Sunday, February 27, 2011

Not worth a brass farthing

Mark Twain from his Autobiography
In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Resume the follies

From Winston Churchill's Triumph and Tragedy.
How the great democracies triumphed, and so were able to resume the follies which had so nearly cost them their life.

The longer effects of any act or policy

Henry Hazlitt in Economics in One Lesson, 1952, page 5.
The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

Nine-tenths of the economic fallacies that are working such dreadful harm in the world today are the result of ignoring this lesson. Those fallacies all stem from one of two central fallacies, or both: that of looking only at the immediate consequences of an act or proposal, and that of looking at the consequences only for a particular group to the neglect of other groups.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Nature, which remains deaf and inexorable to our wishes

From Galileo and the Scientific Pose of the Left by Robert Tracinski.
. . . as Galileo himself advised a fellow scientist, by doing experiments "you will be able to find out just how much force human authority has upon the facts of nature, which remains deaf and inexorable to our wishes."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

This field of glory is harvested

Abraham Lincoln, Lyceum Address - The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.
This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A habit of attentive clarity

From Walter Russell Mead in his essay, Sun Tzu: The Enemy of the Bureaucratic Mind.
The Art of War is a handbook for living in an uncertain and dangerous world. It is dominated by paradox: training is necessary to produce a good general, but any general who comes to trust the rules he has learned is headed for defeat. The successful general will have studied The Art of War so profoundly that he ceases to trust it.

I was not reaching for hyperbole when I wrote that this is a book that wants to slap its readers in the face. Like a Zen monk trying to astonish and trick the novice into a moment of enlightenment, Sun Tzu seeks to surprise, to shock and ultimately to awaken his readers. He is not teaching a body of doctrine but a habit of mind: a habit of attentive clarity out of which can come true judgment and decisive action.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

They augur misgovernment at a distance

Edmund Burke, On Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies, Speech to Parliament, Mar. 22, 1775.
In other countries [than the American colonies], the people . . . judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.

Monday, February 21, 2011

'Tis new to thee

From The Plagues of the Mind by Bruce S. Thorton, page 86.
Without that contextualizing distance we fall into the trap of what Gary Saul Morson calls "chronocentricism," the arrogant "temporal egotism" that judges everything by the standards and "knowledge" of the present, as though our accidental lateness confers on us greater wisdom instead of knowledge of a greater number of facts. But just as objects nearer to us appear bigger than they actually are, and we obliterate the sun with a thumb, so the ideas of the present take on an importance and heft that they might not deserve. Forgetting the wisdom of the Preacher that there is nothing new uunder the sun, we continually cry out like Shakespeare's Miranda "O brave new world!" and seldom hear the older, wiser Prospero snort, "'Tis new to thee."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The infinite variety of human experience

From Livy, The History of Rome in the preface to Book One
The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things rotten through and through, to avoid.

The Education Bubble Is Fuel for Revolt by Joshua Fulton

The Education Bubble Is Fuel for Revolt by Joshua Fulton

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A scholastick life has no other tendency than to vitiate the morals and contract the understanding

The Works of Samuel Johnson by Samuel Johnson
No. 180. SATURDAY, DECEMBER 7. 1751

Tat' eidwoes isqi, mathn d' 'Epicouron eason
Ho' tooe cenooen zhte'n, caioe tines ai monades.
AUTOMEDON.

On life, on morals, be thy thoughts employ'd;
Leave to the schools their atoms and their void.

