ArtsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Mon, May 04, 2015 22:15:30
I composed this little tale about fifteen years ago, and sent it to a
couple of magazines which promptly rejected it.
I then forgot about it until recently and thought of sending it to a few
more, but upon re-reading it I see it is out of date in many ways but not yet
ancient enough for retro appeal (“zero cool” still had a gleam at the time, but
is now covered in verdigris). My first
thought was that I might update it, but that would actually be a lot of work
and I might never get around to it. So
rather than just waste it entirely, I’m sticking it here.
I’ve never been to Beverly Hills, except in
the sense that we all have.
KIND OF A POWER
DAVID RAMSAY STEELE
Lucy moved all her stuff into Dan’s old office. The last item she carried in was the “Under
urgent consideration” pile of current scripts.
She placed this in the tray on the left of her desk, then gazed with
satisfaction at the Sony Pentium notebook, the phone, the bowl of polished stones,
the herbal bouquet, and the purplish black candle in the little silver
candlestick. This desk would never look
so tidy again, until maybe, a couple years down the road, she had her next
major promotion, probably to president of the agency. And then someone else would take over from
her the office she had now taken over from Dan.
The phone rang. It was Fiona in Human Resources. “Lucy, I have an Officer Martinez here, from
the police. Do you have a minute to talk with him? It’s about Dan.”
Ninety seconds later,
Fiona appeared at the office door, with a young man, single by the look of it,
who was wearing, not a police uniform, but a gray-green jacket and aqua shirt
which went quite well with his dark skin tone.
Not bad, thought Lucy.
This being her first
day, in fact her first five minutes, in her new office, she had a choice of
uncluttered chairs to offer Martinez. He was looking at her Welsh brooch.
“Is that . . .?”
symbol. Would you be a spiritual
“No.” And then by way
of explanation: “Catholic.”
“Just a few points we
need to clarify. This was Daniel
Zegarac’s office? Ms. McGregor informs
me you now have Mr. Zegarac’s job.”
Martinez’s black eyes darted about like a
snake’s tongue. Lucy had been looking
forward to a few minutes alone to gloat over her new corner office with the
zero cool view and enough bookshelf space to encompass a basic herb garden in
seven earthenware pots. It might have
been better to have seen the cop in a conference room.
Martinez asked a few general questions about
Dan and quite naturally slipped in a few about Lucy. She explained the nature of Dan’s job, now
her job. She gave Martinez
her routine little chat about the work of the agency, representing creative
talent in the Hollywood jungle, getting the
most promising scripts to the right people in the studios. Fiona
should have taken care of this.
vaguely wondered why the police were interested at all. Maybe they needed to rule out suicide for
insurance purposes, though if she’d considered it seriously, she’d have known
that wouldn’t be police business.
Martinez paused and
Lucy picked up a hint of awkwardness.
She thought she knew what he would say next. She almost helped him along by inquiring
“Just what kind of a script is it?”
But she was
mistaken. Martinez was not about to
mention his screenplay, or his girlfriend’s or brother-in-law’s screenplay.
He said: “We now
believe that Daniel Zegarac’s death was not accidental. Mr. Zegarac was murdered.”
His eyes had stopped
their restless flickering. They were fixed
on Lucy’s face. What he saw there was an
instant of pure, unfeigned astonishment.
“We were told it was
an accident,” said Lucy. “Wasn’t he
working on a boat?”
“He was building a
yacht. He fell and broke his neck. Since the autopsy, we now believe someone
gave him a push.”
Deftly massaging the
truth was second nature to Detective Martinez.
He didn’t explain that a witness had seen someone leaving Dan Zegarac’s
place close to the time of his fatal fall, and only because of that had the
police and the coroner looked more closely for signs of foul play. There was nothing in the autopsy report to
definitely indicate homicide. Once they
looked, however, they found details of the fatal scene that were atypical in
this kind of accident.
She said: “Wow, that’s . . . Why would anyone
kill Dan? You have any idea who did it?”
Fortunately, Lucy had not yet put up her
movie festival posters. Martinez was
sitting in front of a plain peach wall, which made it child’s play to
scrutinize his aura. Applying her
well-honed technique, she could instantly make out that this aura had blue and
turquoise points. Not a man to be taken
lightly, but no signs of unusual potency, at least not of a spiritual kind. Years of experience had taught her that by a
little deeper concentration she could see beyond the immediate manifestation,
to a faint kind of secondary aura, invisible to all save the most spiritually
discerning. She perceived a thin brown
smoke, some underlying ominous quality, an emanation of violence. Not surprising in a homicide detective, given
the kinds of experiences he must be familiar with almost daily. This whole analysis took less than two
seconds. Lucy was very good at it.
“It’s early in the
investigation,” said Martinez. How well
did you know him? Would you know if he
had any enemies?”
“Not really. Not that I can think of. A lot of people around here didn’t like him,
but not enough to . . . want to hurt him.”
“Not mixed up in
anything shady? Drugs or anything like
that?” The purpose of this question was to ascertain whether Lucy would snatch
the opportunity to send him off in an irrelevant direction; she merely shook
“Did you personally
like him? Did you get on well with him?”
He made my life a misery. When I
heard about the accident, I felt like celebrating. “Dan could be very trying. We had our issues, work-related issues. But . . . I was just appalled that he died. I couldn’t believe it. I was really upset. We all were.”
If Martinez had not already been informed that she had loathed Dan and
fought him bitterly over the recent negotiations with Bernstein at Columbia
TriStar, someone was sure to tell him.
“Okay.” Martinez made a slight movement in his chair,
a hint that he was about to get up and leave.
“Uh, one last thing. This is a
routine question we have to ask everyone.
Where were you on the night of May 6th?”
She checked her palm
pilot. Nothing on that night.
“I must have been at
home watching TV. Yeah, I’m sure I
was. Then in bed. Asleep.”
“Alone all the time?”
“Totally.” She pulled a mock-dismayed face and added:
Martinez didn’t smile,
but his voice was soft enough to perhaps indicate sympathy. “It’s routine. We have to check on everyone.”
Not so routine was the
call she took from Detective Martinez a few days later. He asked her to stop by police
headquarters. He was ready to say that
she needed to be there to look at an artist’s sketch of the person seen leaving
the scene of the homicide. Surprisingly,
she agreed to be there, without any need to invoke this contrived rationale.
When she showed at
headquarters, Martinez had more questions of a general nature. Then: “Would you say you’ve been lucky in
Uh oh. “Some good luck. Some bad luck. A whole lot of hard work.”
“As a matter of fact,
you’ve had some lucky breaks.”
Lucy guessed what was coming next.
So they’ve noticed. Well, they can’t
know anything. And even if they did,
what could they do about it?
“As I look at the trajectory of your career,
I see you’ve had three big breaks. And
each one of those lucky breaks has been precipitated by the death of a
colleague.” Trajectory. Precipitated. Definitely has a screenplay.
Lucy felt slightly dazed but not
anxious. If she’d been even moderately
perturbed she’d have gone straight into Great Pan breathing for serenity of
soul, but this hadn’t been necessary.
Martinez said: “Quite
a coincidence.” He paused and looked around the room in an oddly unfocussed
way. Lucy abruptly knew that colleagues of
Martinez were watching her reactions from an adjacent room and—of course—videotaping them. Weren’t they supposed to warn you in advance
when they did that? Or at least tell you
they considered you a suspect? This is so LAPD. Either they would swear under oath that they had warned her, or, if they thought they
had a case against her—not that this could ever happen—they’d swear that not
informing her was a careless and deeply regretted slip.
Martinez had Lucy’s
basic bio on a sheet of paper, and was checking off each item. Yes, in her previous job she had worked for
the Tom Davenport agency. Yes, twelve
years ago she had been assistant to Mary Nolan.
She got on badly with Nolan, who had recommended that Lucy be canned.
“Business was bad,”
Lucy recalled. “They were looking for
“Nolan’s body turned
up in her swimming pool. So they got
themselves a headcount reduction.”
Martinez kept the irony out of his voice. He didn’t reveal that the drowning had been
viewed at the time as suspicious and a police report had been generated. An unidentified DNA sample was on file. The report was inconclusive and the
investigation had been shelved.
Lucy had taken over
Mary’s job, an arrangement that was eventually made permanent. When business improved she got her own
Five years later,
Lucy’s boss at Davenport was Eddie McInerny.
Though she had been Eddie’s protégé—Martinez didn’t yet know she had
also been his mistress—their relationship soured and they held sharply opposed
views on the future direction of the agency.
McInerny’s house burned down. Something fatty
had been left simmering on a kitchen stove.
He slept through the thickening fumes and was dead of smoke inhalation
before his flesh began to char. The body contained traces of cocaine and three
other controlled substances.
“He could have been
zonked on drugs and forgotten to turn off the stove. Or he could have had help.” Help with the zonking or help with the fire,
or both. Still, there was no proof this
wasn’t a typical accidental blaze.
So here was a second
apparently accidental death of a colleague with whom Lucy had developed an
acrimonious relationship. A second
career boost, as it turned out, for Lucy had quickly concluded the deal that
Eddie had been working on, the deal that turned the Davenport Agency around.
Opinions might differ on whether two deaths
and two career boosts were or were not an extraordinary coincidence. Subsequently Lucy, with a number of lucrative
movie deals to her credit, had moved into a senior position at the Paulsen
Creative Talent Agency. And after five
years here, bingo, we have a third seemingly accidental death of a colleague
who clashed with Lucy, who quarreled with Lucy, and whose removal would likely
help Lucy. Surely this is beyond
Martinez had read
about individuals who’d been struck by lightning on three separate
occasions. Astounding coincidences could
happen, were bound to happen once in a while.
Or perhaps some persons had physical qualities or chosen habits that
made them unusually likely to be struck by lightning. Could there possibly be people whose personal
qualities made it fatal for others to get in their way? Detective Martinez didn’t think so. He was open-minded but not unduly credulous.
Martinez was an excellent listener.
I did a good job,” Lucy was saying.
“You can’t say I’ve coasted to the top by wasting the competition.” She didn’t intend to sound amused, but a
little of that came through.
thoughtful: “It could be fifty percent job performance and fifty percent
luck.” He might have been speaking of
his own career in the police department.
“A person could do okay on job performance and still decide on some
pro-active interventions to improve the odds.”
Even as he said this, Martinez
couldn’t make himself believe it. The
story just wouldn’t walk, it wouldn’t bark, it wouldn’t wag its tail. And whether he believed it or not, no one in
the DA’s office would want to parade it on a leash in front of a jury. Some link had to be found between Lucy
Armstrong and the death scenes. So far,
Looking at her soft
countenance, long red hair, and nicely curved figure, Martinez briefly
considered the possibility he was mentally exonerating her because he liked the
look of her. He didn’t think so. Only six months before, he had not hesitated
to pursue and arrest the mouth-watering Mrs. Mulligan, who had quite
understandably, after more than ample provocation, hired a contract killer to
dispose of her exasperating but well-insured husband.
Martinez could have placed Lucy as a serial
murderer if she’d worn tight black pants, cropped hair, a leaner physique, a
bonier face. Or, given her actual
persona, if Nolan, McInerny, and Zegarac had been poisoned. Any type of person might commit murder, but
he couldn’t see Lucy sneaking out to Zegarac’s house at dead of night and
pushing him off a ladder. Also, the DNA
found at the Nolan drowning was male.
And the person seen leaving the Zegarac homicide scene was believed to
coincidence is ruled out. Suppose also
Lucy Armstrong did not kill these three people.
What are we left with?
Lucy thought of mentioning that she’d been in Denver when Mary Nolan
died, and in Paris when Eddie McInerny died.
Did Martinez know that yet? He
would find out about Europe first, then about Denver. Let him
Martinez was trying a
different approach. “You must have
thought about this yourself. What did
A little shrug.
“Coincidence?” There are no coincidences.
Synchronicity is a law of nature, just like gravity. That was Zuleika,
holding forth in her preachy way.
Zuleika had been right about synchronicity, of course.
else ever comment about this coincidence?”
One time, just before
she’d left Davenport, when someone had gone quiet, tailed off in mid-sentence,
and the other two people present had looked embarrassed. As though they had some knowledge in
common—probably knowledge of a conversation in which they had speculated avidly
about Lucy’s benefiting from two deaths in a row.
Then there was
Laura. Laura had said: “So the spells
worked, then.” Lightly enough to show
she wasn’t concerned. Warmly enough that
it could have been more than just a joke.
Lucy smiled at the recollection.
He’s sharp. “Someone joked about
it. Said the spells work.”
Why not? He can find out anyway. “I was into Wicca.” Blank stare from Martinez. “I belonged to a coven.”
“You’re a witch?”
“We called ourselves
students of Wicca. This was a few years
back. People around the office knew
something about it. There were
jokes.” Let the Cowans mock.
“You’re not into this
“The coven was
disbanded. I haven’t really kept it
up.” Like the South Beach diet, except
that she really hadn’t kept that up.
Disbanded. You could say the Spirits of Light Coven had
been disbanded. Zuleika sputtering with
rage, her lips positively frothing. “I offered you the world and you betrayed
me, you loathsome creature, you rotten hypocrite.” Her Russian accent thickened as her
adrenaline level rose. “Your pathetic little act is finished. You’re under my curse . . . yes, my curse!”
“You worshipped the
Devil?” Martinez wanted to know.
A brief exhalation of
amusement. The usual misconceptions. “Wicca has nothing to do with His Satanic
Majesty. Really. It’s nature worship, not devil worship. Though I do know a couple devotees of Satan,
and they’re, like, totally nice people who wouldn’t hurt a fly. . . .”
Lucy found herself parroting one of Zuleika’s
set pieces: “Wicca sees the divine manifest in all creation. The cycles of nature are the holy days of
Wicca, the earth is the temple of Wicca, all life-forms are its prophets and
teachers. Wiccans respect life, cherish
the free will of sentient beings, and acknowledge the sanctity of the
environment.” That’s about all the Cowans need to know.
this. “So. Did you nature worshippers
put spells on people you wanted out of the way?”
“We were so totally not about that. Wiccans believe for every action there’s a
reaction. If you send out evil energy,
it’ll return to you threefold.” Only if
your enemy is protected by a sufficiently strong charm. “Using spells to coerce or injure is always
evil.” But possible. And evil’s kind of
a relative thing.
stick pins in voodoo dolls?”
The absurd preoccupation with physical props. “Oh no.
I respect voodoo as an authentic grassroots religion of the Haitian
people and an expression of community solidarity in the face of neo-colonialist
exploitation.” Lucy had majored in
Sociology at Berkeley. “Voodoo is a
totally valid kind of folk tradition; Wicca is different.”
She didn’t mention
that the Wicca tradition does involve acquiring some of the enemy’s hair or
fingernails, and burning them over a black candle with appropriate
incantations, on four consecutive nights when the Moon is waning. Let him
do his own research. Why do I pay
property taxes? But this was a
portion of the tradition that she had repudiated, and the online record of her
dispute with the Reverend Zuleika LeGrand would attest to that. In any case, it was all totally
academic. The DA’s office was not going
to indict anyone, in the twenty-first century, for casting spells.
The meeting had been a formality, the concluding handshake to months of
negotiations. In the Paulsen Agency’s
glass conference room, amid blue sky and green palms, business was over, the
chit-chat was winding down, lunch was in the offing, and there came an
“Ms. Armstrong, do you have a moment, please?” It was Martinez,
standing in the doorway, lithe and springy on his feet.
Around the table were
Paulsen’s president, Jay Maxwell, Bill Rescher from Public Relations, the
writer Joss Whedon, and, in a rare appearance, the legendary Clyde Paulsen
himself. Whedon would rewrite his story
along the lines agreed to, and the agency would pay him half a million for the
“Just a couple of
questions.” The voice was as gravely
courteous as ever. Maxwell and Whedon
didn’t seem to notice: Martinez might just as well be the limo driver. Rescher looked distinctly annoyed at the
interruption. Paulsen appeared
fascinated, but then, he always did.
