uses the longer word of "libertarian" in its title as the word, "liberal", has been largely taken over by statists, ironically the very opposite of the free traders they replaced, as the statists are protectionists, ipso facto.

The new statist liberals arose within the UK Liberal Party, from about 1870 onwards and by the 1930s they were, by far, the great majority in the Liberal Party. The statists, who want more state activity, as they feel there is not enough politicians or enough politics in society but the traditional, or the pristine, liberals always felt was way too many politicians and far too much state activity and that it was actually dysfunctional for both individual and for social welfare.

So today's Liberal Democrats, whom are nearly all statists, seek yet more state control but the LA members seek far less; or even none at all if they happen to be anarcho-liberals.

This is because the LA members find the state to be both uneconomic and anti-social too, as politics both wastes the money it taxes off the public and it also fosters a dependency culture that tends to sap all individual responsibility. This personal responsibility, that arises from liberty, is held by LA members to be vital to the good society.

So the main aim of the LA is social liberty; i.e. the full individual liberty that also respects, and fits in with the liberty of one and all. The means to this is both by reducing taxation and whatever the state provides, replacing it with free, or freer, institutions, to be achieved by persuading the general public, of the value of social liberty though free discussion with anyone who wants to discuss those matters with LA members but maybe more so with keen intellectuals or with outgoing extroverts who will be keen to freely discuss those matters. Thus the LA aims at repealing most of the current statutory law. It expects social liberty to allow most people, if not one and all, to flourish to the extent that they can do so as a result a freer society, if not immediately of a completely a free one. The more liberty we have the better for all people.

The LA holds public meetings, that are recorded and then placed on YouTube and the LA members take part in its own and in other Internet discussion groups to that end.

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How I Could Have Made Hillary President

PoliticsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Thu, February 22, 2018 06:31:41

How I Could Have Made Hillary President

In his book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, Scott Adams analyzes the formidable persuasion skills of Donald Trump and the comparatively feeble persuasion techniques of the Hillary Clinton campaign of 2016. The book is very funny, full of insights, and well worth reading. For those who haven’t read it, what I’m going to talk about here is a tiny sliver of the richly entertaining material in the book, but it does illustrate Adams’s approach.

Adams compares what he calls Trump’s “linguistic kill shots” with the attempted kill shots of the Hillary campaign, and he compares Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” with the numerous easily forgettable slogans considered or actually employed by the Hillary campaign.

Here are the more powerful of Trump’s linguistic kill shots:

● Low-energy Jeb

● Crooked Hillary

● Lyin’ Ted

● Lil’ Marco

● Pocahontas

Scott Adams analyzes these in detail to show exactly why they’re so effective. They all appeal to the visual and they all plan for “confirmation bias.” Probably the best of them is “Low-energy Jeb.” The very day this nickname came out of Trump’s mouth, Scott Adams blogged that Jeb was finished, as indeed he was, though no other commentator saw what had just happened. Recall that Jeb Bush had a war chest of many millions and spent far more than Trump. He was a natural for traditional Republican voters and for the fabled “Republican establishment,” as yet another dynastic Bush but a more likeable personality than the preceding two Bushes.

Even after Trump had released his kill shot into what we can call the rhetorosphere, most seasoned pundits were still naming “Jeb!” as the most likely nominee. Yet, Trump had given Jeb Bush what Adams calls his “forever name,” and it was henceforth to be altogether impossible for anyone to see Jeb or think about him without instantly thinking Low-energy. His presidential ambition had been killed stone dead, not just for that electoral cycle but for all time, in a fraction of a second, by the Master Persuader, Donald Trump.

Adams offers similar analyses for the other nicknames. “Pocahontas” was the name given to Elizabeth Warren, one of the leading Democratic Party politicians and a likely future Democratic presidential candidate. Warren, a blue-eyed blonde, had claimed to be of Native American, specifically Cherokee, ancestry and had gotten an academic job by impersonating a “minority.” The Cherokee Nation, which has a database of everyone they have been able to find with Cherokee ancestry, has repeatedly protested against Warren’s claim. Warren also once contributed a “Native American” recipe to a book of supposedly Native American recipes called . . . wait for it . . . Pow Wow Chow. It turns out that Warren is not Native American, the recipe was not Native American but French, and the recipe itself was plagiarized from another source.

A look at this book on Amazon shows that Warren is in even deeper trouble. The subtitle of Pow Wow Chow is A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes, and the book is published by Five Civilized Tribes Museum. This blatantly insinuates that the Apache didn’t routinely solve quadratics or use trig to calculate the circumference of the Earth, and this is indisputably the filthiest kind of racism.

I would be irresponsible if I didn’t point out that this kill shot illustrates Donald Trump’s disgraceful carelessness with facts. The Cherokee belong to the Iroquoian group, whereas the historical Pocahontas belonged to an Algonquian-speaking tribe. How low have we sunk when our president tells such appalling lies?

Everyone could see that Trump’s nicknames were effective, and so the Hillary campaign burned the midnight oil to come up with an effective nickname for Trump himself. They tried three in succession:

● Donald Duck

● Dangerous Donald

● Drumpf

“Donald Duck” is obviously the sort of thing a committee would come up with. “Duck” tries to make the point that Trump was “ducking” various issues and various criticisms, including releasing his tax returns. But of course, associating Trump with a beloved if distinctly ridiculous cartoon character doesn’t mesh well with the idea that Trump is a fearful Hitler-like menace.

“Dangerous Donald” doesn’t really work, especially because a large portion of the electorate positively wanted someone “dangerous,” someone who would go to Washington and break things.

“Drumpf” is the real surname of Trump’s Austrian immigrant ancestor, a perfectly respectable German name which isn’t so congenial to Americans, so it was changed to “Trump.” This idea that having a non-Anglo-Saxon name in your family tree is a dirty little secret is not a winner, for several obvious reasons.

As everyone knows, Trump’s election slogan was “Make America Great Again.” This is a brilliant slogan which can hardly be faulted. Adams lists its strong points (Win Bigly, pp. 155–56).

As against this, the Hillary campaign considered eighty-five slogans (yes, 85!, according to Scott Adams, p. 157, citing the New York Times) and eventually ended up with “Stronger Together.” Here are the ones which were actually tried out.

● Love Trumps Hate

● I’m with Her

● I’m ready for Hillary

● Fighting for Us

● Breaking Down Barriers

● Stronger Together

These all have the flavor of mediocrity and ineffectiveness that comes out of committees, and especially committees of bigoted leftists. “Love Trumps Hate” literally begins with “Love Trump,” and as Scott Adams points out, people’s attentiveness declines steeply, so they often pay more attention to the beginning than to the end of a sentence.