It is somewhere related by Le Clerc, that a wealthy trader of good understanding, having the common ambition to breed his son a scholar, carried him to an university, resolving to use his own judgment in the choice of a tutor. He had been taught, by whatever intelligence, the nearest way to the heart of an academick, and at his arrival entertained all who came about him with such profusion, that the professors were lured by the smell of his table from their books, and flocked round him with all the cringes of awkward complaisance. This eagerness answered the merchant's purpose: he glutted them with delicacies, and softened them with caresses,
till he prevailed upon one after another to open his bosom, and make a discovery of his competitions, jealousies, and resentments. Having thus learned each man's character, partly from himself, and partly from his acquaintances, he resolved to find some other education for his son, and went away convinced, that a scholastick life has no other tendency than to vitiate the morals and contract the understanding: nor would he afterwards hear with patience the praises of the ancient authors, being persuaded that scholars of all ages must have been the same, and that Xenophon and Cicero were professors of some former university, and therefore mean and selfish, ignorant and servile, like those whom he had lately visited and forsaken.

Envy, curiosity, and a sense of the imperfection of our present state, incline us to estimate the advantages which are in the possession of others above their real value. Every one must have remarked, what powers and prerogatives the vulgar imagine to be conferred by learning. A man of science is expected to excel the unlettered and unenlightened even on occasions where literature is of no use, and among weak minds, loses part of his reverence, by discovering no superiority in those parts of life, in which all are unavoidably equal; as when a monarch makes a progress to the remoter provinces, the rustics are said sometimes to wonder that they find him of the same size with themselves.

These demands of prejudice and folly can never be satisfied; and therefore many of the imputations which learning suffers from disappointed ignorance, are without reproach. But there are some failures, to which men of study are peculiarly exposed. Every condition has its disadvantages. The circle of knowledge is too wide for the most active and diligent intellect, and while science is pursued, other accomplishments are neglected; as a small garrison must leave one part of an extensive fortress naked, when an alarm calls them to another. The learned, however, might generally support their dignity with more success, if they suffered not themselves to be misled by the desire of superfluous attainments. Raphael, in return to Adam's inquiries into the courses of the stars, and the revolutions of heaven, counsels him to withdraw his mind from idle speculations, and employ his faculties upon nearer and more interesting objects, the survey of his own life, the subjection of his passions, the knowledge of duties which must daily be performed, and the detection of dangers which must daily be incurred.

This angelick counsel every man of letters should always have before him. He that devotes himself to retired study naturally sinks from omission to forgetfulness of social duties; he must be therefore sometimes awakened and recalled to the general condition of mankind.

I am far from any intention to limit curiosity, or confine the labours of learning to arts of immediate and necessary use. It is only from the various essays of experimental industry, and the vague excursions of minds sent out upon discovery, that any advancement of knowledge can be expected; and, though many must be disappointed in their labours, yet they are not to be charged with having spent their time in vain; their example contributed to inspire emulation, and their miscarriages taught others the way to success.

But the distant hope of being one day useful or eminent, ought not to mislead us too far from that study which is equally requisite to the great and mean, to the celebrated and obscure; the art of moderating the desires, of repressing the appetites, and of conciliating or retaining the favour of mankind.

No man can imagine the course of his own life, or the conduct of the world around him, unworthy his attention; yet, among the sons of learning, many seem to have thought of every thing rather than of themselves, and to have observed every thing but what passes before their eyes: many who toil through the intricacy of complicated systems, are insuperably embarrassed with the least perplexity in common affairs; many who compare the actions, and ascertain the characters of ancient heroes, let their own days glide away without examination, and suffer vicious habits to encroach upon their minds without resistance or detection,

The most frequent reproach of the scholastick race is the want of fortitude, not martial but philosophick. Men bred in shades and silence, taught to immure themselves at sunset, and accustomed to no other weapon than syllogism, may be allowed to feel terrour at personal danger, and to be disconcerted by tumult and alarm. But why should he whose life is spent in contemplation, and whose business is only to discover truth, be unable to rectify the fallacies of imagination, or contend successfully against prejudice and passion? To what end has he read and meditated, if he gives up his understanding to false appearances, and suffers himself to be enslaved by fear of evils to which only folly or vanity can expose him, or elated by advantages to which, as they are equally conferred upon the good and the bad, no real dignity is annexed.