Lucy found Martinez’s
feeble ambush both mildly diverting and mildly irritating. For him to appear like this, without prior
warning, while she was with other people, was a planned attempt to disconcert
her. She was slightly embarrassed for
him because it wasn’t very well done.
“How can I help you
this time? Why don’t we go to my
office?” A warm smile and a cheerful
lilt, but in that moment Lucy decided this would be the last interview. Before saying goodbye to Martinez, she would
let him know that all future communications had to go through her lawyer. One-on-oneing with Martinez had been fine,
but she wouldn’t be Columboed, even ineffectually.
Over the next few weeks, Lucy’s attorney Steve Gordon heard from
Martinez a couple of times with what seemed like trivial inquiries. Martinez appeared at the Paulsen offices more
than once, and she heard of other people who had been questioned.
Laura was away in Cannes, lucky Laura. In the evenings, there seemed to be more
squad cars than usual, making more commotion than usual, near Lucy’s
condo. Before going to bed, she would
call Laura—it was early morning in Cannes—and exchange reports. They would enjoy a good chuckle about agency
office happenings, who was doing what to whom in Cannes, Laura’s own
hair-raising adventures, Hollywood scuttlebutt, the hunk Martinez, and the
strange investigation into Dan Zegarac’s demise.
The day before Laura was to get back in LA,
Gordon took a call from a female cop named Bennett, asking to set up a
meeting. Bennett said just enough to
convince Gordon that his client was not a suspect, and that she would
personally benefit from being present.
When Gordon called Lucy, she immediately insisted on co-operating.
So here they were. The two cops, Lucy, and her lawyer.
“We requested this meeting,” said Bennett,
“because of a few points we need to clarify, and because we have information
Ms. Armstrong needs to be aware of. Let
me say right away that Ms. Armstrong is not a suspect. We’re grateful to her for her co-operation. We do have a few questions for her. Then we’ll explain the latest developments in
Gordon turned to Lucy and was about to
whisper something; she held up her hand and shook her head. “I’ll answer. Go ahead.” But
don’t trust them.
Martinez asked: “How well do you know William
What the . . .? “I’ve known him for yea long. He was with Davenport.”
both worked at Davenport, and now you both work at Paulsen. He followed you here.”
“Yes. He joined us a year ago.”
“Do you know him
“Don’t see much of
him. He’s not involved directly with the
talent side of the business.”
Bennett asked: “On May
4th, did you tell William Rescher you were leaving town for several days?”
sharing an elevator ride with Bill. He’d
asked her if she was leaving for the airport, “for that Nebraska thing.” She’d said yes. She had been selected as one of the judges at
the new Nebraska festival. But the
festival had been called off, some scandal about funds.
“I was in a
hurry. Conversations with Bill tend to
go on too long. I was taking a taxi to
LAX but that was to say goodbye to a friend who was leaving for Europe. I didn’t want to take the time to get into
the convoluted messy story of why the Nebraska festival was cancelled.”
There was actually a
little more to it. She had lied on
impulse, not just to save the time of explaining, but because she somehow
instinctively didn’t want creepy Bill to know where she was or what she was
It occurred to Lucy that if she’d gone to
Nebraska as planned, she would have had a way solid alibi for all three deaths,
not just the first two. Yet still the
significance of this fact didn’t dawn on her.
“Did you ever date
Where’s this going? “Yeah. A
long time ago. That was, let me see now,
twelve years ago.” The week after she
started at Davenport. Bill was already
there, and that’s where she had first met him.
“Who terminated the
“There was no
“Can you recall
whether one of you wanted to go on dating, the other didn’t?”
“Oh, that would be him
kind of wanting to go on, me wanting to stop.”
“He upset about that?”
She had given it
barely a thought for twelve years, but now it came back to her. Bill had been younger and cuter then. She’d felt a bit mushy about being so brutal. God, there were tears in his eyes. He was all, “I can’t go on without you. You mean everything to me.” Sweet, at the time, but what a loser. Surely he got over it quickly. Four months later he married that anemic
blonde at the front desk, was still married to her, as far as Lucy could
Lucy’s next date was Brad Pitt. It was only once and that was six months
before the release of Thelma and Louise,
so he wasn’t big BO. But there was a
picture in Hollywood Reporter. That kind of publicity never hurt an agency,
and Eddie McInerny had been impressed. So
much for Bill Rescher.
“William Rescher is in
custody, said Bennett. “He has confessed
to the murder of Daniel Zegarac.”
“What? That’s way wacky.”
“He did it,” said
Martinez. “We have independent corroboration.”
totally putting you on. Did he even know
right. He barely knew him.” It was odd that Martinez said this as though
it clinched the case against Rescher.
Lucy sensed that they
were now getting to the whole point of the interview. What
kind of a trick is this? Lucy was
absolutely sure that Bill could not
have killed Dan. This just had to be a
smokescreen. But why?
Bennett cleared her throat and said: “Ms.
Armstrong, we have to tell you . . . because this may cause you some
embarrassment when he goes to trial.
William Rescher committed murder because of you. He’s seriously . . . infatuated with
you. He has been obsessively in love
with you for fourteen years. His motive
for killing Daniel Zegarac was to help you out.”
Lucy’s head was spinning. She instantly went into Great Pan breathing.
A long pause.
Martinez asked, “Did you have any idea he felt this way about you?”
“But that’s just . . . He must be . . . totally out of his mind.”
Lucy was rapidly computing. Numerous little recollections of subtle
oddities in Bill’s speech and behavior, at rare intervals over the past twelve
years, suddenly made sense. What the
police were telling her struck her with stunning force as true, even obviously
true, a truth screaming for recognition.
Yet it had to
because it contradicted her certain knowledge that she could bring down her
enemies by the sheer force of her mind.
She knew perfectly well that she had deliberately caused the deaths of
Mary Nolan, Eddie McInerny, and Dan Zegarac by her own unique magickal hexing
power. Therefore, Bill Rescher could not
have killed them.
“This must be a shock
for you, and also disgusting, like a violation,” said Bennett, seeking to
soften the blow by empathizing. “However
the evidence is that you’ve been the center of William Rescher’s thoughts for
the past fifteen years.
Don’t panic. Need to think. “You’re saying he did those other killings
“He may never be
charged with them, but . . . yes, we believe he did them.” Martinez chose not to reveal that a DNA trace
from the Nolan death matched Bill Rescher.
Rescher would be offered concessions for confessing to at least two of
the three homicides, preferably all three.
It didn’t matter anyway: Rescher would likely be acquitted by reason of
insanity and incarcerated for life in a mental institution.
In kind of a vertigo,
Lucy heard Bennett’s voice, as though from the other end of a long, winding
corridor: “Did Rescher ever tell you what he did before he got into the agency
business? He worked for an insurance company,
investigating claims. Before that he’d
been a small-town sheriff for a few years.
He knew something about domestic accidents and crime scene
investigations. So when he . . .
developed this psychotic obsession about you, he could easily see a practical
way to help you out.”
It took less than three minutes of turmoil
for the mist to be dispelled, for the simple truth to shine forth in all its
clarity, and for Lucy to feel once again completely in control. If Bill had directly engineered the deaths of
Mary Nolan, Eddie McInerny, and Dan Zegarac, this showed, not that Lucy didn’t
have the power to kill at a distance by the trained exercise of concentrated
thought, but that this formidable power of hers worked through a human
intermediary. Of course. She should have known it. Hadn’t she known it?
Zuleika had once said: “All occult powers
work through the human world; all human powers work through the natural
world.” Actually the gross old manatee
had said this more than once. It was one
of her irritating little sayings, as if she could have attained to some kind of
privileged wisdom. At the time, of
course, they had all hung on Zuleika’s every goddamn word.
All occult powers work through the human
world, the mental world. It was true
enough, and obvious enough, and therefore it was something Lucy must always
have known. Of course Bill was besotted with her and consumed with the mission of
serving her interests. Bill was an
instrumentality of the hex.
Within a few seconds of this surprising
thought, she began to feel that she had never been surprised at all. She conceived that she had been struck with
fresh force by a fact she had always taken for granted. The only surprise, it now seemed to her, was
the identity of the human agent. And she
would soon begin to recall that she had known all along, on some deep level of
her being, that it was Bill.
She could picture herself one day explaining
the principle of the thing to Laura and a select inner circle of devoted
followers: “What’s more in keeping with Wicca wisdom? That a witch might cause the death of an enemy
by using mental power to make a ladder collapse? Or that a witch might cause the death of an
enemy by influencing the mind of a third person who then kicks over the
ladder?” The answer could be no less
self-evident to Lucy and her followers than it had been to the sorry old fraud
Now Lucy had Bennett
figured out. She was the kind of
sympathetic cop who would be first choice to talk to a rape victim or to a
witness who had seen a loved one blown away.
Probably had a degree in social work.
Okay now, what would they expect me to say in this situation? “This is just awful,” Lucy wailed. “I thought I’d made it this far by my own
“It would be
unproductive to let that distress you.”
Bennett’s tone was almost maternal.
“Chance enters into everyone’s life.
Many people fail to get the promotion they deserve because someone
doesn’t like them, for instance. You
didn’t ask Rescher to do any of the things he did. And as far as we can see, he was not mainly
concerned about helping your career. It
seems he was thinking that each of these victims, at the time, was getting you
down, causing you severe emotional pain.
The way he thought of it, he couldn’t bear to see you suffer.”
Detective Martinez felt good about the case. Everything, or almost everything, had clicked
into place quite smoothly. A week after
his first meeting with Lucy, he’d found she had a cast-iron alibi for the death
of Dan Zegarac, an alibi she evidently didn’t even know about.
On the afternoon of
May 6th, Jordan Pirelli, actuary, e-trader, body-builder, occasional model, and
currently unbooked actor, had gone out of town leaving a faucet trickling in
his jacuzzi. When wet stuff came through
the ceilings of the condos below, the janitor, Frank Vucovic, had to make sure
of the source of the flood. Since Pirelli was a security-minded person who had
installed additional anti-theft devices, janitor Frank needed to have the fire
department break into Pirelli’s condo through the window. Before going to such lengths, Frank wanted to
be very sure of the source of the flooding, so he had called the neighboring
apartment, Lucy Armstrong’s, at 12:30 in the morning, and when she answered and
said she was still up, he had personally gone into her apartment, talked with
her, and checked around for any signs of leakage. This had taken about a minute. It wasn’t remarkable that Lucy didn’t recall
it—some people do forget unimportant occurrences in the few minutes before they
fall asleep. Frank vividly remembered
the whole sequence of events, which he was obliged to report in tiresome detail
to the building management later that morning.
It was a perfect
alibi. Not only did it place Lucy two
hours away from the scene of the crime, it was also a purely chance event;
there was no way she could have engineered it, certainly not with the required
precise timing. This ruled out the
possibility that she had arranged to provide herself with an alibi, knowing in
advance that the murder would take place.
It tended to eliminate her as an accomplice or accessory.
When Bill Rescher
displayed an interest in the questioning of Lucy, Martinez, in a reflexive
impulse to sow misdirection, hinted that she was the hot suspect. The calamitous look on Rescher’s face
intrigued Martinez, who began to feed Rescher with suggestions that Lucy was
the investigative target, and to ostentatiously pull her in for
questioning. Then Martinez had staged
his arrival at Paulsen to confront Lucy in Rescher’s company.
eagerness that Lucy should come to no harm, skilfully manipulated by Martinez,
had soon prompted Bill to confess to the killing of Dan Zegarac. Bill knew many details of the fatal scene. It was a couple of days before Martinez
mentioned to him that he was also a suspect in the Nolan and McInerny
killings. Once this matter was raised,
Rescher became exceedingly cagey. He
knew that Lucy had excellent alibis for those killings, so he had no motive to
confess to them. Martinez had not yet
informed him that DNA placed him at the scene of Mary Nolan’s drowning.
Hours of questioning
of Rescher and of Lucy had convinced Martinez that they had not been working
together. Rescher had acted alone and
without anyone else’s knowledge.
There were no major
loose ends. Something felt not quite
right about Lucy’s failure to volunteer her alibis for the Nolan and McInerny
deaths. But she was, after all, a deeply
spiritual person, which Martinez quite benevolently took to mean: occasionally
out to lunch and in need of a little practical guidance. For all her quick shrewdness, her mind could
sometimes be way off someplace on a broomstick.
The Council of Thirteen, the trustees of the coven, were all
there. Zuleika screeched: “You’re under my curse . . . yes, my curse!”
and slapped Lucy’s face. The next few
seconds of intense silence made that slap seem like the snapping of a bone,
though some eye-witnesses later argued about whether any blow had actually
landed. Lucy didn’t flinch but just
glared. Most of the onlookers felt
awkward as well as awed. Wiccans don’t
talk much about curses, and when they cast them, the entire rigmarole is
decorous and painstakingly slow. Yet
Zuleika was Zuleika. The members were embarrassed but also filled
with foreboding. They fully expected
something bad to happen to the delinquent Lucy, though possibly not for years.
That night, Zuleika,
never at a loss for captivating words, was paralyzed and rendered permanently
speechless by a stroke. Within hours,
self-effacing Ben Goldberg, Zuleika’s reliable lieutenant—and heir apparent now
that Lucy had vacated this role—was hit by a truck and put out of action. From the following morning when she heard the
news, Lucy never doubted her own awesome gift.
No member of the Spirits of Light Coven had
any doubts about what these events signified.
Lucy didn’t have to say anything.
For a few days, she thought she might assume the throne vacated by
Zuleika, but most of the members melted away.
They were impressed, even intimidated, but having been Zuleika’s
apostles they were not ready to switch allegiance to this disconcerting young
witch. Only Laura remained. And then, over the years, contacts were made with
a few more interested seekers: a new coven was discreetly in the making.
Martinez turned the steering wheel.
Bulky shoulders and taut arms, an efficient instrument of justice. He spent some time in Dave’s Gym, no time in
Dunkin’ Donuts. He wore a demeanor of
solemn dignity like a ceremonial robe.
His ancestors, Lucy divined, had been priests of Quetzalcoatl. They could be relied upon to hack out the
hearts of an endless procession of sacrificial victims to gratify their
ineffably potent god. Lucy was enough of
a postmodernist to feel at home with her vision of this vanished mystical
empire, with its pitiless established church ever thirsty for more daily
gallons of fresh human blood. Our own
society is brutal enough in its way, just kind of a different way, what with
corporate greed, global warming, and all.
Martinez thought he
was beginning to know Lucy better, to pierce beneath her unruffled
surface. She had never acted as upset as
he’d expected. She was calm; most of the
time she radiated an awesome sense of calm; he couldn’t help admiring her
amazing calm. Inside of her, she
undoubtedly did experience turbulent emotions.
Learning of Rescher’s sick obsession had shaken her. The observable signs were subtle, subdued,
yet there was no mistaking the juddering impact of tremendous shock, an eight
on her personal Richter scale, at the moment when she had learned of Bill’s
confession. She definitely had been
shaken. She was still shaken. Better see her right to her door.
“For me this is another case to be filed
away. For you it must be a little bit
He for sure
has a script. Detective Martinez stopped the car right on
the corner by Lucy’s condo building.
She said: “I guess you come across some,
like, really weird stuff in your job. As
weird as anything in the movies. Or even
“As a matter of fact . . .,” began Hugo
© 2001 David Ramsay
SociologyPosted by David Ramsay Steele Sun, September 21, 2014 21:01:02
Andy West analyzes climate catastrophism
as a ‘memeplex’. The most complete
version of his argument is presented in a long essay titled ‘The Memeplex of
Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming’, available at his blog <wearenarrative.wordpress.com/>. This essay, or fragments and summaries of it,
have been widely circulated and some climate skeptics have welcomed West’s
begin with where I agree with West. Despite
the occasional description of climate catastrophism by Rush Limbaugh and a few others
as a ‘hoax’, the term ‘hoax’ implies that the perpetrators don’t themselves
believe in it, whereas it’s only too obvious that in this case they do believe
in it. Climate catastrophism is no more
a hoax than Marxism, Islam, psychoanalysis, or Seventh-Day Adventism. Or, if we want to take examples from
institutional science, cold fusion, Martian canals, or Lysenkoism.