“I’m with Her” and “I’m Ready for Hillary” both have a patronizing tone, as though you can prove yourself by being open to a female candidate, just because she’s female; that kind of thing is off-putting to some voters. And as Bill Maher pointed out, “Ready for Hillary” evokes the resignation of being “ready” for that uncomfortable tetanus shot from that possibly sadistic nurse.

“Fighting for Us” makes you wonder who the “Us” really is. During World War II, George Orwell pointed out how a British working man might interpret the government poster that said: “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, will bring Us Victory” (the first three sets of italics in the original, the fourth definitely not!).

“Breaking Down Barriers” has good rhythm but an uncertain appeal because most people feel strongly that they really want some barriers between them and some kinds of other people.

“Stronger Together” was the final throw, and it came just as voters could hardly ignore the fact that violence was coming from the left. Some of Hillary supporters were bullies, and bullies are always stronger together. The news was already out that the “violence at Trump’s rallies” was deliberately engineered by paid agents of the DNC.

Scott Adams Doesn’t Give His Alternatives!

Although Scott Adams does an excellent job of identifying the strengths of Trump’s slogan and nicknames for opponents, and the weaknesses of Hillary’s, he doesn’t come up with his own, better proposals for Hillary.

This is a bit of a disappointment, and a surprise, as he emphasizes that it’s all a matter of conscious technique, not instinct.

And so, I decided to cook up my own suggestions. Here goes!

My proposal for the nickname Hillary should have given Trump is:

● The Don

Here’s how this works. Before Trump announced for president, he was often called “The Donald,” a phrase which usually went along with either patronizing amusement or mild and grudging admiration. Use of “The Donald” died out, presumably because the US population was mobilizing into two great camps, one of which viewed Trump as a satanic monster, the other of which saw him as the nation’s redeemer, and neither of these would perceive “The Donald” as entirely apt.

My plan would be for Hillary supporters to refer to him several times as “The Don,” and just occasionally, for those who might be a bit slow on the uptake, “The Godfather” (or variations like “The Godfather of Greed”). Hillary would then take up “The Don,” as an already established nickname for Trump.

Trump has many of the popular attributes of the Mafia boss: a commanding presence and a weakness for vulgar display (his golden toilets). All the points actually made against Trump’s character by Clinton could have been given a slightly different coloration. Thus, when making the allegation that Trump had stiffed some of his sub-contractors (which the Hillary campaign did), this would be described as “making them an offer they couldn’t refuse.” You could throw in a reference to one of Trump’s business dealings with someone who has since passed on, and add the jocular remark, “He now sleeps with the fishes.” When complaining about the fact that Trump wouldn’t release his tax returns, this could be framed as “the Trump Family [Family, get it?] has sworn the oath of Omertà never to reveal their sources of income.”

But aren’t mafiosi supposed to be Italian? Yes, but now they’re often Russian too. Hillary’s campaign promoted the story that Trump had “colluded with the Russians.” This appears to have been a pure fabrication, simply made up (no one has ever faulted Hillary for being over-scrupulous or excessively candid) but it would have been so much more believable if associated with the Russian mafia.

It’s a self-evident truth that every Russian has “ties to Vladimir Putin,” and this can always be asserted of any Russian without fear of rebuttal. Similarly, it’s a self-evident truism that every Russian businessman has “ties to the Russian mob.” It would have been a simple matter to dig up every occasion when Trump did business with a Russian, call that Russian an “oligarch” (who could deny it?) and declare that this Russian oligarch had ties to organized crime (or deny that?). In this way, it would have become impossible for voters not to think of Trump’s business activities as steeped in criminality.

Now, what about a campaign slogan for Hillary? This is quite difficult, because of the fact that Hillary had spent the previous eight years as Secretary of State within the Obama administration. She could not therefore put any emphasis on “change,” and it would be hard to imply anything radically new. But anything that looked like a defense of the last eight years could only run the risk of implying that “the status quo is fine and we just want to keep things the way they are.” This is a disadvantageous position to be in.

A slogan that goes negative and tries to focus on the evil of Trump is liable to boomerang—remember that meeting of Democrats, where a speaker referred to Hillary using the word “honest,” and the entire room spontaneously erupted into laughter?

As Scott Adams hilariously points out (p. 159), a rather different kind of boomerang was a major feature of the campaign. One of Trump’s problems, as a former reality TV host, was to get voters to take him seriously as a real president. Hillary continually urged voters to “imagine” Trump as president, and thus provided Trump with exactly what he needed. He needed people to imagine him as president, and Hillary did an excellent job of helping voters to do just that.

The Hillary campaign slogan has to have the following qualities:

● It mustn’t directly mention the rival product.

● It mustn’t be easily interpreted as merely a response to Trump’s slogan or campaign.

● It can’t, unfortunately, make a bold plea for change.

● It can’t, unfortunately, make a bold claim for Hillary’s trustworthiness or other personal virtues.

● It must have rhythm.

● It mustn’t allow the interpretation that some special interest will be benefited.

● It must take the high ground.

So here’s my proposal:

● A Win-Win for America

This slogan would occasionally follow the words “Hillary Rodham Clinton.” (It’s bad luck that “HRC” doesn’t trip off the tongue like “LBJ” or even “JFK.” There is no other memorable version comparable with “Doubleya”. “HRC” might evoke “hardcore,” but we probably don’t want to go there.)

The slogan is positive and inclusively patriotic. It therefore crowds out the undesirable thought that Hillary appeals chiefly to welfare recipients, criminal aliens, and billionaire hedge-fund managers. “For America” takes the high ground and crowds out the thought that Hillary’s election would be a win for Hillary, an undesirable thought because Hillary might be considered a loser, and also because we don’t want voters thinking about any personal advantage Hillary might reap.

The term “Win-Win” has several functions. Literally it refers to a situation where we win, whichever of two alternate possibilities occurs. There would have to be a story about this, ready for those times when Hillary or her henchmen were directly asked about the meaning. But that’s unimportant. We could even come up with a dozen different stories and get people arguing about which one was true. Really the term is simply a repetition of the positive word “win,” and gives the slogan distinctiveness and rhythm.

It also has something which Scott Adams has talked about on a number of occasions: he has pointed out how President Trump utilizes the tried and tested marketing ploy of putting slightly “wrong” formulations into his tweets to enhance their effectiveness. A slightly doubtful formulation or a feeling that something is not quite conventionally correct helps a phrase to lodge in the memory. “Win-Win” therefore gains something from the fact that what it means is slightly obscure and off-key, while its emotional associations are entirely positive.