Such, however, is the state of the world, that the most obsequious of the slaves of pride, the most rapturous of the gazers upon wealth, the most officious of the whisperers of greatness, are collected from seminaries appropriated to the study of wisdom and of virtue, where it was intended that appetite should learn to be content with little, and that hope should aspire only to honours which no human power can give or take away[a].

[a] "Such are a sort of sacrilegious ministers in the temple of intellect. They profane its shew-bread to pamper the palate, its everlasting lamp they use to light unholy fires within their breast, and show them the way to the sensual chambers of sense and worldliness." IRVING.

The student, when he comes forth into the world, instead of congratulating himself upon his exemption from the errours of those whose opinions have been formed by accident or custom, and who live without any certain principles of conduct, is commonly in haste to mingle with the multitude, and shew his sprightliness and ductility by an expeditious compliance with fashions or vices. The first smile of a man, whose fortune gives him power to reward his dependants, commonly enchants him beyond resistance; the glare of equipage, the sweets of luxury, the liberality of general pomises, the softness of habitual affability, fill his imagination; and he soon ceases to have any other wish than to be well received, or any measure of right and wrong but the opinion of his patron.

A man flattered and obeyed, learns to exact grosser adulation, and enjoin lower submission. Neither our virtues nor vices are all our own. If there were no cowardice, there would be little insolence; pride cannot rise to any great degree, but by the concurrence of blandishment or the sufferance of tameness. The wretch who would shrink and crouch before one that should dart his eyes upon him with the spirit of natural equality, becomes capricious and tyrannical when he sees himself approached with a downcast look, and hears the soft address of awe and servility. To those who are willing to purchase favour by cringes and compliance, is to be imputed the haughtiness that leaves nothing to be hoped by firmness and integrity.

If, instead of wandering after the meteors of philosophy, which fill the world with splendour for a while, and then sink and are forgotten, the candidates of learning fixed their eyes upon the permanent lustre of moral and religious truth, they would find a more certain direction to happiness. A little plausibility of discourse, and acquaintance with unnecessary speculations, is dearly purchased, when it excludes those instructions which fortify the heart with resolution, and exalt the spirit to independence.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must

Quotes from Thudydides in The Peloponnesian War.

To hear this history rehearsed, for that there be inserted in it no fables, shall be perhaps not delightful. But he that desires to look into the truth of things done, and which (according to the condition of humanity) may be done again, or at least their like, shall find enough herein to make him think it profitable. And it is compiled rather for an everlasting possession than to be rehearsed for a prize.

[snip]

But, the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.

[snip]

Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

[snip]

The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention.

[snip]

The State that separates its scholars from its warriors, will have its thinking done by cowards, and its fighting by fools.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Absolute and relative outcomes and individual effort

Reading Sowell's thoughts on justice and "social justice" in The Quest for Cosmic Justice prompts a thought about one of the issues with which I continue to wrestle. I believe in the agency of man and yet have to acknowledge the element of fortune in terms of the outcomes actually achieved. There are a number of ways of reconciling these contra ideas including the acknowledgment that both might be true simultaneously as Alice discovered in Wonderland.

Perhaps it is also the case that one's absolute outcomes are substantially predictable based on luck of the draw. Nothing is fixed, but you are more likely to end up rich if born into a wealthy family, born into a particular social class, in a particular country, in a particular era. This would explain the startling comparison made by Branko Milanovic in his book The Haves and The Have Nots, where America's poorest are, in absolute terms, better off than all but the very richest of Indians.

economix-28milanovic-custom1%5B1%5D.jpg

However, while absolute outcomes are predicated on fortune, perhaps it is the case that one's relative outcomes are based on personal volition. Being born into any income quintile in the United States means you are going to better off without any effort than most other people in the world. But which quintile you are in within the United States is predictable based on one's own efforts and is driven by such things as will, effort, self-control, self-discipline, futurity orientation, etc.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

With all the severe limitations which that implies

Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, page 21.
. . . all resonate with the idea that many factors besides personal merit determine our economic and social fates. No doubt this belief is true to a very considerable extent, certainly to a greater extent than many of us would wish. But, again, the question is not what we would do if we were God on the first day of Creation or how we would judge souls if we were God on Judgment Day. The question is: What lies within our knoweldge and control, given that we are only human, with all the severe limitations which that implies?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The human mind needs story

From Walter Russell Mead in his essay, Is Fear the Father of Us All?
I have come to feel strongly that students do best when they get a clear and coherent narrative frame before they start analyzing too deeply. The human mind needs story, and it needs story comprehensibly and sequentially told.