Climate skeptics have often
likened catastrophism to a religion (and catastrophists sometimes liken climate
skepticism to a religion—when they’re not claiming that it’s all paid for by
the oil companies and is therefore a hoax).
West maintains that this likening of catastrophism to a religion is a
basically correct insight, but slightly misdefined, in that global warming catastrophism
and, say, Mormonism, are both instances of a category broader than that of
religion, a category West calls the “memeplex.”
Up to this point, I completely
agree with West, though I more often employ a different terminology. I would say that climate catastrophism and
Mormonism are both instances of an enthusiastic
belief system. (Come to think of it,
Mormonism began with a hoax, when the
con artist Joseph Smith dishonestly claimed he’d gotten The Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni, but it’s not a hoax today
and has millions of sincere adherents.)
I’ll explain where I think Andy West goes wrong. According to Richard Dawkins, who coined the
term ‘meme’ in his 1976 book, The Selfish
Gene, a meme is a unit of cultural transmission, just as a gene is a unit
of biological transmission. Anything
culturally transmitted is a meme. All of
literature, science, religion, music, common-sense wisdom, and technology
consists of memes, and nothing but memes.
The first law of thermodynamics is just as much a meme as the story of
Eve and the Serpent (or we can view each as a set of memes; this makes no
difference). Andy West’s writing, like
mine and like Al Gore’s, consists of nothing but memes. Any idea, belief, or practice, capable of
being picked up by one human from another human and thus perpetuated culturally,
is a meme. No exceptions: this is the
definition of ‘meme’.
be focusing here on beliefs, so I’ll equate a meme with a belief. Since it doesn’t affect any of the issues,
I’ll ignore here the fact that some memes are not beliefs—a meme may be a
practice or an idea that is not believed in, because it does not assert
anything about the way the world is.
every belief is a meme, it follows that every assemblage of beliefs is an
assemblage of memes. Andy West, however,
wants to exclude some assemblages of beliefs from his category of
‘memeplexes’. He doesn’t see climate
skepticism as a memeplex and he’s not going to agree that his own theory of
memeplexes is itself a memeplex.
It seems likely from his essay
that he even refuses to recognize some transmissible beliefs as memes, and
there are certainly numerous passing remarks indicating that West confines the
term ‘memeplex’ to a very restricted range of belief systems. Take West’s reference (p. 58) to “Both the
laudable and the lurking memetic content” (p. 2) in an essay by Pascal Bruckner
(a French philosopher, author of The
Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, critical of greenism or what he calls “ecologism”). How can there be a “lurking” memetic content
in Bruckner’s essay when every idea in that essay, and in every essay ever
penned, including every essay by Andy West, is a meme? And notice how “laudable’ is counterposed
with “memetic.” West tells us that
“Memeplexes wallow in uncertainty and confusion” (p. 3). I’m guessing he wouldn’t say that quantum
mechanics wallows in uncertainty and confusion.
He does tell us that “If done properly, science is anti-memetic” (p.
A parallel would be if someone
wanted to say that not all bits of a chromosome carrying information about the
organism’s structure and behavior are to be called ‘genes’. Some are to be called ‘genes’ and others are
not to be called ‘genes’, and we are then going to discuss the baleful
influence of these ‘genes’ on the way the organism works, the implication being
that the heritable bits of information we’re not calling ‘genes’ (but leaving
unnamed and undescribed) are somehow healthy and unproblematic, while the
‘genes’ are a seriously disturbing influence.
(And this might even have a popular resonance. A survey of why some people are nervous about
genetically modified vegetables found that the main reason was that these
people had heard that the vegetables in question contain genes!)
Andy West is not alone. The term ‘meme’ has achieved a currency
beyond that of scholars interested in cultural transmission, and as so often
happens, the term has changed its meaning as it has passed from specialized to
more general usage. So today we often
come across the definition of a ‘meme’ as something mindless, something
non-reflective, something perhaps even irrational. West has simply adopted this popular
modification of the meaning of ‘meme’.
It’s one thing to say that
beliefs may sometimes survive for reasons other than their appeal to reason and
evidence. It’s quite another to say that
only beliefs which survive for such reasons are to be called ‘memes’. One thing that Dawkins’s concept of the meme
alerts us to is that an idea may spread for reasons other than the ostensible
ones. That is true and can be
illuminating, but it does not help to then confine the concept of ‘meme’ to
those case where the actual reasons for its spread differ from the ostensible
ones. And, let’s never forget, an idea
may spread for reasons other than the ostensible ones and still be correct,
while an idea may spread for exactly the ostensible reasons and still be
I haven’t done a thorough check
on whether any other serious writers on memes have adopted, as West has, the more
popular meaning. But I do have Susan
Blackmore’s fine book, The Meme Machine (1999),
sitting on my shelf. This is the book
that popularized the term ‘memeplex’ (employed in 1995 by Hans-Cees Speel as a
contraction of ‘co-adapted meme complex’, though apparently Speel wasn’t the
first to use it). Blackmore makes it
clear in several passages in The Meme
Machine that she sticks to the original Dawkins definition of ‘meme’, as
applying equally to all kinds of beliefs, including those comprising science
and technology. For example she writes
that “Science, like religion, is a mass of memeplexes,” and “Science is
fundamentally a process; a set of methods for trying to distinguish true memes
from false ones” (p. 202). So Blackmore
accepts that a meme, if it is a belief about a matter of fact, is either true
or false, that we can take steps to distinguish true memes from false memes,
and that science is composed of memeplexes and therefore of memes.
Now, someone might try to defend Andy
West as follows: If West wants to define ‘memes’ and ‘memeplexes’ in a way that
differs from Dawkins’s and Blackmore’s original definitions, who is Steele to
say that he shouldn’t? True, there may
be some verbal confusion caused by the fact that some kinds of cultural transmission
are excluded from the memes, and not given an alternative name. But that could be taken care of by clearly
distinguishing memes from non-memes.
Unfortunately, however, West
never gives a clear explanation of what separates memes from non-memes or
memeplexes from other assemblages of memes.
And no such distinction can seriously be made—not one that will
withstand a few seconds’ scrutiny.
The division of belief systems
into those which appeal to reason and evidence and those which do not is a
hopeless task. If there are two
incompatible points of view, x and y, then an adherent of x will always say that y does not appeal to reason and evidence,
or at least does so to a lesser extent than x. And an advocate of y will say the same, only reversing the terms.
and the Actual Climate
West intimates that climate
catastrophism has little or nothing to do with the facts of what’s going on in
the climate (pp. 1–5), and this is no doubt one reason he has for viewing it as
a memeplex in his derogatory sense. But
CAGW adherents would not agree with this judgment. They would say that climate skeptics,
including West, are the ones who disregard the facts. I disagree with CAGW and agree with West on
this issue, in fact I go further, maintaining (as West explicitly does not)
that CAGW has been refuted. But the
point is that people like West, seeking to distinguish memeplexes from other
belief systems, are always going to classify as memeplexes those belief systems
they disavow or dislike, and refuse to classify as memeplexes those belief
systems they agree with. In other words,
once we set out to distinguish memeplexes along these lines, we can’t classify
CAGW as a memeplex without swallowing a whole chunk of the arguments of its
opponents. Discussing CAGW as West does
becomes a way of denigrating it without addressing its arguments. It can easily become an excuse for ad hominem
attacks, masquerading as study of memetic processes.
Where have we come across this
kind of thing before? Most conspicuously
in the case of psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalysts had the habit of diagnosing their opponents instead of
addressing their arguments. If you read Ernest
Jones’s life of Freud, you’ll notice how everyone who had a falling out with
Freud turned out to be seriously mentally ill, which explains why they adopted
the theoretical positions they did.
There was therefore no need for Jones to outline these positions or to
offer a refutation of these positions.
someone might think that the distinction between memeplexes and non-memeplexes
can be made by asserting that memeplexes are insulated from reality. Perhaps West is gesturing in this direction
with his claim that CAGW has little to do with what’s going on in the climate. I agree with the gist of West’s claim—that
catastrophists tend to give insufficient weight to the many observations which
appear to go against their theory. But
we need to be careful here.
It’s characteristic of scientific
theories—virtually all of them—that their adherents tend to brush aside
apparently contrary considerations in a way that seems arbitrary to dissenters
from the theory or to outsiders to the field.
There are many examples of this phenomenon in the history of those
scientific theories that we all consider acceptable. For instance, when Pasteur revived, reformulated,
and corroborated the theory of infection by germs, numerous experts said
something along the lines of: ‘We can see that this theory must obviously be
false, because we observe that when several people are exposed to the same
conditions, and therefore presumably the same germs, some become sick and some
don’t.’ Refutation by observations (or
more strictly, by reports of observations) is not necessarily simple or
straightforward. The theory tends to
dominate the observations, selecting and interpreting them in a distinctive way. When West says that memeplexes “manipulate
perceptions” (p. 1), he may not realize that this applies to all theories
without exception. This is why there can
be paradigm shifts. This is why someone
as clever and well-read as Paul Feyerabend can advocate ‘epistemological
anarchism’ or ‘anything goes’ as the rule for science.
we really say that CAGW has nothing to do with what’s going on in the
climate? Surely there would have been no
CAGW if global mean surface temperature had not shown a net increase over the
past hundred years. If we look at the
reaction of CAGW proponents to the ‘Pause’—the fact that global mean surface
temperature has not risen in the past ten to thirty years (depending on your
favorite dataset)—we certainly do not observe that they are unconcerned about
it. They manifestly see it as something troublesome
that needs to be accounted for. When the
Pause started, many of them denied that it was happening. When this denial became impossible, many of
them said it could not possibly last much longer: just wait a year or two, and
then you’ll see a big spike in temperature!
Wrong again. As the Pause has
continued, they have responded in various ways, many of these mutually incompatible. They’re visibly troubled about it. And they will no doubt become increasingly
troubled with every year that the Pause continues, especially if we see
statistically significant cooling (as many skeptical climate scientists
predict). So I think it’s simplistic to
say that CAGW is sealed off from what’s actually happening in the climate.
To avoid misunderstanding, I should
point out that even without the Pause, the predictions of the CAGW crowd have
always been for more warming than has actually occurred. In every case, reality has turned out to be
cooler than what they confidently asserted would happen (or, in cases where
they gave a wide range of probabilities, the subsequent observations have been
at the extreme low end of the range, never close to the central values). Thus, even without the Pause, observations have
always told against their theory. And if
warming were to resume next year at the rate of the late twentieth century, the
new observations would continue to contradict the predictions of the IPCC
models. But the Pause is such a
contemptuous rebuff by Mother Nature, and something the broader public can so
easily grasp, that the CAGW zealots cannot escape the awareness that their
theory has landed in deep doo-doo.
West Forays into
West asks: “what are memeplexes for?”
(p. 18). He thinks it very likely that
they must be ‘for’ something. They can’t
just be a precipitate of human activity but have to possess a function or
telos, if not a purpose.
he tries to answer this question. His
answer is that memes are “for” benefiting society, and we can show this by
tracing some of the benefits which various memeplexes have conferred on society.
His chief example is pyramid
building in ancient Egypt. Pyramid
building used up a lot of resources and yet Egyptian society was successful by
various measures. Given that the burden
of pyramid building was so huge, West reasons, “it seems highly likely that the
overall social payback must be very positive indeed, in order to offset or
exceed the huge efforts involved” (p. 20).
He assumes that every major social phenomenon must pay. He then checks off some of the indirect
apparent benefits that resulted from the building of pyramids. Belief in retribution for bad deeds in the
afterlife encouraged altruistic behavior, which contributed to social cohesion
and therefore helped society (p. 19).
The logistics of pyramid building
“might well have been the catalyst that triggered the formation of the Egyptian
super-power civilization from pre-existing tribes, with all that a civilization
implies: central administration, writing, a managed food-supply and economy, a
large and formally organized professional army, . . .” And so on (pp. 20–21).
West goes on to offer a more
general social benefit, maintaining that it causes difficulties for society if
people’s beliefs are too dissimilar, and that therefore something that makes
beliefs more uniform will be helpful. So
societies with strong memeplexes will tend to outcompete societies without them
have we heard this before? In Durkheim,
of course, and in a whole brood of social anthropologists and sociologists,
most conspicuously people like Bronislaw Malinowski. This theory is called functionalism, and it
embodies certain misconceptions.
(Functionalist theories are not all the same; Durkheim’s functionalism
for instance holds that practices are functional inasmuch as they adjust to
equilibrium, which is not guaranteed to be nice. We don’t need to pursue these differences
West supposes that if a memeplex
exists, it must be because it confers some benefit. (In his case, the benefit seems to be
increasing the strength and power of the polity.) He then casts around for what this benefit
might possibly be, and hits upon one or two imaginable ways in which the
existence of this memeplex had helpful consequences for the population. But the initial question is misplaced. We will always be able to find good (or
functional) consequences of any belief system (it’s an ill wind that blows no
one any good), and there’s no reason to suppose that this explains the
prevalence of that belief system, especially as these consequences may arise
centuries after the beliefs have caught hold.
When the Egyptians were trying to
secure their prospects in the afterlife by protecting their corpses, what
selective mechanism could look ahead and foresee these remote consequences of
the prevalence of such beliefs, encouraging them to proliferate and
discouraging the alternatives (such as the belief that nothing of your
personality survives in your corpse, and when you die that’s the end of
you)? There’s no such mechanism. The prevalence of a belief cannot be properly
explained by remote and unknown (to the believer) consequences of many people
holding that belief.
looks for a functionalist explanation of the prevalence of certain systems of
belief, but such explanations are generally fallacious. This is not to deny the commonplaces of
historical enquiry. A group of people
may certainly become more or less successful because of some aspect of their
beliefs. National Socialist beliefs led
to the driving away from Germany of Jewish scientists and to such poor
decisions as the refusal to activate Ukrainian nationalism against Moscow. Thus, National Socialist beliefs helped
Germany to lose the war. In a famous
example, Bertrand Russell maintained that one of the reasons early Christianity
prevailed while Mithraism disappeared was that following Mithraism involved undue
expense: you frequently had to find a live bull to slaughter. There’s no mystery about these kinds of
explanations, and they do not imply functionalism.
Sometimes people may take deliberate
notice of the consequences of belief systems, and this may affect their
decisions. For example the patricians of
imperial Rome applied certain rules of thumb about religious movements. One was that old religions (like Judaism)
were to be warmly tolerated whereas new religions (like Christianity) were to
be less tolerated. Another rule of thumb
was that religious movements focused on following a particular person (again
Christianity) were likely to be dangerous, since any such person or his
designated successor would automatically become a rival to the emperor. Political leaders have always paid attention
to the purely factual consequences (in their judgment) of various belief
systems and have acted appropriately, to encourage or discourage those systems. This is not functionalism: in this case
someone consciously recognizes the consequences of the belief systems and acts
accordingly. The selective mechanism is
deliberate, conscious choice by specific individuals. Both social
institutions and belief systems evolve partly by cumulative rational selection,
as opposed to blind selective processes.
are also minor quibbles with West’s argument.