So there we are, Trump is The Don and Hillary’s slogan is A Win-Win for America. This would have been enough to give her the electoral college, though it wouldn’t have hurt to have also done a bit more campaigning in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Hillary threw tens of millions of dollars at various “consultants” who were out of their depth and out of touch with public feeling. As I’ve just proved, I could have gotten Hillary elected by a few commonsense marketing touches. Given my unpretentious proletarian origins and unimpressive net worth, I would have done it for, say, half a million dollars. That would have been a terrific deal for Hillary, and would have enabled me to pay off a good chunk of my debts.

But, I can already hear you saying, you’d be enabling this disgusting warmonger, purveyor of PC bigotry, and criminal sociopath to take power. Could you really live with yourself?

Yes, I have to admit, I would feel bad about that. So, make it a round million.

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Henderson on State Inefficiency

EconomicsPosted by Lee Waaks Wed, March 01, 2017 22:29:23

The following is a reply by David McDonagh to Robert Henderson's blog post "Public and private confusion (and, yes, there is an alternative)", in particular, section 15 on "Public service inefficiencies and politicians". It was edited by Lee Waaks.


Robert Henderson believes that the state is inefficient owing to the irresponsible behaviour of politicians rather than to their access to taxation; and that it enables the state to rule, or govern, the people rather than to serve them, as firms set out to do. He believes that the politicians pass too many laws, or that they introduce other measures not requiring legislation, but that demand such action as the meeting of “targets”, which he thinks are simply beyond the state ever meeting. But the Libertarian Alliance [LA] case against the state is that it seeks to rule by flouting our liberty as well as using taxation to be indifferent to efficiency; but, out of the two, it is the flouting of liberty that is mainly illiberal.

There is no real incentive for politics to be efficient. The political projects even have incentives to be inefficient for if they make savings in their allowance, then they usually get less funds as a result the next financial year, so they need to spend what they have been granted every year to maintain their income. Therefore, they are rewarded to stay still and often punished by having less income for their departments for any economising. Firms, by contrast, gain funds for other things by economising. When firms fail to attract customers by serving them, they lose the money they might have earned from the customers. State projects are not automatically affected by any public neglect.

We are told that there are too many laws and he gives tax law as a prime example, as there is just too much of it for anyone to master; even the best experts know only a small part of the law relating to taxation. Many of the laws themselves are not very clear, leaving it open to cogent new innovations of interpretation that can show up bureaucrats at the Inland Revenue as incompetent or unreasonable, and that can be the case at the Customs and Excise Office too. The ordinary bureaucrats are not trained well enough to cope with the obscurely written laws as they stand, says Henderson, and he thinks this is why the state is inefficient. But the reality seems to be that the state (and politics) is fundamentally negative sum in nature and the authority to tax the public leads the state to rule rather than serve the public.

He believes the lack of consideration on the part of politicians in framing laws to be used practically is a problem and many neglected laws that should be repealed are simply left on the books. But those that are used need a great deal of common sense to enforce as literally written or they would not be practical, so they are only partly enforced.

Even then, the gaols are overcrowded owing to politicians being too careless in passing laws and those in charge of the Home Office calling for longer sentences. If they ensured gaol places beforehand, then what the politicians do might be more viable, or at least more acceptable to Henderson. But liberals will ponder that responsibility needs liberty to be fostered, so any time in gaol is highly likely to diminish responsibility, and thus social liberty; so liberals will look for a
limited use of gaol, if they allow any use at all. Weekends in gaol, with the offender remaining in his job during the week and paying for his weekend gaol stays, as well as for some compensation to the victim of his crime, is in the way of liberal thought on crime and punishment. This might allows prisons to pay for themselves or, at least, cost the general public way less. Remaining in work will also foster more responsibility in the offender.

I think Thomas Szasz was basically right in his myth of mental illness thesis. I have seen some criticism from LA members that there might be some mental illness, despite what Szasz said, but in hearing some of this criticism, especially in the talk on Szasz by David Ramsay Steele on YouTube, it did not seem to discount the fact that what Szasz said still seemed to apply to the overwhelming majority of those classified as mentally ill. The recent drive to care for those with mental illness by the political elite, over the last five years or so, is in the direction away from Szasz, and it looks like the sort of kindness that messes lives up. The earlier “care in the community” seemed to be, at least, going the right way. But Henderson seems to think that many should be locked up for life and he regrets that a few have found their way into gaol. But as Szasz repeatedly suggests in his books, that is where some of them were more fitted to than in the asylums.

Henderson gets the Community Charge, that its opponents called the Poll Tax, completely wrong. It was an attempt to foster active local government by making them responsible for the setting of the Community Charge and by competition between such areas to put it up or down as the voters saw fit. It was a long shot, as voters tend to forget to bother much at the voting polls to make an instrumental use of elections and they use them for voter loyalty instead.

Anyway, it was not given the coup de grace by a violent protest in Trafalgar Square, as we were told by Henderson; it fell only after Mrs Thatcher fell; and she fell mainly owing to her opposition to the EU, not owing to the attempt she made to foster an active local instrumental electoral system relating to the Community Charge. That was slowly settling down, after the opposition to it had been largely seen off. It took former MP Michael Heseltine about a week to think it might be good propaganda to repeal it, and then he was eulogised by many Tory MPs, who had forgotten all about it.

To truly cost the medical services in the UK, the National Health Service [NHS] would need to be privatised completely. Only then will the real anarchic price system price things. It is not practical to simulate the price system. That is to say there is no way that the state projects can get realistic prices to rival those set by the price system. Henderson errs badly if he imagines there was a time since 1948 when the NHS was trouble free. It never can deliver what it is supposed to deliver. It will always fall short of that.

Henderson imagines that schools in the UK are more than child minding centres. He believes that the educational aims have only recently been lost.

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Reply to Robert Henderson on Corporate Efficiency

EconomicsPosted by Lee Waaks Sun, February 26, 2017 19:06:58

The following is a reply by David McDonagh to a blog post by Robert Henderson. It has been edited by Lee Waaks.


Firms do serve the public when they seek to get customers for what they produce. But maybe Robert Henderson means providing uneconomic services, like running empty buses on a regular and frequent timetable just in case a few might need them. The fact is that this sort of "public service" is clearly very wasteful. It means there is a need for taxation to subsidise it, or a high ticket price that most people might well shun. Such "services" are intrinsically inefficient, as few want the services currently provided.