We must look to events and trends much closer to our own time

Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, pages 16-17. One of the reasons I like Sowell so much is that he constantly challenges assumptions with facts.

In the United States, for example, many of the social problems of the contemporary black underclass are almost automatically attributed to "a legacy of slavery." The prevalence of fatherless families in the black ghettos, for example, has been widely explained by the lack of legally constituted families under slavery. But if one proceeds beyond plausability and guilt to actually seek out the facts, an entirely different picture emerges.

A hundred years ago, when blacks were just one generation out of slavery, the rate of marriage in the black population of the United States was slightly higher than that of the white population. Most black children were raised in two-parent families, even during the era of slavery, and for generations thereafter. The catastrophic decline of the black nuclear family began, like so many other social catastrophes in the United States, during the decade of the 1960s. Prior to the 1960s, the difference in marriage rates between black and white males was never as great as 5 percentage points. Yet, today, that difference is greater than 20 percentage points - and widening, even though the nuclear family is beginning to decline among white Americans. Whatever explanation for these changes, it lies much closer to today than to the era of slavery, however disappointing that may be to those who prefer to see social issues as moral melodramas.

The tragic and monumental injustice of slavery has often been used as a causal explanation of other social phenomena, applying to both blacks and whites in the Southern United States, where slavery was concentrated - without any check of the facts or comparisons with other and more mundane explanations. The fact that there are large numbers of black Americans today who are not in the labor force has also been one of those things causally (and often rather casually) attributed to slavery. But again, if we go back a hundred years, we find that labor force participation rates among blacks were slightly higher than among whites - and remained so, on past the middle of the twentieth century. If we want to know why this is no longer so, again we must look to events and trends much closer to our own time.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Too often, however, we proceed as if we did not recognize this distinction

Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, page 15.
Much of the quest for cosmic justice involves racial, regional, religious, or other categories of people who are to be restored to where they would be but for various disadvantages they suffer from various sources. Yet each group tends to trail the long shadow of its own cultural history, as well as reflecting the consequences of external influences. The history of every people is a product of innumerable cross-currents, whose timing and confluence can neither be predicted beforehand nor always untangled afterward. There is no "standard" history that everyone has or would have had "but for" peculiar circumstances of particular groups, whose circumstances can be "corrected" to conform to some norm. Unravelling all this in the quest for cosmic justice is a much more staggering task than seeking traditional justice.

To apply the same rules to everyone requires no prior knowledge of anyone's childhood, cultural heritage, philosophical (or sexual) orientation, or the innumerable historical influences to which he or his forebears may have been subjected. If there are any human beings capable of making such complex assessments, they cannot be numerous. Put differently, the dangers of errors increase exponentially when we presume to know so many things and the nature of their complex interactions. In particular, it is all too easy to be overwhelmed by clear and tragic historic injustices - and to glide easily from those injustices to a cause-and-effect explanation of contemporary problems. We know, of course, that causation and morality are two different things. Too often, however, we proceed as if we did not recognize this distinction.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Justice or injustice is characteristic of a process

Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, page 8.
Cosmic justice is not simply a higher degree of traditional justice, it is a fundamentally different concept. Traditionally, justice or injustice is characteristic of a process. A defendant in a criminal case would be said to have received justice if the trial were conducted as it should be, under fair rules and with the judge and jury being impartial. After such a trial, it could be said that "justice was done" - regardless of whether the outcome was an acquittal or an execution. Conversely, if the trial were conducted in violation of the rules and with a judge or jury showing prejudice against the defendant, this would be considered an unfair or unjust trial - even if the prosecutor failed in the end to get enough jurors to vote to convict an innocent person. In short, traditional justice is about impartial processes rather than either results or prospects.