For example, he tacitly assumes that building pyramids is an outgrowth
of preoccupation with the afterlife. No
doubt this is true, but it goes against his argument, because if pyramid
building is explained by being a result of people’s preoccupation with the
afterlife, then there’s no need to explain it by its impact on military
organization and the like. We have an
explanation: pyramid building arose because of preoccupation with the
afterlife, end of story. And if, in the
functionalist perspective, pyramid building is a burden, while encouragement of
altruistic behavior is a benefit, then the most functional memeplex would be
something that encouraged altruistic behavior without building huge stone structures. There’s no logical necessity that a belief
system encouraging altruistic behavior must also encourage the building of huge
stone structures. Furthermore, the
building of huge stone structures clearly indicates that the pharaohs believed
that something other than altruistic behavior (to wit, the building of huge
stone structures) would benefit them in the afterlife. Therefore belief in the building of huge
stone structures represents a denial of the exclusive importance of altruistic
behavior: it’s an expression of people’s skepticism that altruistic behavior
could be enough, and so it undermines the altruistic ethics which West claims
pyramid building exists to promote.
What are memeplexes for? Strictly, this question is absurd. It’s like asking what the aurora borealis is
for. The correct answer is that it is
not for anything and could not possibly be for anything. Systems of belief do not exist for any
purpose, except to assuage the believer’s thirst for truth. Nor do systems of belief exist because they
perform any social function.
To bring out the absurdity of
this kind of enquiry, consider the following example: Many story plots involve
the ‘eternal triangle’ theme of a man’s romantic involvement with two
women. What’s the social function of
this fictional theme? In other words,
what benefits does it confer on society, which benefits can account for the
fact that it exists? The answer is that
the prevalence of this literary theme, and of other common ‘dramatic situations’
arises automatically from certain basic, all-pervasive facts about human
life. It is therefore simply an
elementary misunderstanding to ask what it’s for. It’s just not ‘for’ anything and could not be
Given a different interpretation,
however, the question “What are memeplexes for?” can be answered simply and
conclusively. Let’s restate the question. Why is it that humans have beliefs,
especially enthusiastic beliefs to which they become fiercely devoted? And why do groups of beliefs have a tendency
to clump together into systems of beliefs?
have beliefs because they have an appetite to believe. This appetite is stronger than hunger,
stronger than thirst, stronger than sex.
It’s innate in the human makeup, ineradicable, and dictated by
the genes. The human mind is so
constructed that it must believe. A belief
is taking something to be true. There is
no such thing as believing something you think is untrue—this is a
straightforward contradiction, because believing something is exactly
equivalent to thinking it true. So,
people’s appetite for belief always appears to them as (and is in fact) an
appetite for the truth.
the nature of this voracious, all-consuming appetite? It’s a demand to have the world make
sense. What you believe is always what
you think is true, and the demand that you come up with something you think is
true (the reason you’re interested at all, so to speak) arises from the
categorical imperative to be convinced of a theory about the world. This imperative is hardwired, it is observed
in babies (recall Alison Gopnik et al., The
Scientist in the Crib) and cannot be shut down except by unconsciousness.
take the question back a stage further, why are babies born with such a
fanatical, dogmatic, uncompromising conviction that the world absolutely must
make sense? The answer to this is not
obscure—because humans born with such a ferocious hunger for the truth do
better at passing on their genes than humans born without any such appetite. Surely this is more or less what we would
Why do beliefs clump
together? Anyone trying to make sense of
the world will come up with numerous beliefs, and these cannot always be
isolated from each other. One reason is
that we may have several beliefs about the same thing, and there is the
possibility that such beliefs might be inconsistent. We automatically strive to remove inconsistency
and harmonize our beliefs. If two of our
beliefs are incompatible, we recognize that something is wrong; we feel uneasy
and look for a way to make the incompatibility disappear. It’s impossible to believe anything without
tacitly acknowledging the rudiments of logic.
Just as the whole of arithmetic is implicit in the act of distinguishing
two from one, so the whole of logic is implicit in holding that one belief is
true and its denial is false.
Another reason is that beliefs
are often useful to us, and where they are useful, they are often more useful
if they are more general. It may be
useful to believe that this tree will bear sweet fruit every summer, but it
could be even more useful to believe that all trees with this shape of leaf
will bear sweet fruit every summer.
As a child grows up, it will
frequently have the experience of learning something that explains a lot, a
single insight that puts a myriad of things in a different light, making more
sense of them. Thus, the drive to
believe automatically tends to encourage the appetite for beliefs of wide application,
the limit being all-embracing beliefs which explain everything.
existence of belief systems (or memeplexes) can be seen to follow automatically
from innate factors in the human constitution.
With the development of language and other media of communication, most
of an individual’s beliefs come from the culture—from what other individuals
say. We all believe that there are
kangaroos in Australia and that it’s cold at the North Pole, even though most
of us have never visited either place (or spent any time or effort
investigating the plausibility of these tales we’ve been told). This doesn’t mean that we’re bound to believe
everything ‘the culture’ (other people) tells us, though we very often do so
until some acute problem makes us question a received belief.
have given a brief account here of why belief leads to belief systems, without
assuming that there is some genetic predisposition to embrace large systems of
interlocking beliefs. But, of course,
there certainly is some such predisposition, and more generally there is likely
to be, not merely a genetically programmed drive to beliefs of wide generality,
but a genetically programmed drive to hold certain kinds of general beliefs
rather than others. Still the most
brilliant stab at such a theory of how the mind strives to order its
understanding of the world in a particular way is the identity theory of Émile Meyerson.
The Myth of
I surmise that West subscribes to the
common view that there are rational and irrational reasons or motivations for
believing something. This misconception
is criticized at length in Ray Scott Percival’s book, The Myth of the Closed Mind (2012).
I believe that the main thrust of Percival’s argument is correct. West may think that adopting a memeplex is
irrational. But adopting any belief
system is never irrational—though it may sometimes be mistaken or even foolish. Humans just can’t help being rational; they
are forever condemned to be rational.
misconception that humans can believe things for irrational motives often arises
from the tacit definition of ‘rationality’ as absence of error. Certainly, humans often commit errors; we all
make mistakes. In fact, only a rational
being can commit an error; the existence of error (in the strict sense) is
proof of rationality. Errors can, as we
know, be corrected, and very frequently are.
systems of belief are more passionate than others. You could put together all my beliefs about
transportation in and around Chicago and call it a belief system. For example, my belief that I can get from
the Loop to Logan Square in about half an hour by taking the Blue Line from any
of several stations along Dearborn is one belief among thousands. If I had to revise some of these beliefs, it
wouldn’t upset me very much.
belief systems involve a more visceral attachment. My belief in neo-Darwinian evolution, or in
any major part of that theory such as genetics, could not be changed without an
intellectual upheaval accompanied by emotional turmoil. I call this kind of belief system an
enthusiastic belief system, and I maintain that enthusiastic belief systems, be
they religious, philosophical, or scientific, all have common characteristics.
mention a few: they all involve ‘confirmation bias’; once you accept the system
you tend to interpret evidence so that it fits the system. They all dismiss or explain away apparent
counter-instances with great facility.
They all involve privileged texts (scriptures) and accredited
spokespersons, which become imbued with authority. They all exhibit emotional attachment on the
part of their adherents and strong feelings of aversion toward people who
dispute the system. Attachment to a
belief system is very much like attachment to a person; just as love is blind,
so our attachment to the belief system makes us overlook its possible
faults. All these features are just as
much in evidence in belief systems we agree with as in belief systems we reject. In fact all these features are inevitable:
science, no less than religion, could never have developed without them (as
Percival makes clear).
Why We Should
Resist the Temptation to Diagnose
People often disagree with each other. There are many competing and incompatible
theories (I view any religious doctrine as a theory). This disagreement arises ineluctably (in
human groups of more than a few hundred) because the world is big, complex, and
messy and because individual humans are each equipped with nothing more than
strip-maps of the world. When an
adherent of one belief system encounters adherents of another belief system,
there is a feeling of incredulity: surely they can’t possibly think that?
we encounter a belief system we disagree with, we can criticize it. We can try to show that it is contrary to
observed facts, or that it involves inconsistency and is therefore
self-contradictory. We can also
criticize it simply by finding flaws in some of the arguments in its favor. But having stated our criticisms of the
belief system, we observe with amazement that its adherents do not instantly
accept our arguments and abandon their belief system. They persist in their erroneous ways, by
ignoring what we have said, or by misrepresenting what we have said, or by
replying to what we have said with blatantly unsound counter-arguments. This is the age-old pattern of differing
beliefs, in science just as much as in religion.
this situation, it’s tempting to conclude that we have not done enough. Instead of simply refuting these people’s
arguments, we may feel we need to try to show that their erroneous beliefs
arise from some deep-seated disorder in their thinking. We then try to show that they are guilty of
some kind of irrationality.
temptation should always be resisted.
Once we have stated the arguments against their position, and worked on
improving these arguments, we just have to keep on restating them and wait for
the penny to drop. The arguments against
their position (assuming these arguments can’t for the moment be improved) are
everything we could possibly have; there’s nothing more to be had.
we should remind ourselves of a couple of elementary points:
1. One and the same belief may be
held by different people with different habits of thought, different
epistemologies, and different methodologies.
A true belief may be held for seriously defective reasons and a false
belief may be held for impeccable reasons.
Logically, there is a disjunction between the soundness of one’s
thinking and the truth of one’s beliefs.
We cannot validly reason from the unsoundness of someone’s thinking to
the untruth of their beliefs, nor from the untruth of their beliefs to the
unsoundness of their thinking, nor from the soundness of their thinking to the
truth of their beliefs, not from the truth of their beliefs to the soundness of
2. What applies to individual
beliefs applies to systems of belief or memeplexes. One person may embrace a given memeplex
because of meticulous analysis while another may embrace the same memeplex
because of disturbed thinking, or seriously mistaken methodology (including uncritically
accepting what he has heard another person say). That this is routinely so is a familiar
fact. George Orwell famously pointed out
that he believed the world was round and orbited the sun, but would be unable
to mount a good defense of these beliefs against anyone (with a bit of
astronomical knowledge) who disputed them.
Even if every single person who
adheres to a particular memeplex does so for faulty reasons, it’s still
possible that at any moment, someone may arrive at a defense of that very
memeplex for different and sounder reasons.
If the adherents of a memeplex are
in fact prey to some thinking disorder, this is immaterial to the merits of
that memeplex, for one can arrive at a correct position by disordered thinking
or at an incorrect position by impeccable thinking. So the only relevance of their thinking
disorder would be that in this case it led them to espouse a faulty position,
and once again we find that all that matters is the faultiness of the position
and not in the slightest degree the type of thinking that happened to cause any
individual to accept it. The position
can only be shown to be faulty by direct criticism, never by diagnosing the way
its proponents think.
has always involved passionate attachment to enthusiastic belief systems. As Blackmore says, “False theories thrive
within science as well as within religion, and for many of the same reasons” (The Meme Machine, p. 202). In itself, this is perfectly normal. Fiercely clinging to some theory after it has
been shown to contradict experience is a human trait (and according to Percival
a necessary and productive human trait) and it occurs in science just as much
as in other institutional areas.
Sometimes, under certain
conditions, the situation gets bad, as with Lysenkoism and CAGW. These monumental follies arose because the
zealots used political power to protect themselves from criticism by
stigmatizing their actual critics and intimidating potential critics. Just as competition is required to keep
business socially optimal and nothing else can, so debate, the competition of
ideas, keeps enquiry on the track of truth, and nothing else can. But monopoly enfeebles the monopolist—“power
stupefies”—and ensures that when the memeplex falls, it crashes and burns with
general cultural conditions favored it, episodes like Lysenkoism or CAGW could
actually destroy science. But conditions,
though worsening, are nowhere near that bad.
Science will survive, at least for the next century or so. CAGW will soon be a thing of the past, a
paroxysm of ideological craziness that we will look back upon with amused
the bare bones of the environmentalist belief system will grow different
flesh. Just as global warming supplanted
acid rain, so some new scare will supplant global warming. (Always eager to help out, I have nominated
the use of electronic devices causing a switch in the Earth’s magnetic
field.) Environmentalism holds that
human activity is destroying the planet, and therefore economic growth must be
crippled and millions of Third World babies allowed to die. The specific evil activity which is destroying
the planet can be changed, although possibly the environmentalist loss of
credibility due to the thoroughness of the discrediting of CAGW will be so
immense that the entire environmentalist belief system will be weakened for a
while. If so, that will be good news for
humankind and especially its poorer half.
PsychologyPosted by David Ramsay Steele Thu, August 07, 2014 19:32:06
We’re probably in for a fresh spate of
critiques and reappraisals of the work of Thomas S. Szasz.
In 1961 Szasz published The Myth of Mental Illness (following an
article with the same title, two years earlier). His many subsequent books would preach the
same message, and most of these later volumes make much more entertaining
reading than The Myth of Mental Illness.
Szasz’s reputation as a writer
suffered on account of that early work.
Because of its title and its key role in psychiatric controversies, it
became the one work of Szasz to cite. People
curious about Szasz would usually seek out that particular book. It’s rather dull compared to such sparkling later
works as The Manufacture of Madness (1970),
The Therapeutic State (1975), or Liberation by Oppression (2002). His Karl
Kraus and the Soul Doctors (1976, later reprinted as Anti-Freud) is also captivating, but in this case partly because of
the translated remarks of Kraus. Szasz’s
own witty, oracular debunking style evidently owed a lot to the author of The Last Days of Mankind, as well as to
Mark Twain, Ambrose Beirce, and H.L. Mencken.
Szasz argued that there is
literally no such thing as ‘mental illness’.
Mental illness is no more than a metaphor. If we speak of ‘a sick economy’, we know this
is a metaphor. We don’t try to pretend
that economics is a branch of medicine.
It’s just the same with human behavior, human feelings, and human
thoughts. These do not belong to the
domain of medicine. But in this case, we
may be tempted to think that there is a branch of medicine—psychiatry—which is
competent to deal with problems of behavior, feeling, and thinking. This Szasz denied outright. He did not rule out as meaningless or useless
everything that psychiatrists might do—he merely insisted that it was not
medicine. He undoubtedly did believe,
though, that psychiatry had done a lot more harm than good.
Szasz himself had a private
practice as a psychotherapist, as well as being a professor of psychiatry. He defended being a professor of psychiatry
by pointing out that few would object if an atheist were a professor of
religion. He talked about his own practice
of psychotherapy rarely and vaguely: he characterized it as having
conversations with people in order to help them with their problems in
living. As for helping them by giving
them drugs, Szasz held that this should be permitted as long as it was entirely
voluntary, but he himself was not a big enthusiast for the practice (and, for
all I know, believed it was always wrong).
He would say, for instance, that you don’t call in a TV repairman when
you’re disgusted with the quality of the programs. This is an entirely typical Szasz bon mot.
On the one hand, it strikingly clarifies one facet of the issue. On the other hand, there is a lingering
doubt, is there not? For after all, if
the entire scriptwriting and production process occurred inside the TV set, it
wouldn’t be so obviously silly to get
the repairman to fix up the script for It’s
Szasz—an MD who knew quite a bit
about medicine and the history of medicine—didn’t dispute that the realm of
behavior often interacts with the domain of medicine. By drinking too heavily, a person may give
himself cirrhosis of the liver, which is a medical problem. By bungee jumping a person may give himself a
broken neck. What makes him take to drink
or go in for bungee jumping is not, in Szasz’s view, a matter in which medical
doctors have any special competence. What
are commonly regarded as ‘mental illnesses’ are simply ‘problems in living’.
His books are eloquent in
exposing and criticizing the absurdities which result when any and all human
behavior is viewed in terms of health and disease. Even before such diseases as sex addiction,
shopping addiction, and internet addiction had been invented, Szasz had
accounted for them, and had pointed out the affinity of such afflictions with drapetomania
(the disease diagnosed in some black slaves by a nineteenth-century doctor, the
symptom of this malady being the slaves’ desire to run away from their owners)
and the mental diseases identified by Soviet psychiatrists in people who
criticized the socialist regime.
first became aware of someone called ‘Szasz’ when I read R.D. Laing in the
1960s; at that time Laing was all the rage in England. At first the ‘anti-psychiatrists’ eagerly
quoted their predecessor Szasz, but it soon became apparent that Szasz had
nothing but contempt for the anti-psychiatrists. He didn’t like them because they were
socialists and because he believed that they sought to glorify the mental
states of designated mental patients. Szasz
had no patience with those who imputed to mental patients wondrous insights
denied to the rest of us. He tended to
think of mental patients as, for the most part, a rather pathetic bunch who
were often complicit in their own oppression.