We are told that a monopoly is needed to run an uneconomic "public service", but that is not right (though it might help a bit), as competition might otherwise remove some income by cherry-picking off the parts that might be economic. But the mere monopoly would not usually bale out the universal service as a whole even with a no cherry-picking; instead it is taxation that is vital to this wasteful activity. Contrary to Henderson's claim, a monopoly cannot ensure such universal services that are often bound to be uneconomic.

We are told that "no private company would ever provide a universal one-price service without massive public subsidy", but that is false, as we can see with the usual prices of commodities, for we pay the same price for most of them whether they are in Cornwall, Warwickshire or Antrim. Most wares sell at the same price throughout the UK. The mass urban sales do allow ordinary firms to charge the same price for the same goods in largely rural areas as they do in the big cities.

The Post Office cut the second post as it wanted to cut the subsidy. Ditto, it has put the last post earlier in the day. A monopoly might ease it, but it is taxation that alone allows it to exist.

It is not clear to me what Henderson imagines is the public service aspect of the BBC. Whatever he thinks it is, he says it would ebb if the licence fee were to go and the BBC went more, or completely, state free. It would become more like the other TV channels, he says, but it looks rather like them anyway, accept that its adverts do not interrupt the programmes, but they do look abundant enough between the programmes, even if they are not commercial.

Henderson sees, or he says he sees, a clash between profit and public service in providing things like the National Health Service (NHS), but the NHS deliberately flouts economic viability in that it attempts free access paid for by taxation. A private insurance policy also might provide free access, but only for those who took such a policy out by paying for it. Such a policy might well make a profit.

If work is subcontracted out then the main contractor usually needs to see it is done to the extent that would have been the case had it not been subcontracted out. Henderson wants to deny that normality.

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Reply to Robert Henderson on Efficiency

EconomicsPosted by Lee Waaks Sun, February 26, 2017 18:23:00

This post is a response by David McDonagh to Robert Henderson's blog post on efficiency. It was edited by Lee Waaks


Robert Henderson asks "what do we mean by efficiency?" We need to note that there are at least two vitally different but germane meanings that we need to consider here: economic and technological efficiency. These two distinct meanings produce the interesting fact that they often clash. If we have to produce what might be technically efficient, but what we cannot really afford, then that is to be saddled with what is called a white elephant. A good example of a white elephant is Concorde, the supersonic jet aircraft. It was only viable with support from tax payers and even even then most could not afford to use it.

Society is organised by firms needing to make a profit. Profits are earned by gaining the patronage of customers by competition for their customers as against all other firms. The entrepreneur attempts to guess what the customers will buy. His costs will include wages, rent, interest on any loans and other costs relating to supplying the good or ware. Anything earned by the project over and above all the costs will then be the earnings of the entrepreneur as profit, but he also risks making a loss in this competitive quest. This is the small competitive section of the market economy where entrepreneurs rival each other and it is zero sum, insofar as the total amount of customers out there only have so much at any one time to spend. The rest of the market economy is co-operative and, like all trade, it is positive sum.

The state depends on successful economic activity on the market for taxation. No state can earn its own way for politics is negative sum, and thus wasteful, from an economic point of view. But nationalists ususally look at the state as a grand collective end or consumer good. Robert Henderson is clearly a nationalist rather than a liberal.

Profit shows that what the customers want has been successfully produced by the firms that make a profit. This is a way of rejecting most of what we technically might have done but is actually very uneconomic. The range of what is rejected as uneconomic is very wide and to go down any one of those wasteful uneconomic paths would be to enter a metaphorical crushing stampede of wasteful white elephants. Profit mainly allows us to dodge that stampede but the state is always there to tax the public in order to rescue some unprofitable projects, thereby saving the odd white elephant from the metaphorical stampeding herd. Profit is a good sign of successful economy in the mass urban society.

Henderson imagines the state gives public service but the reality is that it sets out to govern the public. Profit is feedback that the customers have been served but the state never truly serves. We are told that firms merely get lucky when they make a profit, but that such luck runs out. This account is very unrealistic. It is more likely that firms ebb not owing to bad luck, but due to all who wanted the good having already purchased it, with the result that not enough new customers prevent the firm from making a loss. The firm then either produces something else that some customers will patronise, or it ebbs away to go eventually defunct. By contrast, state projects like NATO rarely go defunct, but continue to draw taxpayers money and to look around for new ways to continue their wasteful spending.

There is no general boon that allows all firms to make a profit, but Henderson tends to imagine otherwise, and he believes there are periods when profits are easy to make. The reality is that at all times firms have to provide wares or services that customers will value more than the price the firm puts on the wares. They may always prefer to spend their money on other goods.

Henderson thinks some goods are so vital that it is hard not to make large profits regularly. He gives the banks as an example. But if things were left to the market in 2008, then a lot of banks would have been replaced by new banks. He pushes the dogma that monopoly is emerging, once again, but there has been no percentage increase in monopoly since about 1800. Growing monopoly is a mere myth rather than a growing problem. For example, we are told that the march of Tesco supermarket is relentless but then we might have said the same of Mac Fisheries
supermarket in the 1960s. Only Sainsbury's amongst the 1960s rivals among the then big supermarkets has made it into the 2010s. This will most likely be the case by the 2060s, too, but which one it will be is far from clear. Tesco has certainly had a lot of trouble in the last three years, so it may not survive far into the future.

What metaphorically "destroys" firms is not their rivals but the their lack of customers. Stores that do serve the customers well can continue indefinitely. The customers always have a superabundance of other things that they can buy with their money. They never lack lots of choice in the big city but they might in a small village because it might be more costly to drive beyond other than local stores. But the Internet cuts that cost somewhat even in a village in the last decade or so.

Firms pretending to be more successful than they are does not affect the public very much. Their ebbing is largely their own private affair.

Henderson thinks it is debatable whether profit is a good yardstick of efficiency in any case, but even if it true in some cases, he still believes it is not true in all cases. He believes universal public services need a lot of unprofitable work to be done. But in what sense are such things efficient in any sense whatsoever? He says the Post Office makes a loss on delivering posts to rural areas because it charges the same price as those posted within the city. But this means rural service is aided by taxation. However, universal prices can be achieved by the market (e.g. Mars bars) without state aid from taxation. In such cases, city buyers pay the costs of transportation to rural areas in order for firms to maintain a cheap universal price. We are told the state aids private firms by its Post Office prices because, they too, pay the universal price. But this is hyperbole, as firms can charge customers for delivery.