[snip]

What "social justice" seeks to do is to eliminate understood disadvantages for selected groups.

[snip]

In its pursuit of justice for a segment of society, in disregard of the consequences for society as a whole, what is called "social justice" might more accurately be called anti-social justice, since what consistently gets ignored or dismissed are precisely the costs to society. Such a conception of justice seeks to correct, not only biased or discriminatory acts by individuals or by social institutions, but unmerited disadvantages in general, from whatever source they may arise.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The disadvantages of the disadvantaged

Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, page 6. I have enjoyed almost all the books and columns of Thomas Sowell that I have read. Overarching common sense, married to a burrowing interest in the facts, communicated through an almost conversational style of writing. In fact he is almost too good an author. While I agree with a great deal of what he has to say, there are points of difference. However, I will read a whole paragraph or column and arriving at the end find myself nodding my mental head to a conclusion with which I disagree. It is easy to be lulled, even if he is a great teacher. Or possibly, better said, it is easy to be lulled because he is a great teacher.
Nor should we imagine that quantifiable economic differences or political and social inequalities exhaust the disabilities of the less fortunate. Affluent professional people have access to all sorts of sources of free knowledge and advice from highly educated and knowledgeable friends and relatives, and perhaps substantial financial aid in time of crisis from some of these same sources. They also tend to have greater access to those with political power, whether through direct contacts or through the simple fact of being able to make an articulate presentation in terms acceptable to political elites. Moreover, the fact that the affluent tend to have the air of knowledgeable people makes them less likely to become targets for many of the swindlers who prey on the ignorant and the poor.

[snip]

In short, statistical inequalities do not begin to exhaust the advantages of the advantaged or the disadvantages of the disadvantaged.

Friday, February 11, 2011

I don't understand how Nixon won

I have heard this quote occassionally over the years without a sourcing of it. From James Taranto's column:
A famous example from politics is the apocryphal quote attributed to the late Pauline Kael, film critic of The New Yorker: "I don't understand how Nixon won. Everybody I know voted for McGovern."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

To vent my spleen against

Jane Austen, The History of England. Presaging in her youth, many of the academics and pundits of later years.
I suppose you know all about the Wars between him & the Duke of York who was of the right side; if you do not, you had better read some other History, for I shall not be very diffuse in this, meaning by it only to vent my Spleen against, & shew my Hatred to all those people whose parties or principles do not suit with mine, & not to give information.

Very seldom fail of success

From Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.
In the middling and inferior stations of life, the road to virtue and that to fortune, to such fortune, at least, as men in such stations can reasonably expect to acquire, are, happily in most cases, very nearly the same. In all the middling and inferior professions, real and solid professional abilities, joined to prudent, just, firm, and temperate conduct, can very seldom fail of success. Abilities will even sometimes prevail where the conduct is by no means correct. Either habitual imprudence, however, or injustice, or weakness, or profligacy, will always clouD, and sometimes Depress altogether, the most splendid professional abilities. Men in the inferior and middling stations of life, besides, can never be great enough to be above the law, which must generally overawe them into some sort of respect for, at least, the more important rules of justice. The success of such people, too, almost always depends upon the favour and good opinion of their neighbours and equals; and without a tolerably regular conduct these can very seldom be obtained. The good old proverb, therefore, That honesty is the best policy, holds, in such situations, almost always perfectly true. In such situations, therefore, we may generally expect a considerable degree of virtue; and, fortunately for the good morals of society, these are the situations of by far the greater part of mankind.