Jonathan Engel (in his American Therapy, 2008) gets the
chronology wrong and thinks that Szasz was a follower of the
anti-psychiatrists. I have occasionally
encountered people who suppose that since Szasz was a ‘radical’ in the 1960s
and later says things that sound ‘conservative’, he must have undergone a
political conversion. But the truth is that
Szasz’s fundamental outlook was pretty much fixed by the 1940s and never
changed. He was always a classical
liberal, an anti-communist, and a ‘cultural conservative’ in lifestyle matters,
though of course favoring the repeal of all prohibitions on drugs and
victimless crimes. The biggest change he
did undergo was from being a psychoanalyst (some said the crown prince of
psychoanalysis) to being a hostile critic of psychoanalysis.
volume Szasz Under Fire: The Psychiatric
Abolitionist Faces His Critics (edited by Jeffrey Schaler, 2004), which
includes a brief autobiography, also contains an exchange of letters between
Szasz and Karl Popper (this is given by Szasz in his reply to the article by
Ray Percival). Here, Popper says he
thinks that Szasz is ninety-five percent right about the nonexistence of mental
illnesses. What Popper meant was that
while he agreed with Szasz that the extension of the medical metaphor to every
type of human ethical or lifestyle decision is preposterous, we can still reasonably
conjecture that there are some few cases where a typical brain malfunction is
the cause of some typical cluster of emotional and behavioral problems (even
though we can’t yet identify the brain malfunction in question).
that Szasz would have disputed the truism that Alzheimer’s and syphilis can
cause mental deterioration, and that there are sure to be many other as yet
undiscovered diseases of the nervous system that have mental and behavioral
symptoms. But he took the position that
we can’t describe these as diseases until we have ascertained their physical
In a typically Szaszian crisp
summary (and possibly oversimplification), he asserted that we’re not entitled to
talk about a disease until a pathologist can identify its presence in a
corpse. A corpse can have cancer,
bunions, or atherosclerosis. A corpse can’t
have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or paranoia, let alone shopping addiction
or obsessive-compulsive disorder. No
pathologist can detect the presence of these supposed illnesses by examining a
cadaver. To Szasz, this meant that they
could not be called literal diseases, even though he allowed that at some
future date we might find that they corresponded, more or less, with some
presently unknown literal diseases.
Szasz observed that once a
genuine physical disease is identified, it tends to be taken away from psychiatry
and given to general medicine, as occurred with syphilis of the brain and with
strokes, and more recently with Alzheimer’s.
Once these are classified as literal diseases with known physical
causes, psychiatry can claim no special expertise in these areas. Szasz also pointed out the influence of
ethical and religious fashion on psychiatric diagnoses: when Szasz started
writing, nearly all psychiatrists held that homosexuality was a disease (this
was the official position of the American Psychiatric Association until 1973
and the World Health Organization until 1990).
Now most of them don’t. The
switch is not in the least due to any new medical evidence, but purely to a
re-adjustment of mores and ethical attitudes.
Although on occasion Szasz fully
acknowledged that some human problems would eventually be attributed to
presently undiscovered brain diseases, the general sweep of his rhetoric tends
to give the opposite impression: “. . . we will discover the chemical cause of
schizophrenia when we discover the chemical cause of Christianity and Communism. No sooner and no later” (The Untamed Tongue, pp. 215–16).
agree with Szasz in opposing involuntary commitment of the mentally ill and I
admire his exposure of much psychiatric silliness. But the route to those conclusions is not as
simple as he believed. Szasz holds that
there can be no literal disease of the mind, only a literal disease of the body
or a metaphorical disease of the mind.
This is strictly correct, but it does not have the sweeping implications
he supposes. Szasz attacks people who
employ the term ‘mental illness’, but his attacks fail if people are using the
term to mean ‘a brain disease with mental symptoms’.
Various drugs can cause you to have
hallucinations and infection by rabies will make you terrified of water. So we know that purely bodily changes can change
your conscious states and your deliberate behavior in predictable ways, and we
can’t rule out the possibility that some such bodily changes may happen without
the intervention of drugs or of rabid beasts.
would say that until we have identified the physical cause (the lesion), we
can’t assert the existence of an illness.
But, as far as I can see, nothing prevents us from conjecturing that
certain symptoms are accounted for by an illness whose existence we can’t yet observe
directly. I know a lot less than Szasz did
about the history of medicine, but I would even surmise that there have been
such cases—consumption, epilepsy, and asthma spring to mind. But even if I’m wrong in thinking that there
have been actual cases, it still wouldn’t follow that such conjectures are inadmissible. And if we can do this with physical symptoms,
we can do it with mental symptoms: I can see nothing wrong in principle with
hypothesizing that a certain cluster of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors is
accounted for by a brain malfunction.
It’s literally, pedantically wrong to call this a ‘mental disease’ just
as it’s literally, pedantically wrong to say that the sun rises, but such
casual expressions are inevitably rife throughout language.
commitment and other pretexts for imprisonment and torture are very common in
our culture, and so is the endless re-iteration of the claim that victims of
state coercion are ‘ill’. Yet these two
facts are not as tightly connected as Szasz supposed. I can easily imagine a change in semantic
fashion, so that state paternalists would say: ‘Granted, these people are not
ill, but they are still a threat to themselves and others and therefore need
treatment whether they consent or not’.
And I can also easily imagine some people coming around to the view:
‘These people are indeed ill, but even sick people shouldn’t be forcibly
incarcerated or given drugs or electric shocks against their wishes’.
wrote about forty books, even one (Faith
in Freedom, 2004) devoted to a critique of the views of libertarians on
mental illness. The one I found most
disappointing is The Meaning of Mind
(1996). As you read most of Szasz’s
work, you become conscious of an odd lacuna: he repeatedly draws a bright line
between consciousness and physiology, as though these are independent
realms. This is the more remarkable
because he is an atheist with no theological commitments. So, you wonder what he thinks about the
relation of mind and brain. With The Meaning of Mind, we find out that he
has no coherent view of the relation between mind and brain and (while the book
does have a sprinkling of his usual piercing insights) his uninformed comments
on those who have carefully elaborated various theories often miss the point
and are at times painful to peruse.
protracted illness, and a few days after a severe spinal injury due to a fall, Tom
Szasz exercised his right to suicide. I
never met him but had various phone and email exchanges with him over a number
of years. If I had met him in the flesh,
I might have mentioned some of my criticisms of his views, though his always thick
Hungarian accent might have been a conversational impediment, and I have heard
from a reliable source that in his last years he became testier and testier,
disposed to see any disagreement as betrayal.
Szász Tamász István (the surname comes
first in Hungarian). Born Budapest, 15th
April 1920. Died Manlius, New York, 8th
PhilosophyPosted by David Ramsay Steele Tue, May 06, 2014 20:25:26
moral case for vegetarianism has been made by some philosophers and has become
popular among a small group of people not noted for their reticence. The most influential of these philosophers is
Peter Singer. Singer’s argument is that
it’s immoral to cause suffering, that the suffering of non-human animals has
equal weight with the suffering of humans, that you can’t eat meat without
patronizing and encouraging the inflicting of suffering on animals, and that
therefore it must be immoral to eat meat, except in cases of dire necessity.
I think this argument is mistaken,
and I will now give you my chief counter-argument. My counter-argument contains a lemma—an
intermediate conclusion that I can then use as a premiss for my final
argument. To keep things short and
simple, I’m not going to argue here for the lemma (though I am going to briefly
explain the point of it), since I believe that most people, if they think about
it even briefly will agree with it. I’m
just going to state the lemma and then move on from there. (Although I say “my” counter-argument, I
don’t mean to imply that there’s anything original about this. I’ve heard something similar to this before,
though I have no idea who first came up with it. After all, it’s pretty obvious.)
We’re not under any moral obligation to act so as to reduce the total amount of
animal suffering below what it is in the wild, or below what it would be if
humans didn’t exist. In other words, if
the immorality of eating meat is dependent on humans causing animals to suffer,
then it can’t be immoral to eat meat if the production of meat for human
consumption does not increase the suffering of animals above what it would have
been in the absence of any human intervention.
of the lemma: In the absence of human intervention, animals like deer and
oxen would be eaten by non-human predators.
When humans eat meat, they’re competing with other meat-eating animals,
such as lions and wolves. If the
predators disappear, this may lead to overpopulation of the former prey animals
and consequent unwelcome environmental effects such as deforestation followed
by soil erosion. The situation is not
changed in principle if we move from hunting to the raising of livestock: the
morally relevant issue is whether the cows or sheep we’re raising would suffer
more, or less, or the same, if they were in the wild and being eaten by lions
The lemma allows the possibility
that some ways of treating animals may be immoral, but the lemma rules out the presumptive immorality of all cases of treating animals in such a way that their situation
is no worse than they would face in the wild.
In the case of hunting, this is clear enough. Anyone who knows cats knows that they love to
keep their prey alive and toy with it before finally killing it, and this
causes more suffering than would be caused by a quick kill with an arrow or a
bullet. So human hunting causes less
suffering than hunting by at least some other predators.
Could it be argued that by hunting
deer, humans are causing suffering to lions and wolves by taking away their
prey? This doesn’t look like a promising
line of argument. Humans are hunters by
nature, and it’s not clear why we would feel obliged to let other species of
hunters have prey that we could have. A
lion whose potential prey is killed by a human is no worse off than a lion
whose potential prey is killed by another lion, and in either case the total
lion population adjusts to the availability of prey for lions, with marginal
lions always dying or otherwise failing to reproduce because of competition.
As we move from hunting to raising livestock,
no important new issues of principle arise.
Do farm animals suffer more or less than animals in the wild? It’s not clear that they suffer any more, and
it seems likely that they suffer a lot less.
The day-to-day life of a cow munching the grass and chewing the cud has
less excitement than that of the wild ox, continually fearful of sudden attack
by a predator, but I doubt that the cow would get a thrill from dangerous
adventures the way some humans do. When
death comes to the cow, it does not seem to cause any more suffering than death
in the wild—and if we ever found out that it did, we could adjust our techniques
of slaughter, without abandoning the practice of killing animals for food. My argument is not that all and any ways of raising
and killing animals for food are morally acceptable, but merely that some
feasible ways are morally acceptable, and therefore morality does not require
Some people may feel that the life
of an animal in the wild is in some way better than that of a farm animal, even
though the farm animal experiences less actual pain and fear. Well, we observe, as real incomes rise, that
there is a growing interest in both recreational hunting and in the demand for
game animals, animals killed in the wild, in preference to farm-raised animals.
The meat of game animals is leaner and
tastes better. This trend is merely the
tip of a broader movement towards free-range raising of animals. Suppliers of meat can charge more for meat
that has been produced in a ‘more natural’ way, partly because of superior
taste and partly because consumers feel better knowing that what they were
eating was produced in a more natural way.
As our incomes rise, we spontaneously move away from factory farming
toward free-range farming, and then ultimately to preferring meat from animals
that have been hunted in the wild.
If we accept the lemma, then the
mere fact that some suffering occurs to animals when they’re raised for meat
production is not enough to show that this is immoral. Instead, we have to show that they
necessarily suffer more than they (or corresponding animals, which might be a
bit different in a hypothetical alternative world) would suffer, if the human
population were much smaller and the populations of lions and wolves much
Although I’m not offering arguments
for the lemma, I do want to look at three possible ways of rejecting it. Someone could maintain that our obligation is
simply to stop suffering wherever we can.
One way to stop the suffering that comes from animals being harvested as
prey would be to wipe out those animals.
Thus, we could kill all oxen (including beef cows). At the same time, we would wipe out all the
predators, the animals that would have eaten the oxen. This would mean wiping out virtually all
animal species, including insects, birds, and fish, for all these animals are
either predators or likely prey. Some
folks would feel sad that all these species had disappeared, but they could
console themselves with the thought that being extinct means you never have to
suffer, whereas being extant means you do have to suffer.
we should extend this to humans: they should be killed off, and then no human would
ever suffer again. (Just to keep an eye
on things and make sure everyone follows the rules, I’ll be the last one to
go.) If allowing suffering is decisively
immoral then every sentient living thing, including humans, should be made
extinct, because this and only this guarantees no more suffering.
Another person might, however,
approach the issue a bit differently.
Instead of killing all animals, we could take over and manage the entire
animal kingdom, transforming it into something very different from the way it
has evolved, intervening with birth control drugs, factory-produced food,
analgesics, and anesthetics. The former
predators could be fed substitute foods made in factories from soybeans, or
even directly from industrial chemicals.
Since they would suffer somewhat from not being able to hunt, we would
have to provide them with robotic imitation-prey, so that they could continue
to experience the activity of hunting. Herbivores
could be left to graze the wilderness, but fed fertility-reducing drugs to keep
their populations stable. There would
still be some suffering: accidents do happen, and every animal has to die,
though we could try to limit this suffering by infiltrating the natural world
with robots using analgesic and anesthetic dart guns, watching all the while
for any impending pain or anxiety.
There are various aspects of this
scenario which may not be very appealing.
Be that as it may, it is not feasible right now, and won’t be feasible
without a huge investment over many decades, if not centuries (think about the
difficulty in ensuring that every fish in the oceans is guaranteed never to be
eaten). So, even assuming that this
ambitious intervention is morally required, we’re stuck for a while with the
choice between a certain amount of suffering in the wild and a certain amount
of suffering (probably the same or a bit less) down on the farm. And therefore, if we accept the lemma, we
must reject the case for vegetarianism on grounds of the suffering caused by
Of course, most vegetarians will reject those two approaches and go for a third approach: simply have humans abstain from meat-eating. But what the lemma helps to bring out is that this option has an arbitrary quality. Turning humans into herbivores means excluding other herbivores from a large area of land, reducing the world's populations of non-human herbivores. So the third approach is a kind of partial and inconsistent version of the first approach. Either we have an obligation to reduce animal suffering every chance we get, or we don't have such an obligation. Eschewing the first two approaches means admitting that we have no such obligation.
can kill animals for food without adding to the total net suffering in the
animal kingdom, and this is morally okay.
Current AffairsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Sat, April 12, 2014 22:05:39
(I wrote this a few years ago. A magazine said they would probably print it
but then held on to it for over two years before deciding not to use it. I’ve just now gone quickly through it and
changed it slightly in several places.)
If there’s anything new about the New Atheism which erupted
in 2004, it’s the strident proclamation that belief in God is a powerful force
for evil. All kinds of atrocities are
laid at the door of “religion,” equated with belief in God.
message of the New Atheism is that 9/11 and similar outrages have occurred
because their perpetrators believed in God.
This is explicitly stated and reiterated many times by Sam Harris, but
the same tune has been hummed and whistled in several keys by Richard Dawkins
and the late Christopher Hitchens.
believe in God, then you have been infected and (twenty-eight days or years
later) this belief is going to prompt you to kill yourself and your
fellow-humans. So the New Atheists tell
us. I view this as a fairytale, just as
far-fetched as anything in the Bible or the Quran.
Atheists Do It Better
(Mass Murder, That Is)
There’s an obvious problem with the New Atheist claim that
theistic religion is peculiarly conducive to atrocities. The last hundred years have seen the rise to
power of secular, in some cases overtly atheistic, ideological movements, and
these movements have been responsible for the killing, torture, enslavement,
and terrorizing of many millions of people.