Henderson thinks that two criteria can replace profit as a sign of efficiency: "(1) is the service being delivered to all who need it? and (2) is the cost reasonable in comparison with equivalent operations in other countries?" But neither criteria indicate any economic efficiency whatsoever, as (1) allows no economy at all because it cuts out germane input from the needy; and (2) other nations are not likely to be efficient in state projects because they are bound to be wasteful, as all the state does is negative sum. Judging by his criteria, Henderson thinks the National Health Service (NHS) looks efficient. However, since 1970 the NHS has been a hospital closing programme and it is no more clear that the 1940s fad of nationalisation has done better there than elsewhere, such as the railways or in coal mining. People love the NHS only as they fear free trade in health care. But that is public fear and corruption rather than a sign of any actual economic efficiency. The NHS exists only owing to general taxation.

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Robert Henderson on Free Trade

PoliticsPosted by Lee Waaks Sun, February 26, 2017 17:11:57

The following is a response by David McDonagh to blog post by Robert Henderson on the Libertarian Alliance (not to be confused with this blog of the same name). Because Mr. McDonagh's response strictly follows the outline of Mr. Henderson's post, there is some repitition. The context of the reply can usually be gleaned from the comment, but it may be useful to read Mr. Henderson's post first. (Mr. McDonagh's response was casually edited by Lee Waaks.)

The politically correct [PC] ideal of equality and democracy, like politics and the state itself, has never been popular with the masses; and they haply never will be either.

Free trade boosts all incomes by boosting greater output than we would otherwise have.

The Navigation Acts held progress back, as politics and the state always does.

Liberal ideas are hardly unquestioned but then Henderson seems to get nearly everything wrong about liberalism.

While the state exists, the market will never quite be free. The state needs to tax the market just to exist.

Adam Smith hardly needed his metaphor of the invisible hand for the division of labour, as, clearly, it gears self-interest to serve others by specialisation, or by learning a trade. Almost any job requires some expertise.

Socialists are just statist Tories. Fascists are also Tories. Bolsheviks are Russian Tories. Collectivists are Tories. Liberalism is anti-politics, so it is against democracy and the state.
The state is anti-social. Its aims usually tend to mess up society.

Henderson is not wise to call the liberals dishonest. I think he is very ignorant and thoughtless, but he is most likely not dishonest. He loves the state so much that he cannot credit that it is sincerely rejected by the liberals.

Monopoly is almost impossible to obtain, as it is not easy to stop new firms from entering any market. But the idea that the market ends in a monopoly is a long-standing folk dogma, and the main hope of Marxism, but the idea is way older than Karl Marx. However, monopoly did not increase in Marx’s lifetime, nor has it increased since his death.

Liberalism is about repealing laws not passing them; not on monopoly or on anything else.

Free markets are what emerge when the state has been totally rolled back to non-existence, or to anarchy. Liberals are against the state, not monopoly per se. Henderson loves the state so much that he doubts that there are some that hate it. But, yes, the state is the only institution that can enforce a monopoly, but that is not why the liberals reject it.

The market is not natural, but it is anarchic. It does not need the state.

The liberal idea of no state is not empty-headed. Politics is anti-social and negative sum, i.e. wasteful. It is what looks like support for what is wasteful that is nearer to being empty-headed but, presumably, it is down to mere ignorance.

The market fits humans as they are, though they prefer to be consumers rather than producers. But the state is at odds with humanity, as people do not like being bossed bout.

Protectionism is no more natural than is smuggling (black markets) that, nearly always, flout it.

No one owns markets. It is just where people freely trade with each other.

Lower prices are clearly better for the customer.

The mass urban society gives rise to potential jobs being infinite. A village often lacks jobs, but never does a big city. Employment becomes a function of pricing ourselves into work rather than there being a lack of jobs in the big city.
Society is polycentric, and it is never a whole. If you hear the bell toll, then it tolls for another person. Economic interest groups related to the factors of production are as mythical as the supposed inexorable movement of free trade to monopoly theorized by Marxism, and both are clearly bogus. The idea of the class struggle is about as unrealistically Romantic as one can get. There never was anything like it in the past, which is why E.P.Thompson's 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class, mentioned not even one example of it in more than 900 pages of his book.

Liberals claim that any trader gains, in his own estimation, from trade. The liberals do not postulate society, as a person, or as a quasi-person, who gains from trade. Both the consumer and producer surplus resulting from any trade is subjective to each trader. Trade is a positive sum transaction.

Liberalism is anti-politics, not a recipe for a type of politics. The anarcho-liberals that make up most of the active Libertarian Alliance [LA] are never happy with any state activity; none whatsoever. But the alliance in the LA is with minimal statists, who do accept a vital need for the state.

Liability is going to be limited in any case. The 1862 Act just spared a bit to settle for what traders chose to risk. Having all at risk would not be much more actual liability, in most cases. Limiting what is put at risk, to what we freely want to put at risk is not, somehow, unfree in some way. To say that only a claim to all a person owns must be involved if ever one is to invest is not more free, or more honest, but just a sheer stupidity.

A free market is the market free of the state. Yes, that means no taxation, no state money, indeed, no politics whatsoever.

Henderson seems not to know that the LA is against the state. The active LA members hold that the state has no business at all but, indeed, that it is immoral. The LA most of all opposes taxation, which the LA has often called theft. But Henderson imagines the LA endorses taxation and that it is only really against monopoly (or something else). Liberals do not care much about monopoly as such, for most of them hold that the market can sort it out by new firms starting up to exploit the monopoly price that the big firms might charge. Liberals only essentially hate the state and taxation -- taxation because it aids the illiberal state activity.
Liberalism is not particularly fussed about monopoly, but we might still note that the daft dogma that competition leads to it is clearly false. It is clear that it is not easy to keep new firms out of most trades, especially if the big firms are charging high prices. Henderson believes roads are an exception, but they have substitutes like air, rail and sea travel. In any case, there can be efforts to buy up particular roads on the market.

No, there is haply not fewer firms in the car industry than there were 40 years ago. British firms have declined but Japanese firms have emerged since then. Chinese firms are now emerging.

No, free-trade liberals do not want a single market but only no states. The market will never be a whole and there will never be “a level playing field” (to cite a statist metaphor from sport), but liberals, as such, do not seem to care much about that. The economists recommended the statists to allow free trade to exploit comparative advantage, which thrives on inequality and any unequal advantage that we might find. However, the state cannot completely indulge free trade, as freedom needs to be trade free of the state, ipso facto.

The EU aims at being a super-state, not a free-trade area. It seeks power and influence in the world. It aims to be the number one state no less.
What classical liberal ever complains about dumping? I have seen no pristine liberal complain against cheap goods.

Henderson says free trade does not mean free immigration, as, logically speaking, trade is made for humans, rather than humans for trade. But free trade usually does tend to mean a free flow of immigration too.

