Responses to “Contra ‘New Polity’ on Capitalism”

[These two letters written to me are part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond. I did not write them, and thus do not necessarily agree with everything said. I post it because them because they worth engaging with. I am always accepting letters. These are in response to “Contra ‘New Polity’ on Capitalism”.]

Hi Sebastian,

I did take a look at your letter.  It was a few days ago, but I do have a few general thoughts.  You are absolutely right to question this imagination of medieval Catholic ideas on exchange.  Virtually all serious research in this area presents a very different understanding, but the idealization persists.  On the other hand, while you cite real texts in support of your counter position, I think you go too far in the direction of imagining an understanding that can be labeled “pro-capitalist.”   I’m afraid your position comes off looking tendentious as well.  There are texts in both Albert and Thomas (and others) that indicate their real concern for a personalized ethics, and in Thomas, a real understanding that relying simply on market price relieves the exchanger of taking the necessary moral responsibility for his actions.  (I believe I make this point in E&N).  I think you need to bring this side out as well.  What I find most interesting is that even if scholastic authors question the simple assent to market price, they all recognize that there is such a thing, and they all recognize that even if not the perfect personal solution, it provides the best guide to the question of economic value.  That’s to say that at least from the time of Albert (and evidence has been found that takes this back to the 12th century), there is a clear understanding of the existence of “market price” and the elements contributing to everyday price formation, and that this price can be seen as “just” (but see below).  I’ve only found one who speaks of economic value in everyday exchange as properly determined by primarily personal decision based on the needs of the other.

Two other points I think important. 

The value that  Catholic thinkers in this period allow to the Common Good is exceptional.  I stress this even more in my following book, A History of Balance, and I think you might like to take a look at my first 2 chapters.   This informs their “economic” thinking in a way that has surface similarities with the capitalist imagination, but is different in important respects as well.

I think both the authors you critique and you yourself should have a clearer understanding of Thomas’ attitudes toward “justice” with a small j, i.e. what is permissible by law.  I discuss this, too, in E&N.  I think you’ll find that it is a relatively low bar: designed to facilitate the functioning of the community, and thus many things are permitted by the “justice” of human law that are far below what divine law and justice require.  So it would be good, I think, to point to this distinction.

I commend your desire to bring scholarship into this discussion.

Cheers,

Joel

—–

Dear Sebastian,

What a feisty, pugnacious essay! I enjoyed it immensely, even if it took up my whole lunch hour. I wrote down some notes in agreement or disagreement with each of your 6 points. I have to say, though, I agree with the general tone of your essay. Granted, the burden of proof is on New Polity, so your objections can be sound without the implicit foundations of your arguments correct. In general, ironically, I found your arguments in need of more empirical data and less generalization–just like your beef with New Polity, right! I think the moral argument needs to be more nuanced. 

1) Alienation and Mechanization: First, what you say about mechanisms of economy is spot on. They’ve always existed, and having more intricate ones with more moving parts in the digital world is not bad, nor is it different. But you’re too dismissive of this point: where do you draw the line? How much alienation is too much, or at what point does a mechanism produce alienation that is definitively immoral?


For instance, the mechanisms of a global economy, if not immoral themselves, can certainly lead to immoral behavior, can certainly encourage it. People would be a lot less likely to buy Nike shoes, for instance, if their factories were in our own cities instead of Indonesia. That’s not at all a denunciation of this mechanism per se; I’m just pointing out that not all mechanisms are equal. Just because they’ve been around since time immemorial doesn’t mean some don’t encourage things like alienation. Of course NP’s attitude needs to be more nuanced, but it shouldn’t be dismissed outright. Some alienation is perhaps necessary, but at a certain point I think it’s reasonable to say that certain mechanisms lead to a level of alienation that is unacceptable.


2) Argument of Arbitrage: again, I agree completely that arbitrage is not only not immoral, but a good to be fostered, and a way of creating equilibrium. That’s fair. I especially appreciate the pre-Revolutionary France example. But again, just because arbitrage as a concept is praiseworthy doesn’t mean that it is in all its instances. Again, your refutation is legit: but I would be more interested in a positive argument for how to have ethical arbitrage. Surely at some point my buying and reselling of goods ceases to be itself good and praiseworthy. The crux of the question, I would argue (and NP seems to agree) is the common good. 


Take the crash of the housing market for example (based entirely from my watching of The Big Short). Those investors were gaining capital by purchasing bad debt, and in gaining a prophet in this way, they ended up devaluing the market and causing an economic collapse. Granted, this problem can be solved by tweaking the mechanisms of buying and selling; you don’t have to overhaul the system and eliminate the value of debt. But again, your guiding star has to be the common good, which you don’t seem to acknowledge.


3) The theorist-phenomenon fallacy (love the name!). Once again, I find myself in complete agreement that we, self righteous academic Catholics tend to way overvalue abstract ideas. I usually commit the fallacy three or four times before breakfast. But don’t go to the opposite extreme! Don’t you think that ideas, ideologies, philosophical principles gradually inform the way a people will think, act, consider? De Tocqueville makes an entire thesis of this in his visit to America. Nobody here has read Descartes, he writes, but nowhere in the world are his ideas more implemented. Accordingly, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say, quite simply: self-interest is the guiding principle of this economy, therefore people tend to act in this way first, before considering service to others secondarily. Is the basis of our economy not self interest? I would need to see this demonstrated.


4) Monopolists: you are very dismissive of the cries against big corporations destroying local businesses, etc. A year or two ago Amazon informed in a commercial that they really aren’t against the little guy. They showed a video clip of a small business owner smiling because he worked with Amazon, so it must be true! Your argument feels a little like this also. Again, I would like to see empirical evidence that either a) these monopolies are not, in fact, destructive to local business, or b) local business and economy is not in itself a good worth preserving. 