By any measure, the evil deeds done
by these secular regimes within a few decades have vastly outweighed the evil
deeds done by Christianity and Islam combined, throughout their entire
history—not by a factor of just two or three, but by a factor of hundreds, if
not thousands. Institutions claiming to
embody Christianity or Islam have murdered thousands. Institutions claiming to embody Marxism,
National Socialism, or other types of socialism, have murdered tens of
Since this factual
point is so conspicuous, the New Atheists have naturally attempted to account
for it. Their most common response is
that whereas theists (like Torquemada) committed atrocities because they
believed in God, atheists (like Stalin or Mao) did not commit their atrocities because they
disbelieved in God. This strikes me as a
very strange claim.
this strange claim were true, it would not address the difficult point. The New Atheists maintain that “religious,”
meaning theistic, ideologies generate atrocities. History shows that non-theistic or secular
ideologies have generated atrocities on a vastly greater scale than theistic
ideologies. Now, even if the religious
atrocities were committed because the perpetrators believed in God while the
secular atrocities were not committed because the perpetrators disbelieved in
God, this does nothing to get around the stark fact that ideologies without
belief in God have motivated more and bigger atrocities than ideologies
incorporating belief in God, and that therefore it looks dubious to single out
belief in God as an especially virulent intellectual source of atrocities.
the strange claim, if we can make any sense of it at all, can only be
false. Belief in God is an integral part
of Christianity and disbelief in God is an integral part of Marxism. Torquemada committed his atrocities because
of a belief system which included belief in God. Stalin and Mao committed their immensely more
ambitious atrocities because of a belief system which included disbelief in
God. I can’t imagine how you extract
from these facts the conclusion that theists committed their atrocities
“because” they believed in God while atheists did not commit their atrocities “because” they
disbelieved in God.
argument offered by the New Atheists is to cite ways in which the churches were
complicit in the crimes against humanity committed by Fascist and National
Socialist regimes. The New Atheists
don’t seem equally concerned about the complicity of atheist intellectuals in
the greater crimes against humanity committed by Communist regimes.
But, in any case, what do such
examples really show? Fascism and
National Socialism were not Christian movements. The distinctive elements in their ideologies
and policies were not derived from what the churches were teaching. When the Fascists and the Nazis were new,
small parties with little following, they did not seek, nor did they get, the
slightest bit of support from the churches.
Until 1933, for instance, Catholics were forbidden by the German bishops
to join the Nazi Party.
By the time
Fascism and National Socialism became contenders for power, and then achieved
power, many people compromised with them, including most of the churches. So did other groups, for example, the
majority of scientists, scholars, and journalists in the affected
countries. Both totalitarian movements,
Fascism in Italy and
National Socialism in Germany,
gained electoral support at the expense of specifically Christian political
parties, which were closed down when the Fascist and National Socialist parties
came to power.
It’s also true that some
Christians, motivated at least in part by their Christianity, resisted these
regimes and paid for it. The truly
heroic Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of Operation Valkyrie, the plot to
assassinate Hitler, was a devout Catholic.
As well as the Soviet repression of
theists, both Christian and Muslim, and such well-known instances as the mass
killings directed by the atheist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it’s worth mentioning
a couple of other, lesser-known cases where specifically atheist persons or
groups were responsible for horrible acts of violence.
the Mexican government ramped up its already severe restrictions on the
activities of the Catholic church.
Hundreds of priests and other Catholics were imprisoned or executed
because they refused to comply with new regulations (requiring, for example,
that priests not criticize government officials and not wear clerical garb
outside a church). The brutal repression
of Catholics led to the “Cristero war” between Catholic rebels and the
government, followed by further government assaults on Catholics. The government hunted down and killed
priests, just because they would not give up being priests. Graham Greene wrote about this in a
documentary work, The Lawless Roads
(1939), and then in a novel, The Power
and the Glory (1940). The former
president and de facto ruler of Mexico
at this time, Plutarco Elias Calles, was a highly enthusiastic atheist.
The traditional anticlericalism,
often atheism, of Mexico’s
ruling elite stems mainly from Positivism, the atheist belief system
promulgated by Auguste Comte, a form of pre-Marxist socialism which took root
among the Mexican intelligentsia in the nineteenth century. Vicente Fox Quesada, elected in 2000, was the
first Mexican president for ninety years who could openly admit to being a
Catholic, and even today, a few remnants of the old restrictions remain, for
example ministers of religion are banned from holding political office in
example, the Spanish anarchists, atheistic followers of Mikhail Bakunin (“If
God existed, it would be necessary to abolish him”), had come to control some
regions of rural Spain by the 1930s.
They committed numerous outrages against Catholics, not just the
desecration of churches, but also occasionally the killing and mutilation of
priests and nuns. These atheist-inspired
attacks alarmed many Spaniards, and stimulated support for rightwing enemies of
the Republic, helping prepare the way for extraordinary brutality by both sides
in the Spanish Civil War. Numerous
leftist supporters of the Spanish Republic, like George Orwell, were fully
aware of these anti-Catholic crimes and never uttered one word of criticism. Yes, it’s true that these atrocities were
“exaggerated by the right for their own purposes.” But the right had something to exaggerate.
Harris’s explanation for the current spate of suicide
terrorism is that the terrorists believe they will be rewarded as martyrs in
Heaven. The religious zeal of
fundamentalist Muslims is the explanation for suicide attacks. This entertaining story has been continually
reiterated by journalists, but it will not withstand scrutiny.
following him Dawkins, have asked, rhetorically, whether we can imagine any
atheist group conducting suicide terrorism.
In actuality, a rather high proportion of suicide terrorists have been
atheists. In the years up to 2009, the
pre-eminent perpetrator of suicide bombings in the world was the group known as
the Tamil Tigers, in Sri Lanka. They were
of Hindu background but led by atheists.
Opinions differ on whether the Tamil Tigers could accurately be
described as “Marxist-Leninist,” but it is not disputed that they were belligerently
group responsible for suicide terrorism was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK),
a Kurdish nationalist and Marxist-Leninist group active in Turkey. These suicide bombers were atheists and their
victims were mostly Muslims. Around 1999
the PKK leadership abandoned its Marxism-Leninism and its practice of suicide
bombings, and later changed its name.
terrorism is primarily political in its aims and rationale. Suicide bombers have political objectives
which provide the reason for their actions.
Suicide terrorism is the recourse of members of ethnic populations who
find themselves completely outmatched by vastly stronger military might. It’s their way of hitting back at the occupying
troops, whom they are too feeble to confront directly. It is particularly effective if the occupying
power is a democracy. Robert Pape’s
study of the backgrounds of Muslim suicide terrorists (Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, 2005) shows
that many of them are not especially religious.
bombers knew of a way to kill an equal number of the enemy without also killing
themselves, they would act upon it. The
reason that suicide bombing has become much more frequent since 1983 is that it
works. The Israeli government, for
example, while usually unmoved by peaceful overtures or by (comparatively
ineffective) non-suicide attacks, has made concessions to the Palestinians
following suicide bombings. Reagan
pulled the troops out of Lebanon
because of suicide attacks, intended precisely to get US troops pulled out of Lebanon. Pape, who made a thorough study of all cases
of suicide terrorism (up to 2003), calculated that about fifty percent of
suicide attacks had some demonstrable success in achieving their political
objectives—an amazingly high success rate for terrorism, or indeed for any form
of political operation by small groups not in control of a government.
This is not
to say that suicide terrorism has any moral justification. It is merely to say that it works extremely
well. Suicide terrorism is far more
effective than any of the alternatives open to militant political groups
acting, as they see it, on behalf of comparatively powerless ethnic communities
under foreign military occupation. It’s
a highly rational, expertly calibrated activity which delivers the political
readers will no doubt protest that some of the Muslim suicide bombers really do
believe they will enjoy the attentions of seventy-two virgins in paradise. (Some Muslims have told me this is a
mistranslation and it should read “seventy-two raisins,” which confirms my view
that Islam isn’t much fun.) It wouldn’t
astound me to learn that one or two members of IRA-Sinn Fein did believe they
would have a friendly chat with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before being
issued with harps. But Al-Qaeda, like
the IRA, is an organization all of whose activities are strictly determined by
its assessment of how these activities will serve its political
objectives. Being prepared to give up
one’s life for a great cause is a commonplace of all national cultures, and always
positively valued when done for the side we favor.
understandable that someone who picks up his knowledge of Christianity and
Islam from the TV news would be innocent of the above facts. (In the wake of 9/11, an operation carried
out by Saudis, I kept hearing about seventy-two virgins, but not once did I
hear a single murmur on the major TV networks about US troops stationed in
Saudi Arabia. These troops were pulled
out eighteen months after 9/11, rendering that operation a brilliant
success.) Still, anyone of a curious
disposition might pause to wonder why, if belief in God explains 9/11, the
first fifteen centuries of Islam passed by without a single suicide bombing or
anything comparable, whereas suicide bombings (usually assassinations of public
figures) were well-known in nineteenth-century Europe. We see this awareness reflected in such
stories as The Secret Agent by Conrad
and ‘The Stolen Bacillus’ by Wells.
Again, we can generally assume that the “anarchists” who committed
suicide bombings in nineteenth-century Europe were atheists.
What Makes Religion
Confronted by the fact that atheists have been implicated in
both state repression and terrorism to an extent hugely disproportionate to
their numbers, the New Atheists offer the rejoinder that these dictators and
terrorists, though they may not believe in God, still think in ways that are unreasonable. In one formulation of this rejoinder, Harris
says that “although these tyrants [Stalin and Mao] paid lip service to
rationality, communism was little more than a political religion” (End of Faith, p. 79).
thing to note about this is that in making such a move, the New Atheists
casually abandon what had been their central claim—and continues to be their
central claim, because they don’t acknowledge that they have abandoned it, but
go right back to repeating it. They keep
drumming into their readers that religion must be defined as belief in God (or
occasionally, the supernatural), and that specifically belief in God is the
pathological meme which causes terrorism and mass murder.
“religion” is to be used to characterize all belief systems which have ever led
to terrorism and mass murder, then in shifting from religion-defined-as-theism
to religion-which-may-just-as-well-be-atheistic, the New Atheists have tacitly
accepted that their original claim is false.
thing to note is that while Harris will not apply the term “religion” to his
own beliefs, he does not give us a litmus test to distinguish “religion” from
non-religious beliefs. But a favorite
rhetorical trope of his is to assert that people he disagrees with accept
things without evidence, and so I think we can assume that Harris defines
“religion” as accepting things without evidence, or, as he sometimes says,
virtually all spokespersons for Christianity, Islam, Communism, or even National
Socialism, would hasten to insist that they do not, repeat not, accept anything
without evidence. They would go on to
assert that Harris ignores the relevant evidence for their doctrines. Harris would naturally reply that he’s not
very impressed with their evidence, and interprets it differently. On this point I agree with Harris (as I have
unpacked at length in my Atheism
Explained: From Folly to Philosophy).
But the crucial thing to remember
here is that anyone who takes up any point of view on any subject whatsoever
will always claim that the evidence supports this point of view and that the
evidence goes against people who espouse a different point of view. So what Harris is saying is that he is right
and the theists are wrong. But we are
all right about some things and wrong about others, and, while we ought to
strive to increase the ratio of our true beliefs to our false beliefs, this in
itself says nothing about which false beliefs have the effect of increasing the
predisposition to kill people.
And so we
find that, in practice, what Harris is saying amounts to the claim that
“religion” means belief systems he disagrees with, and people who think
precisely the way he does would never commit atrocities. Any Marxist around the year 1900 would have
said the same thing.
Why Atheists Have
More Blood on Their Hands
While I point out that atheists have perpetrated more and
bigger atrocities than theists, I do not attribute this to an inherently
greater tendency on the part of atheists to commit atrocities. If the historical facts were the other way
round, with theists having committed more and bigger atrocities than atheists,
I would then be pointing out that it is a logical error to conclude that theism
is inherently more inclined than atheism to perpetrate atrocities.
As I see
it, there’s no direct causal link between atheism and atrocities or between
theism and atrocities. Neither theism
nor atheism is significantly conducive or unconducive to atrocities (or to
happiness or health, as I argued in Atheism
Explained). But I do have a
historical theory explaining why atrocities by atheists in the twentieth
century vastly exceeded the far smaller-scale atrocities perpetrated by
Christians and Muslims in all centuries up to and including the twentieth.
ideologies or belief systems, especially when they are able to capture a
monopoly of governmental authority, are liable to give rise to atrocities. It doesn’t make any difference to the body
count whether such a belief system encompasses theism or atheism. The rise of secular belief systems such as
Positivism, Marxism, Fascism, and National Socialism coincided historically
with the greatly enhanced technology for committing atrocities. If Torquemada had possessed the administrative
and personnel resources of Stalin, he might have more nearly approached Stalin
as a superstar of mass murder.
capitalism produces improved techniques and it also produces
secularization. But secularization does
not mean the disappearance of belief systems with fanatical adherents. Spiritual religions are replaced by purportedly
scientific religions, from Mesmerism to Global Warming. Socialism has come and gone, and has now been
replaced by Environmentalism. When
Environmentalism passes away, it will be replaced by some new enthusiastic
belief system, perhaps one associated with Mental Health or the need for
contact with space aliens.
In the “third
world,” the poorer half of the world, which is now the stronghold of both
Christianity and Islam, there remains some danger of atrocities perpetrated in
the name of Christianity or Islam, but in the advanced industrial countries,
most of the danger of future holocausts arises from secular-minded and pseudoscientific
The New Illiberalism
Do we have anything to fear from the New Atheists
themselves? Some of the things they say
aren’t very reassuring.
informs us that “belief is not a private matter.” (p. 44). The phrase “a private matter” has a specific
meaning in the history of liberal thought.
It means an area which is none of the business of the authorities, an
area where whatever you may choose to do will not cause you to fall into the
hands of the police. Hence the chilling
quality, to any liberal, of the phrase, “Thought Police.”
was just a slip by Harris? Not a bit of
it. “Some propositions are so
dangerous,” he explains, “that it may even be ethical to kill people for
believing them” (pp. 52–53). The whole
thrust of his book conveys the message that belief in God is the most dangerous
of the dangerous ideas for which it is ethically permissible to kill people who
have done absolutely nothing wrong.
Harris reasons that since thoughts give rise to actions, it’s okay to
coerce people on account of their dangerous thoughts alone. The rhetorical tone of The End of Faith suggests that Christian fundamentalists have the
moral standing of insect pests. Just
imagine the fuss the New Atheists would be making if Jerry Falwell or Pat
Robertson had so much as hinted that it might be ethically permissible to kill
people simply for believing there is no God.
But the late Reverend Falwell said: “We [meaning traditional-minded
Americans] honor the unbeliever.” You
can’t imagine Harris saying anything this nice about Christians.
on the fact that most Muslims living in the West are tolerant of the non-Muslim
beliefs of their neighbors, Harris points out that Muslims in the West are in a
small minority, so their seeming tolerance may be just a sham (p. 115).
possibly. And if the New Atheists today,
when atheists constitute about two percent of the US population, can cheerfully
entertain the ethically permissible liquidation of some unspecified segment of
the dangerous eighty-plus percent who believe in God, what should we expect
from the New Atheists when atheists have increased their following to forty,
fifty, or sixty percent of the population?
EconomicsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Mon, March 10, 2014 02:53:13
[I tried to post this as a comment, but the blog wouldn't let me (too long?) so I'm submitting it as a new post.]
Thanks, Lee, for your kind remarks. My debate with Robert Taylor was on New
Year’s Day, so naturally I was in recovery mode, and even slower-witted than
usual. I failed to make some key points.
don’t dispute that it’s possible to formulate a useful deductive system in
which conclusions can be spun out from axioms.
Euclidean geometry is an obvious example. The theorems follow from the axioms. Furthermore, we feel intuitively that the
theorems are true, that is, that they tell us something about the physical
structure of objects in space. Yet, as we
now know, Euclidean geometry is not literally true of the physical world. In other words, if we take Taylor’s example
of the Pythagorean theorem, the conclusion of this theorem is not true of real
triangles in space (it is slightly off, because of the curvature of space).