Henderson claims we can exchange goods and services without allowing free immigration if society does not want to, but there is no such person called society. However, in a liberal society no one needs to accept immigrants, to give them jobs, lodgings, etc. if they do not wish to do so, as social liberty is liberty on both sides. Society cannot decide but any person can decide for himself.

Yes, taxation scotches free trade, as does any state.

Democracy is not liberal but an attempt to govern: voting is illiberal, gratuitous, coercion against others.

Henderson says that comparative advantage has little reality to it. But it is very clear that some parts of the world (e.g., South America) grow bananas, say, way more easily and more cheaply than can be grown at other places, say, Northern Europe. They expoit the uneven playing field. He believes that as this may change, so it does not matter, but that is not germane, not even one iota. Every person does what he does best at any one time. That the comparative advantage can change, in some cases, hardly means it is not important at any one time.

Higher tax regimes and higher welfare provision tend to lower real wages, but Henderson writes as if he thinks they can boost them. Only greater output can do that and the state hampers output by taxing it to pay for services that no one wants but the rulers think is vital to civilisation. So, for example, we have the spectacle of subsidised, often empty, buses circulating around UK towns and cities to maintain an alleged social service on a regular timetable.

As we have had the modern state since the rise of the modern market, we have never had completely free trade. Henderson believes it was reckless to go in for freer trade in the nineteenth century. He believes industrial dominance, primitive transport
levels, and the slow industrialisation of the USA and other European lands, allowed the UK to dodge the hazards. But after 1870, that was not the case any longer and the British market was then flooded with food and wool. Many states then went protectionist, but Britain failed to do so. It paid the price for this folly of freer trade, he argues, as the industrial predominance it had once enjoyed was soon lost. The UK's agricultural markets were destroyed and new industries (e.g., chemicals) soon arose that left the UK behind. In contrast, Henderson argues, the protectionist policy of the USA and Germany enabled both states to exceed the UK’s GNP. But there was no need for the UK to retain the lead in any industry. The fact that other places were catching up and then overtaking the UK boosted wages even in the UK. Henderson seems to think the object is for the UK to forever lead the world in this or that sector, but the objective of economic activity is to boost the standard of living, not to dominate the world. He overlooks that state protectionism is very wasteful and seems to think that there is a clash of interests on the world division of labour, but very little of the market is in competition. Firms compete for customers but most of the market, as Alfred Marshall pointed out in 1890, is the result of cooperation. Even the competition, he noted, was within a cooperative framework.
Bismarck seemed to overlook the wastefulness of protectionism and of politics in general.
What he thought was wrong is hardly anything to do with the truth. Trade is to do with firms, not nations; still less to do with the wasteful state. Trade aids both a producer and a consumer surplus, so both sides gain by trade but taxation is negative sum, so we all lose out, on the whole, from any political action; and maybe both sides do too; though the
politicians act as if they gain from what they do.

It was not protectionism that made the first industrial “revolution” but the flourishing of science, technology and business. Henderson overestimates bias to home trade and he writes as if the EU and the WTO aid free trade rather than hindering it, ipso facto, by their very existence. The idea that free trade needs to be mitigated is on par with the idea that economic growth or increased income needs to be mitigated. Henderson also overrates the British Empire in trade, even though he is explicitly cautious about that. He believes free trade was a risk in 1850 for Britain, and that it is for all nations now, but he
overlooks that it is the best way that firms can do well. Politics is wasteful, by contrast, but Henderson believes that the state is a boon. He tells of free trade as idiocy, but it is clearly politics that is perversely negative sum and thereby clearly wasteful idiocy.

It is not clear that Henderson fully understands free trade, let alone the history of it, but he loves the state and the state-imposed wasteful problem of defence, that he believes the nineteenth century liberals were careful about, but the truth is that the liberals hated warmongering. Liberals, like Richard Cobden, were out to stop the backward state courting war. But it is true that the pristine liberals of the LA are more against the state than the Manchester School ever was.

Henderson postulates that complete free trade today would be dangerous for the West. He believes no firm can compete with low wages around the world. But this wage gap with what they call the "Third World" was caused by the backward rejection of free trade after 1914 and after the war that ended in 1918. Why would the wage rates on the other side of the world affect most of the trade in Britain? Could it affect local plumbers, carpenters and the like? Most trade will remain local but given free trade, then international wages will soon even up around the world anyway owing to the export of capital.

We are told by Henderson that experience tells us that industrialisation is best achieved by protection but that is wasteful, ipso facto, as all politics is. He overlooks that, or, more likely, he has never yet quite realised it.

Henderson tells us “the most lethal ammunition to discharge at free traders is the fact that no country in the history of the world has industrialised successfully without very strong protectionist measures being in place”, but this is a mere fallacy of post hoc; ergo propter hoc and it overlooks the cost of such protectionism in every case. The point is a brutum fulmen. However, it haply is about the best any protectionist can do.
The spread of British capital overseas would have haply stopped the "Third World” from arising, thereby dodging the current problem of mass immigration to where the capital, and thus the higher wages, are to be had. Nationalist measures “distort” the world division of labour. Free trade (or freer trade) did/does aid economic development everywhere, including in pre-1913 Germany. Henderson should note that the protectionism imposed after 1914 created the main problem that seems to concern him today, viz. the existence of lower wages in the Third World that threaten to pull down wages in the First World. Athough an increase in world production would likely lead to higher real wages for the First World, his protectionist “solution” would not remove this problem, but rather prolong it. As previously mentioned, freer trade was evening up wages around the world before 1914.

Protectionism did not aid the UK to recover after 1931. Henderson fails to explain this beyond his aforementioned post hoc fallacy, as there is nothing to aid economic development in protectionism. It simply allows firms to be free from competition from abroad. As free trade is basic economics, there is no need to call it a "secular religion", as there is nothing whatsoever religious about it. Firms need to keep up to date with all other firms under free trade, but they can become stagnant with protectionism. There is always free trade within a nation, and as the EU was attempting to become a super-state (or a new nation), then there would be free trade within the nations it was attempting to make mere provinces.

Protectionism always taxes the economy. Henderson argues that free trade is not necessary for rapid economic growth; that state regulation of the domestic market and international trade is not a recipe for disaster; and that being a “free trader” when the rest of the world is not reciprocating is a mug’s game. But some liberty is vital to economic growth and politics taxes the public, so even when it dodges being a total disaster, the state never dodges imposing extra costs. Anyway, one-way free trade is fine as there is no need at all to respond to tariffs of others with those of your own, as that will only increase the dysfunctional politics. Contrary to Henderson, it is politics that is the mug’s game, as it is always negative sum. Trade, by contrast, is always economic, so it is always positive sum. Henderson imagines we do not know whether protectionism is dysfunctional or not, but it always costs extra taxation; thus, it is always uneconomic or negative sum. So we do know that it is wasteful.