In the superior stations of life the case is unhappily not always the same. In the courts of princes, in the drawing-rooms of the great, where success and preferment depend, not upon the esteem of intelligent and well-informed equals, but upon the fanciful and foolish favour of ignorant, presumptuous, and proud superiors; flattery and falsehood too often prevail over merit and abilities. In such societies the abilities to please, are more regarded than the abilities to serve. In quiet and peaceable times, when the storm is at a distance, the prince, or great man, wishes only to be amused, and is even apt to fancy that he has scarce any occasion for the service of any body, or that those who amuse him are sufficiently able to serve him. The external graces, the frivolous accomplishments of that impertinent and foolish thing called a man of fashion, are commonly more admired than the solid and masculine virtues of a warrior, a statesman, a philosopher, or a legislator. All the great and awful virtues, all the virtues which can fit, either for the council, the senate, or the field, are, by the insolent and insignificant flatterers, who commonly figure the most in such corrupted societies, held in the utmost contempt and derision. When the duke of Sully was called upon by Lewis the Thirteenth, to give his advice in some great emergency, he observed the favourites and courtiers whispering to one another, and smiling at his unfashionable appearance. 'Whenever your majesty's father,' said the old warrior and statesman, 'did me the honour to consult me, he ordered the buffoons of the court to retire into the antechamber.

It is from our disposition to admire, and consequently to imitate, the rich and the great, that they are enabled to set, or to lead what is called the fashion. Their dress is the fashionable dress; the language of their conversation, the fashionable style; their air and deportment, the fashionable behaviour. Even their vices and follies are fashionable; and the greater part of men are proud to imitate and resemble them in the very qualities which dishonour and degrade them. Vain men often give themselves airs of a fashionable profligacy, which, in their hearts, they do not approve of, and of which, perhaps, they are really not guilty. They desire to be praised for what they themselves do not think praise-worthy, and are ashamed of unfashionable virtues which they sometimes practise in secret, and for which they have secretly some degree of real veneration. There are hypocrites of wealth and greatness, as well as of religion and virtue; and a vain man is as apt to pretend to be what he is not, in the one way, as a cunning man is in the other. He assumes the equipage and splendid way of living of his superiors, without considering that whatever may be praise-worthy in any of these, derives its whole merit and propriety from its suitableness to that situation and fortune which both require and can easily support the expence. Many a poor man places his glory in being thought rich, without considering that the duties (if one may call such follies by so very venerable a name) which that reputation imposes upon him, must soon reduce him to beggary, and render his situation still more unlike that of those whom he admires and imitates, than it had been originally.

To attain to this envied situation, the candidates for fortune too frequently abandon the paths of virtue; for unhappily, the road which leads to the one, and that which leads to the other, lie sometimes in very opposite directions. But the ambitious man flatters himself that, in the splendid situation to which he advances, he will have so many means of commanding the respect and admiration of mankind, and will be enabled to act with such superior propriety and grace, that the lustre of his future conduct will entirely cover, or efface, the foulness of the steps by which he arrived at that elevation. In many governments the candidates for the highest stations are above the law; and, if they can attain the object of their ambition, they have no fear of being called to account for the means by which they acquired it. They often endeavour, therefore, not only by fraud and falsehood, the ordinary and vulgar arts of intrigue and cabal; but sometimes by the perpetration of the most enormous crimes, by murder and assassination, by rebellion and civil war, to supplant and destroy those who oppose or stand in the way of their greatness. They more frequently miscarry than succeed; and commonly gain nothing but the disgraceful punishment which is due to their crimes. But, though they should be so lucky as to attain that wished-for greatness, they are always most miserably disappointed in the happiness which they expect to enjoy in it. It is not ease or pleasure, but always honour, of one kind or another, though frequently an honour very ill understood, that the ambitious man really pursues. But the honour of his exalted station appears, both in his own eyes and in those of other people, polluted and defiled by the baseness of the means through which he rose to it. Though by the profusion of every liberal expence; though by excessive indulgence in every profligate pleasure, the wretched, but usual, resource of ruined characters; though by the hurry of public business, or by the prouder and more dazzling tumult of war, he may endeavour to efface, both from his own memory and from that of other people, the remembrance of what he has done; that remembrance never fails to pursue him.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