Yet the Pythagorean theorem is
true in two senses: 1. The theorem does follow from the axioms, and is
therefore true in Euclid’s world, much as ‘elves have a characteristic smell,
different from that of hobbits’ is true in Tolkien’s world; 2. The theorem
applies to real-world triangles of manageable size with very close
approximation. It’s therefore fine for
we can assume that ‘Man acts’ is true, and derive from this certain propositions
(which then help to define what we mean by that assertion). We can logically derive from these
propositions some conclusions about the way humans will act. I don’t deny that we can do this, and that
the results will sometimes be illuminating.
For example, if we assume that business firms always do what they
perceive as maximizing their financial returns, we can make predictions about the
behavior of firms which will very often be true (and where not true may draw
our attention to some special circumstance, which may be helpful to our
analysis of what is going on in the behavior of firms). Furthermore, the assumption that business
firms always do what they perceive as maximizing their financial returns is not
arbitrary, since we know that competition favors the survival of firms which do
better at maximizing their returns. So,
I agree that there’s a lot of mileage in the view that important steps in
economic reasoning may be made by applying a Pure Logic of Choice. And, of course, virtually all economists
would agree with this, and many of them, never having met a Misesian, would
wonder why I am saying anything so trite.
Mises and Rothbard maintain that all of economic theory is derived by deduction
from axioms. In other words all of
economic theory is derived from self-evident axioms about human action, and not
in the least from empirical observation!
we should note the historical fact that Rothbard was a huge influence on the
libertarian movement. To my mind, as
well as being an entirely lovable person, for I met him several times and had a
number of long conversations with him, he was a wonderful pamphleteer and
propagandist. He was no great shakes as
an economist, and an abysmal thinker about economic epistemology. Despite his shortcomings, he was a huge
improvement over the very poor philosophizing of Ayn Rand, which threatened to
engulf libertarianism in the 1960s and 1970s.
A lot of what Rand said was entirely correct, but totally unoriginal with
her, and this ninety-five percent of her output was simply the common heritage
of classical liberalism since Locke’s Second
Treatise. Whenever Rand came up with
an original idea, she was not only wrong but most of the time almost
unbelievably sloppy in her reasoning.
Rothbard was a scholar who knew quite a bit about the history of liberal
thought. He had read and understood, not
only Locke’s Second Treatise, the
fountainhead of libertarianism, not only Mill and Spencer, but numerous other
thinkers, some of them still under-examined, like Bastiat, Molinari, La
Boettie, Lysander Spooner, and Franz Oppenheimer. Rothbard had his limitations but he would
never blunder as badly as Rand, who was essentially a creature of Hollywood. Rothbard helped a lot of people transition
out of Randism into something more defensible, something with more potential for
this ideological background is less important.
Rothbard’s following has largely evaporated. The fact that he quit the libertarian
movement in the last few years of his life has something to do with it. Today the issue of ‘praxeology’ is hardly
ever raised. Economists arguing for the
free market simply don’t address it. It
still attracts a few enthusiasts like Robert Taylor and animates some of the
output of the Mises Institute. But, for
example, if you take the work of a capable and effective popularizer of the economic
case for the free market like John Lott, you don’t find any appeals to
aprioristic reasoning. It’s all
empirically based, this is what you expect, and it would be a distraction for
anyone to suggest that it all follows from ‘Man acts’.
was a Kantian. He believed that there
are synthetic a priori propositions, and that the essential truths about
purposive action were among these propositions.
I think there are no synthetic a priori propositions. Like Hume and the logical empiricists, I
think that what is analytic is a priori and what is a priori is analytic. But more narrowly, though I’m always prepared
to be surprised, I just haven’t seen a convincing candidate for a synthetic a
a statement tells you about the world, it’s an empirical claim and can’t be
deduced from self-evident axioms. If
something’s deduced from self-evident axioms, it doesn’t tell you anything
about the world (except that part of the world which is the theory in question),
though it may be useful if you can make the assumption that the world complies
with the axioms. I am entirely prepared
to accept that we can construct a body of praxeological theory from axioms and
that this might include a great deal of economic theory. But in applying this theory to the world in
order to draw conclusions about the world, we would be taking a step beyond the
pure theory, and this would make our conclusions fallible. The empirical is always fallible in a way
that deduction isn’t.
point I didn’t bring out in my conversation with Robert Taylor is that even if
we had a complete body of praxeological theory which we then set about applying
to economic life, there would be the question of whether we had applied it
accurately. This is more serious than
you might think. Take the example of
identifying whether something is money.
(Jeff Hummel made this point and others like it back in the 1970s, at a
time when we were all much more preoccupied with Mises-Rothbardism than anyone
there are strong tendencies for one good to emerge as the single monetary unit,
these tendencies do not fully carry through.
Today we know that bank deposits, coins and bills, gold and silver, and
bitcoin, all function as money. Other
entities, like commercial bills, could also be included. The central notion of money is that it is a
good which you acquire because it will enable you to exchange for other
goods. It follows that goods can have
more or less moneyness. Diamonds have
more moneyness than machine tools. Once
a good has a lot of moneyness, it automatically tends to accumulate more
moneyness, but in practice this is not going to culminate in just one good
having all the moneyness.
point of this for praxeological reasoning is that identifying and measuring
what is actually functioning as money can be a tricky empirical exercise. So even with our complete praxeological
theory, we would still have to do a lot of empirical work to explain, say, what
happened to the US money supply in 2008.
There would still be empirical issues about whether this or that asset
was functioning as money.
I do not think we have, or are going to have that complete praxeological theory
to start with. For example, praxeology
holds that if someone prefers a to b and b to c, they will prefer a to c. This certainly looks convincing as a likely
empirical generalization, but is it apodictically true? Obviously not. We might say that someone who prefers a to b
and b to c but chooses c when confronted by a choice between a and c is somehow
muddled. Yes, but people can be
muddled. Even if we never observed a
case of someone being muddled, we would still have to say that the very idea of
someone being muddled is conceivable, and so the claim that no one is ever
muddled would be an empirical claim. But
it is false. People actually are
sometimes muddled. Psychology
experiments have documented that some kinds of muddle are actually quite
prevalent. (I have elsewhere argued
against the usual conclusion from this fact, the conclusion that people are
often irrational. I maintain that people
are never irrational—here Mises was right—though they often make mistakes.)
non-transitive preferences (preferring c to a) is just one example; there are
many others, such as counting sunk costs.
How does the praxeologist handle cases like these? He can accept them as allowed within his
theory of human action, or he can outlaw them as contrary to the basic
conception of action. One way to do the
latter is to say that if someone preferred a to b and b to c, and was then
observed to pick c over a, he must have changed his preferences. But then, if economics is to make empirical
predictions about the world, it becomes useless, since any false prediction we
make can be accommodated by saying that people’s preferences unaccountably
changed during the real-life process we were analyzing. In order to keep economics as capable of
making falsifiable predictions, we therefore have to add the premiss (not a
fundamental component of praxeology) that people’s preferences are stable. Now we have something empirically
falsifiable, and therefore empirically useful, but we have introduced something
not derivable from ‘Man acts’.
what if we take the other route and say that we allow people to have
non-transitive preferences, and generally to be muddled? Then we can’t get the most elementary market
mechanisms started. We will be unable
even to get to the downward-sloping demand curve. Not much, if anything at all, can be spun out
from the action axiom if we allow that at any point people can be muddled.
we turn some of the aprioristic claims into empirical generalizations, then we
can make progress. We can say, for
instance, as a first stab at it, that people are not muddled all the time, and
when dealing with a group of people some of the muddles will cancel out, and if
the consequences of the muddles become too painful people will pay more
attention and reduce their muddles. We
can also observe, as Becker did, that since people’s incomes are limited, the
downward sloping demand curve is automatically generated as highly probable for
any given good (for example, it’s just not possible for someone to adopt the rule
to buy more at higher prices for all the goods they buy; their limited income
won’t let them do it). So even if
individuals’ buying behavior were totally random (I admit that’s impossible for
other reasons) we would still observe downward-sloping demand curves in the
vast majority of cases, probably all.
The downward sloping demand curve, which we couldn’t derive by deduction
from actions, starts to look pretty good as an empirical generalization. Is it a law?
Yes, or at least it’s a putative law, just like a putative law in
physics or chemistry, provided we specify the circumstances of its application
more could be said at this point, but to me one of the most interesting aspects
of market behavior is that markets behave much more in accordance with textbook
models than they ‘ought’ to. We know
that real human beings have a tendency to count sunk costs, yet industrial
investment goes on as if they didn’t. A
study was done of drivers’ responses to different and changing gas (for Brits:
petrol) prices at different gas stations.
Their behavior was observed and they were questioned as to what they
knew about prices at different gas stations.
It was found that they knew very little about prices at different stations,
yet their actual behavior was quite close to what we would expect if they had
had a perfect knowledge of the prices at all the local stations. Of course, we can come up with explanations
for these phenomena, and these explanations tell us a lot about the way markets
work. But we have come a long way from
the Misesian attempt to move from ‘Man acts’ by strict deduction to ‘Consumers
buy from the cheapest seller’.
are my answers to Lee’s five questions
1. I don’t believe any significant number
of economists will dispute that the minimum wage will increase unemployment,
but they may still favor a minimum wage.
Remember, that a minimum wage will both increase unemployment and
increase the wages of those workers who keep their jobs or get new jobs. Some workers do benefit directly from a
minimum wage. I have actually seen
discussions where economists argue that if the increase in the wages of workers
who keep their jobs exceeds the total wages lost by those who are made
unemployed, this makes the case for the minimum wage! An economist (a leftist ideologue who happens
to be an economist) may also take the view that it’s better for a worker to be
on welfare than to be hired in a very low-wage job.
political views of the minimum wage are illustrated in the recent report of the
non-partisan Congressional Budget Office on Obama’s proposed minimum wage
increase. The CBO said the proposed
increase would rescue 900,000 people from poverty, and would also cause an
increase in unemployment somewhere between “slight” and one million, settling
for 500,000 as a probable figure. This CBO
analysis was taken by the vast majority of supporters of the increase as
complete vindication of the measure: obviously 900,000 is bigger than 500,000! (The White House economic advisor objected
and said there would be no increase in unemployment! But that’s the kind of nonsense you expect
from someone in that position. White
House strategists know that if anywhere there occurs an official endorsement of
the claim that any of the administration’s measures will result in any
unemployment whatsoever, this meme could mutuate into something fearsome that
would come and eat them all up.)
me the biggest tragedy of the minimum wage is that it takes the least productive
and therefore most vulnerable workers and ensures that they will never get
on-the-job training which would be one of their likely roads to improvement. Along with welfare and the public schools, it
systematically creates a vast class of unproductive criminals. It also ensures that the snow doesn’t get
cleared in the Loop every winter, that no one buses tables in diners any more,
and that no one cleans your windshield or your tires when you stop for gas.
2. They didn’t necessarily react this
way because they had been convinced by praxeological reasoning. It’s characteristic of all sciences that most
scientists’ initial response to a challenge is to assume that the currently
prevailing view is correct and a new challenge is pretty sure to be flawed (and
a lot of the time they’re right; that’s why it’s the currently prevailing view). And, after all, you can give a loose,
intuitive explanation of why a minimum wage will increase unemployment, and
anyone can see the point of this, without accepting that it’s a matter of
apodictic certainty. Remember, it’s not
just the minimum wage. This is just one
example of a price floor. Price floors
have been observed for many different goods.
I doubt that anyone would object to the statement that if you announce a
minimum price for cement, above the market price, and enforce it, less cement
will be purchased.
further comments on empirical challenges to the theory that minimum wage
increases raise unemployment. 1. From
what I’ve seen, the economists who challenge it usually say something like
‘Modest minimum wage increases will rescue people from poverty and will cause
negligible increases in unemployment’. The
implication is that negligible increases don’t matter. But the consequences for those who are hit
are unusually severe and long lasting. A
couple of thousand additional teenagers thrust into a life of drug dealing and
gang banging is not negligible from where I’m sitting. For a certain percentage of them it will
actually be a death sentence. We’re
talking about marginal-quality workers, people whom it’s barely worth
hiring. 2. Elasticity is always greater
given more time, so you would need to look at a long enough time period to see
the full effects. 3. The rise in
unemployment might not show up in the statistics for total employment. Suppose McDonald’s hires fewer blacks from
low-income backgrounds and replaces them with more middle-class students. Why would this happen? Because the middle-class students, many of
whom can take the job or leave it, are induced to apply by the higher wage, and
they on average possess positive attributes valued by the franchisee, who is,
after all, paying more; the franchisee will be able to reject blacks from
devastated neighborhoods he might have formerly taken a chance on. The middle-class students will on average be distinctly
better at the job; they will find it less of a struggle to show up punctually
and to be gracious to customers. If
you’re paying $10 an hour, and you can get someone worth $10 an hour, you’ll go
for it, even if you would have preferred to do what you’re no longer permitted
to do: pay $8 an hour to someone worth $8 an hour.
3. Yes, just as physics is an empirical
science and it’s reasonable to speak of laws of physics.
4. I don’t suppose they could ever be
sure, but it doesn’t really arise since they usually do find clear enough
results in this area. Most studies of the
minimum wage look at things like differences between neighboring states with
different state minimum wages. Actually,
it’s remarkable to me that they can find anything at all, given how small these
differences are. You might expect the
outcomes to be swamped by market noise, but apparently they aren’t.
cases where it’s not feasible to observe the effects, you would exercise your
ingenuity to find more roundabout ways of testing the theory.
5. No, I don’t think so. We must distinguish between gut instincts
about how the economy works and apodictic reasoning. People working in all the sciences are guided
in what to look for by intuitive models which lack any formal standing. These intuitive models suggest; they don’t
PhilosophyPosted by David Ramsay Steele Thu, March 06, 2014 22:33:58
When I saw the Clint Eastwood movie Firefox in 1982, the thing that most
stuck in my mind was that it depicted Soviet society in an unflattering
light. I had never seen this in a
Hollywood movie before. What had gone
wrong? Hadn’t the director got the memo
from the studio bosses? Shouldn’t he be
blacklisted or something?
Just as we knew back then that in
Hollywood’s world every Catholic priest would be a kindly figure with absolutely
no eye for a nicely rounded bottom, who never voiced any of the controversial
bits of Catholic dogma, but could be counted on to say to a wayward soul, about
two-thirds of the way through the story, “I know there is some good in you,” so
we knew that the Soviet Union always had to be shown as industrious,
peace-loving, and quaintly mysterious, or at worst suspicious and irritable,
like a temperamental bear which had been grievously mistreated but would now surely
respond gratefully to patience and kindness.
Any trouble with the Russians was
due to sinister forces dedicated to provoking misunderstanding—usually right-wing
Americans, whose minds were too warped to understand that the USSR was essentially
all about peace and love, but occasionally the culprits were international
criminals—think of all the times in the Bond movies when SPECTRE was revealed
to be so much more evil than SMERSH, and never more evil than when it was
sowing mistrust between East and West.
be told, my attention had been caught by a very minor detail of the movie
itself. The glimpse into Soviet society
was a small part of the film and only occupied a few minutes of screen time. Firefox
is an adventure story in which Clint’s character (a traumatized former fighter
pilot who’s fluent in Russian) steals the only existing model of an advanced
jet fighter from its Russian base and flies it out of the Soviet Union! But, oh no, scratch that, it’s not the only
model after all! There turns out to be another prototype, so the top Russian
military test pilot uses this second aircraft to come after Clint, and
following a supersonic chase there’s a supersonic dogfight, in which Clint is
blown to pieces. . . . No, of course not, just making sure you’re awake.
me at the time, the second most striking thing about the movie was that the jet
fighters’ weapon systems were thought-controlled. And there’s that crucial point in the
dogfight where Clint has to remind himself to think in Russian before he can properly fire a missile at his
weapons? Was this yet another of
Hollywood’s tall tales? Or was it something
that could ever become reality? And how
would that work, exactly? I thought
about this at the time, without knowing much about the brain. After all, you move your arm by thinking,
don’t you? (Ha! We can imagine that muddlehead Wittgenstein
going on for several pages about this.