Free trade is the same as the free market. In the colleges since about 1900, they have attempted to define laissez-faire as trade within the state's domain and free trade as between states, but this distinction is not very realistic because states do not trade, only firms and customers.

Governments are not the natural suppliers of health care; or, indeed, of any good.

Trade results in gains to the customer and producer immediately, not later. The gains may not be uniform but they are immediate surpluses to both traders. In what way do the later generations thereby lose out? As for politicians, they live off taxation, thus they make the public poorer to the extent that they tax them.

The fact that many lands are poor today is the result of the interruption of free trade by the 1914 war, which Henderson argues was a distortion of domestic trade. But this idea that domestic trade should be separate from the worldwide division of labour is an arbitrary idea. Free trade would soon iron out the Third World, such that there would be soon no longer a massive advantage in mass immigration to seek jobs elsewhere, though some competition in a more even world would continue. The capital would go to the workers rather than the workers emmigrating for better pay.

Most of the jobs out there need no skills. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was utterly deluded with his “education, education, education” idea, viz. the popular idea that education was investment rather than being just sheer consumption, as it usually is. But increased output from successful new capital investment (including human capital -- but that is usually mustered by on the job learing rather than at college) means all wages are higher as a result of extra innovation that, if successful, increases total output.

Henderson believes that nitpicking over how exact are measurements of wealth might aid his case against liberalism. But the fact that the "poor" today are rich in absolute terms is clear no matter how useless the means of wealth measurement are.

Why does Henderson call council housing “social housing” when it is clear enough that it is very anti-social and, indeed, that it is a recipe for thugs? The popular press in the UK calls council housing "CHAVs", i.e. council house and violence.

What is called the welfare state is a public menace. That it has been rolled back a little bit since the 1960s is a social boon.
Why was unemployment so low till about 1970? It was obviously owing to the cleared labour market, but the media, falsely, held that to be a thing of the past in the 1970s and since. But we can always clear the labour market whenever the price, or the wage levels, are right. In the 1960s, the dole was taboo, as only a few workers, when exchanging jobs, would ever go there; it was a sign that a worker did not really want a job. By the
1970s, however, many thought that full-employment and the cleared labour market had naturally broken down, so from then on many accepted the need for the dole. The story put out by the media obfuscated the fact that only the dole allowed mass unemployment to ever be mustered in the mass urban society.

In absolute terms, it is easier than ever to support a family on a single wage today. But people want to do all the other things too. It is false that the mother does better for the family by taking a job. It is also false to say there is no choice involved. We do not need to conform to social norms.

A bigger state clearly needs to tax more.

Most people never did think much of state provision, falsely called social provision, although Henderson ignores the fact that it is anti-social. It is very clear that most in the UK are better off than in 1960, especially the poorest third, who are today fairly rich, with all the modern conveniences. In 1960, most households did not have running hot water, phones, or most other modern conveniences. The market, which needs to be free to some extent, and was so even within the late USSR, is alone responsible for progress since 1750. At no time has the state done other than impose a cost. Henderson does not seem to grasp that fact; he thinks it is something to do with elite ideology.

If people buy things then they usually want them more than they want the money they need to pay to obtain them.

People often fail to provide many things in computers and elsewhere.

Few things are truly necessities.

Brainwashing is a mere myth.

Henderson absurdly says people do not really want computers, but then he tells us why they want them. He says we all need computers today; so we want them as a means. As Thomas Hobbes said, we choose to do all we do, either as a means to an end, or as an end in itself.

Free trade ebbs power, so all lose power whenever trade gets freer. But then power is a certain evil and, as Lord Acton famously said, it tends to corrupt.

The poor are not subordinated to the rich on the market. The market lacks any power as, qua market, it is free.

I have never met anyone who loves equality and I tend to think that no one does. It is a silly, unexamined, school teacher dogma, worthy only of contempt.

The gains of trade are immediate; they do not trickle down.

No society is truly more than economic relationships. That is a mere misunderstanding of economics. Any desire for certainty will be for an aspect of the standard of living.
There has never been a working class. That is a myth of college sociology and politics departments. The Labour Party would win every election, hands down, if there were a UK working class interest, but rather than see the plain truth of very diverse economic interests, the backward academics hold those who voteTory are fooled in some way. But the workers are not the only ones who cannot see this purely imaginary proletarian economic class interests, for the sociologists cannot see it either.
People rarely notice where things are made.

It is no absurdity that free trade tends to crowd out war. Firms cannot afford to fight wars and the state can only afford to fight them owing to taxation.

Yes, the illiberal coercion of crass democracy is hostile to free trade, as it is an attempt at government, thus it is against liberty.

Henderson imagines democracy is a boon to the masses, but it never was. Nor was it ever popular. Protectionism is credited with this and that, but no explanation of how it does what he imagines it to do is attempted. Similarly, he gives no detailed charge against free trade apart from his fallacy of post hoc.

Similarly, he assumes a movement towards monopoly but he seems not to know this dogma was around before Marx was born in 1818 and it is not greater today than it was, say, in 1800.

The actual reality of things is that total output determines what wages can buy and, thus, their value.
Immigrants may destroy a nation by destroying the idea that it is a large family, thereby making many natives no longer feel they have a homeland. Nevertheless, immigrants do, boost output, which leads to rising real wages. The same is true for “exporting jobs”, which also boosts real wages. But Henderson thinks the value of wages are lowered thereby and he adds:

“Those whose jobs opportunities have been degraded have suffered a form of theft. Had mass immigration and the export of jobs been prevented, the wages for the jobs taken by immigrants would have been higher than they are when subjected to the additional competition of immigrant labour and the exported jobs would not have been exported, which in itself would have tightened the labour market. In societies of rising aspiration, this could result in jobs considered menial being better rewarded than those which enjoy high status under 'free trade' circumstances. It might be necessary to pay a sewage worker as much as a doctor. Doubtless many would throw their hands up at this. But there is no logic to such a response, because in a society with a large private enterprise component a wage is simply a response to the value the market puts on a job. Unskilled workers may not earn as much as the average doctor or lawyer at present, but skilled tradesmen such as plumbers and builders often do.”