So that there was no man then alive who could remember so severe a winter as this was

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the entry for AD 1046. The residents of the midwest and northeast, pounded as they are by the exceptional winter snow storm, would likely be making a similar entry right about now.
And in the same year, after Candlemas, came the strong winter, with frost and with snow, and with all kinds of bad weather; so that there was no man then alive who could remember so severe a winter as this was, both through loss of men and through loss of cattle; yea, fowls and fishes through much cold and hunger perished.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

They cease to be men

From Selected Essays on Political Economy by Frederic Bastiat.
This being understood, let us examine this popular aspiration, which seeks to realize the general welfare by way of general plunder, and let us see what it is worth, whence it comes, and whither it tends.

The socialists ask us: "Since the law organizes justice, why should it not organize labor, education, and religion?"

Why? Because it cannot organize labor, education, and religion without disorganizing justice.

Do not forget that the law is force, and that, consequently, the domain of the law cannot legitimately extend beyond the legitimate domain of force.

When law and force confine a man within the bounds of justice, they do not impose anything on him but a mere negation. They impose on him only the obligation to refrain from injuring others. They do not infringe on his personality or his liberty or his property. They merely safeguard the personality, the liberty, and the property of others. They stand on the defensive; they defend the equal right of all. They fulfill a mission whose harmlessness is evident, whose utility is palpable, and whose legitimacy is uncontested.

This is so true that, as one of my friends remarked to me, to say that the object of the law is to make justice prevail is to use an expression that is not strictly exact. One should say: The object of the law is to prevent injustice from prevailing. In fact, it is not justice, but injustice, that has an existence of its own. The first results from the absence of the second.

But when the law, by the intervention of its necessary agent, force, imposes a system of labor, a method or a subject of education, a faith or a religion, its action on men is no longer negative, but positive. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own will, the initiative of the legislator for their own initiative. They no longer have to take counsel together, to compare, to foresee; the law does all this for them. Intelligence becomes a useless accessory; they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their liberty, their property.

Try to imagine a system of labor imposed by force that is not a violation of liberty; a transfer of wealth imposed by force that is not a violation of property rights. If you cannot do so, then you must agree that the law cannot organize labor and industry without organizing injustice.

When, from the depths of his study, a political theorist turns his gaze on society, he is struck by the spectacle of inequality that it presents. He groans at the sufferings that are the lot of so great a number of our brothers, sufferings which appear even sadder by their contrast with luxury and opulence.

He should perhaps ask himself whether the cause of such social conditions is not ancient acts of plunder, effected by way of conquest, and more recent acts of plunder, effected by the intervention of the law. He should ask himself whether, granted the aspiration of all men towards well-being and self-fulfillment, the reign of justice would not be enough to set the forces of progress into rapid motion and to realize the greatest amount of equality compatible with that individual responsibility which God has ordained as the just retribution for virtue and vice.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Their desire instead is to manage dissent

From A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America by Jim Webb.
The one connecting dot in all of my experiences has been a passion for history and desire to learn from it. Not the enumeration of monarchs and treaties that so often passes for academic knowledge, but the surging vitality from below that so often impels change and truly defines cultures. The novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote vividly about war and peace, showing us the drawing rooms and idiosyncrasies of Russia's elite. But in reality, he was telling us that great societal changes are most often pushed along by tsunami-deep impulses that cause the elites to react, far more than they inspire them to lead. And this, in my view, is the greatest lesson of political history. Entrenched aristocracies, however we may want to define them, do not want change; their desire instead is to manage dissent in a way that does not disrupt their control. But over time, under the right system of government, a free, thinking people have the energy and ultimately the power to effect change.