“I do not move my arm by thinking, . . . I just move my arm.” Well,
danke schön, Lu, that’s very deep.)
Thirty-two years on, I know a
little bit more about the brain, and a little bit more about brain-related
technology, and I know that it’s now safe to assume the US military does have
thought-controlled weapons if it wants them.
We do have brain-computer interfacing (BCI), so that, for instance,
someone with a wired-up brain can move a cursor on a computer screen (just by
thinking, so to speak) or steer his wheelchair, just by thinking, and we have
thought-controlled prosthetics, movable just by thought alone, and artificial
thought control of real limbs, so that people with completely paralyzed bodies
can move their limbs, just by thinking (Clear out, Ludwig. You’re too much underfoot. You too, Gilbert. Out.)
appliances, including weapons, are now just a yawn. More exciting is the prospect of transmitting
thoughts from one brain to another by linking up the brains, without any
In August 2013 it was announced
that, in an experiment conducted at the University of Washington by Rajesh Rao,
one person, his brain linked to another person’s, was able, by thinking about
moving his finger (but not actually moving it) to make the other person’s finger
move. Essentially the same thing had
been done earlier with the brains of two rats, and then with the brain of a
human and the brain of a rat. In Rao’s
experiment, the sender was playing a videogame; the receiver’s moving finger
fired a rocket in the game, though only the sender and not the receiver could
see the game on a screen.
I don’t know if Rao’s experiment
was reported in the UK press, and if so, how.
But over here, and online, all the reports I saw described it as a wholly
unprecedented breakthrough and failed to mention that four years earlier
something apparently more radical had been achieved at the University of
Southampton. The Southampton team led by
Christopher James transmitted a thought from one person’s brain to
another. Or at least, that’s one way of
describing it. Though the recipient was
not aware of the ‘thought’, the information could be retrieved electronically
from his brain.
To get one brain, by having a
thought about something, to cause a motor response in another brain, ought to
be a lot easier than getting one brain, by having a thought about something, to
cause a thought about the same thing to arise in another brain. However, the Southampton brain-to-brain transmittal
was done by using a binary code: the sender imagined moving his left arm for
zero and his right arm for one. It was
simply a matter of transmitting which of two known options had been
chosen. As a case of thought
transmission this is kind of like cheating.
A more advanced variant is having someone look at some alphabetical
letters in succession, and simply sending a signal when the ‘right’ one has
been hit upon, the accumulation of such letters adding up to the desired
message. This is a neat trick, but
something far more momentous is now being developed and will soon be marketed. Specific thoughts, sensations, and emotions
will be conveyed from one brain to another by electronic transmission.
Imagine a football team or a
military patrol in which each member of the team is simultaneously aware of the
experiences of each of the other members, just as instantly as he’s aware of
events affecting the various parts of his own body. How awesome is that? Even more impressively, imagine that all the
world’s theoretical physicists working on superstring theory are connected by
equipment attached to their skulls, so that whenever one of them has a
promising idea, this idea is immediately picked up by all the others. This triggers a new thought in the mind of
one of the others, which is also picked up by all of them, and so on.
Dr James’s and Dr Rao’s
experiments were done without penetrating the skull. Electrodes were attached to the outside of
the skulls of sender and receiver. The
sender’s brain activity was picked up by EEG (electro-encephalography) and what
was picked up was then transmitted to the receiver’s brain by TMS (transcranial
magnetic stimulation). So these are all
things attached to the outside of the skull which receive and send impulses
from and into the skull. To achieve more
precise and detailed transmission of thoughts and feelings, we have to physically
get inside the skull, though we’re helped by the fact that thoughts occur
mostly at or near the brain’s surface.
Every time I think of the
currently favored way to accomplish this, it strikes me as so clunky it’s bound
to be superseded before the whole show gets on the road, but so far it hasn’t
been. The plan is, first, to genetically
modify all of a person’s brain cells (neurons) to make them sensitive to
light. This is feasible and has been
done with animals—the research area is called optogenetics. Then, we insert a whole lot of
nanowires—really very thin tubes—into the person’s body, with many different
wires going through blood vessels into many different regions (groups of
neurons) in the brain. There’s plenty of
room; the wires are very thin. In this way, it’s possible to send light
signals to quite specific areas in the brain, associated with particular kinds
of thoughts. With this set-up, it will
be possible for A to think of something, and as a direct result, almost
immediately, B will think of that same thing.
The brains of both A and B are connected to computers, and these two
computers will communicate by telephone.
This is called brain-brain interfacing (BBI). BBI is an application and extension of BCI
and will soon be as much talked about as smart phones were ten years ago.
You may think that people will be
reluctant to have every cell of their brains genetically modified, and then
have thousands of yards of nanowires introduced into their bodies, reaching
into every part of their brains.
However, the initial impetus for widespread application of BCI is to
improve people’s lives by correcting severe disorders, especially
paralysis. The nanowires will also be
useful for medical diagnosis. Once the
basic apparatus is in place, it will be a platform for further enhancements,
such as direct brain connection to the Internet.
Furthermore, other types of
inside-the-skull apparatus for different enhancements are available, one of the
simplest being cochlear implants.
Cochlear implants give incurably deaf people the ability to hear
again. It takes practice and hard work
for the patient to hear with the implants, which operate according to a computerized
system entirely different from natural hearing, but they do usually learn to
hear quite well, and these implants are already routine. They have nothing to do with thinking as a brain
process, but they do help to prepare people for the assumption that it’s okay
to have your head wired.
Many other enhancements are
feasible; it would be child’s play to give someone x-ray vision (though most
likely by microwaves rather than x-rays), with all the necessary equipment
inside their skull. As people get more
used to having their skulls wired in various ways, one more way will not seem
too much of a leap. Pretty soon, it will
make possible brain connectivity to videogames, and many of the millions of
gaming fanatics will not want to be left out.
I give it eighteen years before the first court case (probably rape) in
which a defendant is charged with coercively influencing an alleged victim by using
BBI, and twenty-five years before the first case involving stealing information
by hacking into someone’s brain.
the wave of BBI is about to hit us, we can anticipate some of the
misconceptions which will abound.
Already, the two participants in Rao’s experiment (Rao himself and a guy
called Andrea Stocco) have been quoted as referring to it as a “Vulcan Mind
Meld.” All joking aside, let’s try to
keep misunderstandings to a minimum by remembering the following essential
1. Inevitably, BBI is described
as ‘direct brain-to-brain communication’.
(In the trade it’s called B2B and unfortunately this label looks as if
it will stick, despite the fact that B2B already has other established usages,
most notably, in the world of marketing, ‘business to business’.) But this description can easily be
communication between humans is brain-to-brain.
When you read the words “If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,”
William Shakespeare’s brain (or the brain of whoever really wrote it) has communicated
with your brain. And as for
communication being direct, with BBI there’s a lot of apparatus inside and
outside the skulls of the communicating parties, and this apparatus
communicates through computers, connected by a telephone system (usually the
Internet). This is much less direct than
just talking and listening! But it seems more direct because the
communicator and the receiver only have to think. So at most we may say that it feels direct—it’s
2. You can be certain that the
media will love to call BBI ‘telepathy’, but there is not and never can be any
such thing as telepathy. In BBI, a
thought in one person’s mind causes (by a complicated technological pathway) a
thought with similar content in another person’s mind. This has many of the properties of
communication by speech or writing, and in fact to achieve the communication in
any precise way, words will normally have to be among the material
3. The communication will not be
guaranteed accurate. I think something
and this causes you to think something similar, and because of this subjective
immediacy, it may encourage the mistake of thinking that we can trust this
communication to be more honest or accurate than, say, reading a letter. But that’s all wrong. Misinterpretation (seeming to ‘receive’ a
thought which is not what the sender was thinking at all) will be commonplace. It may even turn out that the conscious act
of formulating something in a letter causes us to take certain pains to make
the message more accurate than it could ever be in a more spontaneous
thought-to-thought process. Honesty does
not come naturally; it takes a special effort, as I think David McDonagh was
the first to point out. Tricks of
deception will no doubt require different skills in BBI than ordinary speech,
but deception, intentional and unintentional, will keep cropping up.
third thing that struck me about Firefox
was the irritating martial music of the soundtrack. Was the composer hired by the studio to punish
the director and scriptwriter for their thoughtcrime of anti-communism? Hmm, I wonder . . .
EconomicsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Mon, February 24, 2014 19:03:31
I’ve been having a lot of fun reading
the works of the big-government anarchist David Graeber. Superficially he embodies everything I most
loathe, yet actually I like his writing.
One reason is that he’s completely unpretentious. He lays out what he believes with perfect
clarity and no mystifying tricks. This
is very unusual for someone on today’s extreme left, especially when that
someone is a professor of social science with a considerable academic
reputation. So, if for some reason
you’ve been swallowing some toxic swill like Deleuze and Guattari, to cleanse
the palate, try a swig of Graeber.
thing that makes Graeber somewhat unlike most of today’s left and very much
like the left of the 1930s is his powerful conviction that capitalism cannot
possibly last much longer. He suggests
different reasons for this belief on different occasions, but here I just want
to look at a single sentence:
is good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism will no
longer exist: for the simple reason that (as many have pointed out) it’s
impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite
planet” (page 31 in Revolutions in
Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination, not dated but
Here I’m not going to look at the intended
meaning of this sentence in the context of Graeber’s overall political outlook (I’ll
do that sometime) but I’m just going to comment on its figurative and
rhetorical aspect as a typical cliché of today’s left.
in Chicago’s Loop a couple of weeks ago, I was stopped by a pleasant young
woman who asked me to sign something for Greenpeace. I said, apologetically, that she was wasting
her time on me because I am opposed to Greenpeace. She donned a maternal frown of concern and
asked why, and I responded: “Because I’m evil” (though with the twinkling smile
of a rough diamond, and if I’d had a mustache I would have tweaked it roguishly;
the English accent always counts for something too; in England my voice betrays
me as a prole, but over here the natives can’t tell me from Hugh Grant).
So, I had to explain about how we
need economic growth to industrialize the poorer half of the world so that
millions of third-world babies can be rescued from heartrending deaths and how Greenpeace
is among the enemies of economic growth and therefore of human happiness. And I threw in a few of my best lines, like
the way wind farms mangle and rip apart the poor little bodies of millions of
innocent birds and bats, and I can’t understand how anyone can defend such a
horrible practice. (Nor could she, for a
few seconds) I was heavily bundled up
against Chicago’s global warming (10 degrees below zero Fahrenheit), and she
probably couldn’t see that I was nearly four times her age. So this was working, trust me, it really was.
Then she asked, no doubt
rhetorically, whether we could go on indefinitely expanding aggregate real
incomes, whether we could do this, as she put it, infinitely. I was trapped by my damnable candor, and in
all honesty I had to say: “Yes indefinitely, yes infinitely.” So now I was the escapee from the psych ward
and that was that. Another lamb lost to
Back to Graeber’s sentence. If we look at this sentence, we see that it
relies on the metaphor of physical quantities.
Perpetual growth forever
(strictly redundant, but I think the redundancy works well as a bit of prose) on a finite planet. We immediately think of something physically
expanding forever within a fixed perimeter.
Obviously, this is impossible, at least in Euclid’s world, and Euclid
has to be good enough for this, I think.
The metaphor hides a simple
mistake. Economic growth—growth of
incomes—need not be growth of physical mass.
For example, my iPhone is much smaller than an old-fashioned telephone,
and even smaller than a
telephone-plus-camera-plus-music-player-plus-computer. It is less massive yet more valuable.
A Ferrari 458 Italia sports car
weighs 3,274 lbs. A Ford F-150 pickup
truck weighs 4,013 lbs. So the mass of
the Ford is more than a fifth greater than the mass of the Ferrari. But the Ferrari will cost you around $250,000
while you can pick up the pickup for around $25,000. The Ferrari has ten times the value of the
more massive Ford.
Since something smaller can have
more value than something bigger, economic growth does not always mean
accumulating more and more physical stuff.
Growth may sometimes coincide with reducing the amount of physical
stuff. A CD is less massive than a vinyl
LP, and any number of downloadable tracks account for no mass at all in the
hands of the listener. Yet the
progression from LP to CD to online song is an example of economic growth. As people move from books made of paper to e-books,
there is a reduction in the assembly, storage, and transportation of physical stuff. Yet this is an example of economic growth.
It’s not a novel phenomenon. Observers of the early factory system noted
that, compared with domestic production, it uses less of certain kinds of equipment
and supplies. Take a hundred weavers out
of their homes and put them side by side in a factory, and they don’t need as
much backup equipment or stocks of yarn or even auxiliary labor as they all did
in aggregate when they were working separately.
This isn’t the whole story, of course, but it’s one reason why the
factories could be more economical than the scattered domestic system. In this case, economic growth means getting
the same output with less equipment.
Economic growth is not
accumulation of more and more physical stuff.
It primarily consists of the re-arrangement of physical stuff in new
ways. Matter-energy can’t be created or
destroyed, but only re-arranged. Human
activity can convert matter into energy, but the amount of matter lost in this
way is minute. What producers are doing
under capitalism is not to add bulk but to re-arrange the existing bulk in ways
more suited to human gratification. And
if we’re worried about sheer bulk, several tons of cosmic dust land on the
Earth every day (or even every hour, as most of the relevant scientists say),
so the sheer bulk of the planet is always growing, do what we will.
At times, a reduction in the
amount of physical stuff being used in production can be a form of economic
growth. And it seems reasonable that
these times would get more frequent once a lot of basic infrastructure has been
Economic growth also means more
free time, more leisure. People have far
more free time than they did a hundred years ago. People choose to take some of the gains of
economic growth in shorter working hours and some in more stuff (where ‘more
stuff’ means stuff affording greater satisfaction of wants). The proportions are determined by people
themselves, not by something else such as ‘the system’. In my judgment, income statistics would be
more accurate if they included the amounts of free time, but in practice this
doesn’t matter much as people always choose to take most of the gains of
economic growth in goods other than leisure, rather than sharply reducing their
working hours. We just have to bear in
mind that the gain in human well-being from economic growth measured by
national income statistics is usually understated: we have to add something for
the bonus of shorter working hours.
Is it possible to maintain
perpetual growth forever on a finite planet?
Well, it can’t go on forever, because as the sun very slowly gets
hotter, in 3.75 billion years from now, the oceans will boil away and we’ll be
dead or gone. Even before that, since our
galaxy, the Milky Way, is colliding with another galaxy, Andromeda, death by cosmic
accident seems likely, not to mention more ordinary catastrophes like an
asteroid hit, which can easily happen at any time (Our only hope there would be
SDI; thank you, Ronald Reagan). And the next glaciation presents a problem, though per capita growth might go on, close to the equator, if we can reduce population by 96 percent.
But with those qualifications,
yes, it’s perfectly possible to maintain perpetual growth forever on a finite
planet. Just as there will always be new
songs to be sung, new stories to be told, new discoveries, new achievements, new
debates, new adventures, new worlds of imagination and experience, so there
will always be new ways to re-arrange the material structure of capital to make
it ever more adaptable to human gratification and therefore human happiness. And that is all that we mean by economic
growth. Capitalism could last forever
and economic growth could go on, somewhere, until the heat death of the
universe, with everyone getting richer indefinitely. There is no contradiction, and what “many
have pointed out” is, as so very often, quite wrong.
Actually, I think that we’ll
probably evolve beyond capitalism within the free market economy. But that’s a story for another day.