But workers can only be paid from total output and that would be way lower in the set-up that Henderson imagines here. But it is true that supply and demand (i.e. free trade) tends to equalize wages and salaries. Free trade would end aristocracy rather than fostering it, as Henderson imagines. “Class” is just a bogus idea of the PC religion of Sociology. Anyone who talks class thereby talks crass stupidity. Democracy never did give the masses any control and the masses hate voting anyway. Participation is a waste of their time. It is boring at best and they want to be free of it. As the saying goes: “Committees take minutes but waste hours”.

Henderson repeatedly imagines that there is something social about the state, but the plain fact is that the state is intrinsically anti-social.

Democracy was an elite fashion, not something the masses ever wanted or needed; it thrived only on elite thoughtlessness. But Henderson tells us that, in fact, it was originally oligarchy, not true democracy. But then he absurdly adds that it nevertheless brought with it a lot of control by the masses. His contradiction is self-refuting. The true half of the contradiction is that it was oligarchy; the false half is the claim that democracy brought any real control by the masses.

The urge towards the EU was one for a successful warmongering super-state not a stand against democracy. It was for power and influence in the world. There is no effective democracy to oppose. Nor is it going to be more popular in the future, and ditto politics and religion. They never were popular but the acme of what little popularity they
ever had is, now, well in the past.

Henderson imagines this class interest of the elite is unconscious! It all arises from psychological and sociological forces; forces arising from PC religion, or from the anti-social sciences or the unnatural sciences.
A lot of wastage in any nation is owing to measures taken just in case of war, and the whole lot tend to foster war rather than to deter it. Free trade tends to crowd war out. But Henderson seems to welcome war. It is silly to call free trade a religion, but a bit less silly to call liberalism one, as it is a creed rather than mere phenomena. But state worship seems to have something nearer to the God worship of many religions, so religion is more to do with the immoral state.

Henderson is a fine one to write about the ignorance of others.

Smith was not quite right to say that the state was needed to do certain things. As the economist Milton Friedman said, anything the state can do the market can do better, but he overlooked that war was an exception.

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The FED is Trapped

Current AffairsPosted by Nico Metten Sun, September 20, 2015 12:51:34
The long anticipated 17th September final came. A lot of people thought that this would be the most important date of the year. The FED suggested that on this day they might final start raising rates from its 0-0.25% range by 25 basis points. And unfortunately, many people still take this committee of central planners seriously. They didn't raise, in case you wonder. And I doubt that they will be able to raise in the future.

The reality is that the FED is trapped. The keynesian claim that it is possible to print an economy to prosperity simply is not true, in other words it is a lie. This lie however is so sweet that many people just really want to believe it. But the difference between reality and the keynesian model is slowly getting so absurd that even the biggest dreamer cannot ignore it anymore. And so this Thursday was probably a big steps towards waking people up.

The fact is that the US government has to cook the books to even make it look like there is a mild recovery going on. The measure of inflation is constantly redefined, to make it look lower than it is. This is done for example by so called Hedonic Adjustments. If a product in the basket of goods that is suppose to measure inflation is getting more expensive, it is simply being replaced by another that has not gone up in price and that the government thinks is equally good. So if for example beef is in the basket and goes up in price, but chicken is not in the basket and does not go up, then beef is replaced by chicken in the basket. The idea is that consumers can then substitute chicken for beef and therefore do not experience inflation. So you better like chicken! A cheeky trick to get a lower inflation rate. And that is just one of them.

The unemployment rate is another important statistic that is manipulated. If someone hasn't found work in one year he is simply kicked out of the statistic as if he is no longer looking. That way the US now has an official unemployment rate of 5.1%. This, by historic standards is a really low rate that suggests that almost everyone who wants a job will find one. A good statistic to show how absurd this number is, is the labor participation rate, that means the rate of Americans in employment. That rate is at an almost historic low of 62.6%. How does that go together? The answer is that 5.1% unemployment is a fantasy.

Remarkable is that despite all the manipulation going on, the official growth of the US economy is only about 2% per year. That is of cause measured in GDP, which is a completely useless unit of measurement in itself. GDP does not measure the productivity of the economy. All it measures is the amount of money that is circulating. That means that if for example the government spends money, even borrowed money, it will show up as GDP growth, independent of how productive the money is spend. The government could employ people to dig ditches and others to fill them up again. The productivity of this work would obviously be negative, but GDP would still go up. GDP also goes up when unproductive asset prices like house prices go up. Amazingly, even though GDP can be manipulated, all the intervention by the government have not managed to get this statistic significantly up.

The FED is trapped. The interest rates in the US have been at 0% for over 80 month. In addition to that the FED has pumped over 3 trillion Dollars of printed money into the economy. And all that has done is to create official growth number of about two percent. The only effect it really had is the inflation of huge bubbles in bonds and equities. The reason for that is that the economy is simply at peak debt. Even at these low interest rates, people and companies cannot borrow more money, because they already have too much debt. The only people who can still borrow money are the financial sector who really gets this money for free and of course the government. Since they cannot kick start the economy again, the official line has been that as long as the stock market is OK, the rest of the economy cannot be too bad.

The trouble is that these bubbles are dependent on cheap money. In order to keep them inflated not only do interested rates have to stay as low as possible, they will soon have to start a new round of money printing. That is a problem, because in the long run, printing money will undermine the trust in the US Dollar. So far that has not happened, because the FED could make everyone believe that it has an exit strategy. Once the US economy is growing, it will hike rates again and buy back all the printed money.

But as I explained above, the US economy is very weak and based on debt. Therefore, if debt gets more expensive the rest of what looks like a productive economy will simply implode. If however they do not hike rates, then more and more people will realise that the exit strategy is not real. Therefore it will undermine the confidence in the Dollar. That way the US economy will also implode. So no matter what they do, it looks like that keynesianism has finally checkmate itself. With this month FED decision to rest rates at 0%, more and more people will realise that the economy is worse than it seems and that the FED is not really in control of the markets.

My guess is that they will not hike rates voluntarily. Eventually of course the market will force them to. There is a small possibility that they will raise rates by 25 basis point in the next few month, but even that is unlikely. The reason is that if they do raise rates, the economy will implode and they will immediately have to reverse the rise. That will make it look like they do not know what they are doing and undermine their credibility. And they cannot really raise rates without a really strong economy, because the US government is highly indebted too. That is the difference to 1981, when then FED chairman Paul Volcker raised rates to 20%. At that time the US government did not have a debt problem. Now they have one and if the economy implodes, tax revenues will go down and dept/GDP numbers will rise, making the debt situation of the government worse. If simultaneously interest rates go up, the government will quickly have to declare bankruptcy. And since the government has more guns than anyone else, they will get the policy that is best for them, that is low interest rates and lots of money printing. So hold on to your hats, there is an inflationary storm coming.

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