The second half of your program will destroy the first half

From Selected Essays on Political Economy by Frederic Bastiat.
Here I come into conflict with the most popular prejudices of our day. People not only want the law to be just; they also want it to be philanthropic. They are not satisfied that justice should guarantee to each citizen the free and inoffensive exercise of his faculties for his physical, intellectual, and moral development; they require of it that it should directly spread welfare, education, and morality throughout the country. This is the seductive aspect of socialism.

But, I repeat, these two functions of the law contradict each other. We must choose between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free. M. de Lamartine wrote me one day: "Your doctrine is only the half of my program; you have stopped at liberty; I go on to fraternity." I answered him: "The second half of your program will destroy the first half." And, in fact, it is quite impossible for me to separate the word "fraternity" from the word "voluntary." It is quite impossible for me to conceive of fraternity as legally enforced, without liberty being legally destroyed, and justice being legally trampled underfoot.

Legal plunder has two roots: One, as we have just seen, is in human selfishness; the other is in false philanthropy.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Always to be a child

Cicero: De oratore, II
Not knowing what happened before one was born is always to be a child.

Sic transit gloria mundi

Epitaph on Two Piping-Bullfinches of Lady Ossory's, Buried under a Rose-Bush in her Garden
by Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford (1783, pub. 1798)

All flesh is grass, and so are feathers too:
Finches must die, as well as I and you.
Beneath a damask rose, in good old age,
Here lies the tenant of a noble cage.
For forty moons he charmed his lady's ear,
And piped obedient oft as she drew near,
Though now stretched out upon a clay-cold bier.
But when the last shrill flagelot shall sound,
And raise all dickybirds from holy ground,
His little corpse again its wings shall plume,
And sing eternally the self-same tune,
From everlasting night to everlasting noon.

On the Other Bullfinch, Buried in the Same Place

Beneath the same bush rests his brother -
What serves for one, will serve for t'other.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

There is more sea

Dante Gabriel Rosetti in The House of Life.
And though thy soul sail leagues and leagues beyond, -
Still, leagues beyond those leagues there is more sea.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Its hatred of silence

W.H. Auden in A Company of Readers: Uncollected Writings of W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling. In an essay "Apologies to the Iroquois", page 69. On contacts between industrial and agricultural societies.
I find it immensely depressing that when unmechanized societies, whether Indians or Greek peasants, come into contact with ours, the one aspect of ours which none of them, but none, can resist is that which, to me, is the most intolerable: its hatred of silence - noise-makers have replaced liquor as our most potent agent of corruption.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Complexity horizon

John Allen Paulos in A Mathmetician Plays the Stock Market, page 194.
. . . the market's movements are therefore beyond the "complexity horizon" of human forecasters

They keep dropping in

W.H. Auden in A Company of Readers: Uncollected Writings of W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling. In an essay "Apologies to the Iroquois", page 67. On the differences in the intellectual envrionments of the USA and UK.
Mr. Wilson is a bit of an anglophobe. Though, naturally, I do not share his feelings, I can understand them. It may take greater moral courage to become a Dandy in the United States than in England; nevertheless, I believe it is easier. British intellectual society is less boring, more intelligent and infinitely more charming than its American counterpart, which makes its collective influence much more dangerous to the individual - to resist seems rather piggy. Further, thanks to the physical size of this country, it is much easier here, if one wishes to be alone, to be left alone (in England, all one's intellectual relatives live within calling distance, and they keep dropping in).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The executioner

Joseph de Maistre:
All social order depends on one man, the executioner.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Democracy cannot thrive without a certain diet of truth

From Flight from Truth by Jean-Francois Revel.
Democracy cannot thrive without a certain diet of truth. It cannot survive if the degree of truth in current circulation falls below a minimal level. A democratic regime, founded on the free determination of important choices made by a majority, condemns itself to death if most of the citizens who have to choose between vairous options make their decisions in ignorance of reality, blinded by passions or misled by fleeting impressions.