5) Index funds: I enjoyed this section most of all. I agree with you that the fact that they’re impersonal is not bad (a sentence which I hope I’ll never utter again in any context!!). But the lack of autonomy is a serious problem. I tried to do a quick search to see what percentage of an average portfolio is going into the porn industry, but I couldn’t find good numbers. But I would like that kind of statistical info before giving my approval. That’s why we’ve been investing with Ave Maria Funds. Again, I agree with you that index funds are not inherently immoral, but that doesn’t make them inherently good either.


Which leads to my next point. Albert and Aquinas, writing 800 years ago, are pro market price. That’s fine, but you fail to acknowledge the ways the market is different now than it was in their time. The index funds are a prime example: capital is considerably more fungible now than it was in their time, leading to issues that they did not anticipate. Should an item be sold at market price if the sellers have established total control of the market? Didn’t that hedge fund this winter try to pull this, and artificially lower the market price of Game Stock, before they were foiled by Reditters? But the point is, the market price cannot remain the only consideration regarding morality when investors have gained so much more control over how these things are set. All the ways capital is different from medieval times would have to be considered before we can accept Aquinas and Albert’s teachings out of hand. 

John

Contra “New Polity” on Capitalism

The intersection of economics and ethics should be an area of fruitful study and inquiry, one in which we develop new tools for living freer, more prosperous, more fulfilled lives. One such attempt to think in this space and develop an outlook somehow manages to be incorrect in almost every, single particular. I spent several weeks trying to figure out how the gentlemen at New Polity have been able to err so systematically about economics and a vision for a “Catholic” economic order based on “virtue and community instead of the individual and self-interest.”

New Polity, a Catholic Utopian political project set up in the brambles of Steubenville, Ohio, “aims to deconstruct the keywords and categories of liberalism and reconstruct them according to the logic of Christianity.” Their podcast is a humorous, warm, and somewhat grave exposition of their economic worldview. It is even inspiring, if one can get past a few trifling details, such as that their philosophical history is missing pieces, their account of standard economics is “idiosyncratic”, and their empirical claims are misleading.

Nonetheless, they speak with a Catholic vocabulary, which is alluring, and they are obviously good people of upright heart and good humor. But as for their actual ideas, they are a dangerous siren song for disaffected Christians, offering a retreat from reality in the name of virtue. I worry deeply about their project, not only because I think they make important mistakes, but it seems as though they lack any sufficiently strong challengers to make them sharper and more useful and less wrong. After many hours of listening to their podcasts and reading some of the general New Polity articles, I have boiled down their insights into six core ideas (six, the number of the working man!), all of which are mistaken to various significant degrees.

I am going to be pretty harsh here, so let me reiterate. Marc Barnes and Jacob Imam are really, wonderful people. Totally sincere in what they say and without any desire except for all good things to be subsumed within that Great Good from which all good things first flowed – also jokes. Their joke game is better than mine. I made a New Year’s Resolution to be funnier, and it hasn’t really worked out. But Marc Barnes has been writing witty Catholic blog posts since like 2010, and his music rocks. In fact, listening to his album should be top priority for you, dear reader, right after you read this essay.

I will send this essay to Jacob and Marc, so that they have a chance to respond, and if they feel I am misrepresenting their claims, I want to be able to correct myself. And sorry in advance to all the other folks at New Polity whom I am overlooking, like Andrew, I just only really listened to the episodes that had Marc and Jacob on them, so I’m focusing on them. Ultimately though, my goal is not merely to critique. I am deeply devoted to the line of inquiry that connects morality and economics. I teach a course on each, and I believe getting the fundamentals right and sharing those with others will improve their lives and ultimate happiness by giving us more options on how to improve our society. Getting the fundamentals wrong makes all further inquiry vain. And being too cavalier about the prescriptions frustrates the goal of the good life. I want the New Polity project to be successful and true and beautiful!

Idea number one.

  • The Medieval notion of the just price is based upon the buyer and seller trying to fulfill each other’s individual needs within a personal virtuous transaction.

According to New Polity, the just price concerns individual needs, the needs of the seller to cover costs and take care of his own affairs, and the needs of buyer to secure what is necessary for his livelihood and affairs. For a price to be just, the seller doesn’t sell for more than he needs, and the buyer pays at least enough to cover costs and take care of the seller. In this story the purpose of bargaining and market transactions is not to get the best deal for oneself, but to find out what the other person needs at an individual level and exchange with respect to those individual needs.

Descriptively, this is not how medieval people set prices, nor was this vision of the just price a common theological prescription or the only one at the time. I don’t know where they get their particular version of this idea. The provenance of this idiosyncratic definition seems to be their own creation, based upon the values of localism, conversationism (a term I just made up), and an assumption of abundance, and moral concerns about profit.

Indicative of the wider thinking of New Polity, here we enter a mental land which valorizes medieval Europe for capacities it didn’t have, in this case, that the seller and buyer of item knew each other and thus were more likely sell items at a price that was pleasant for that individual. And even if they didn’t do this in practice, Jacob and Marc claim (or perhaps assume) that a specifically personal transaction was the gold standard of economic action held by the best thinkers of the day.

And speaking of best thinkers of the day, let’s hit up Saint Albert the Great for his explanation of the just price to see if this is true.

“Money is a quantity that measures a common quality of all things, that quality is found in the use and the need of the community; thus, money is able to be a common measure for all things, which compare things among other items of a certain value,” [1] (translation mine, but it’s not exactly literal because the Latin here makes for terrible English).

“However, the just price is the one which according to the estimation of the market of that particular time is able to be had for the thing sold,” [2] (translation mine).

Yeah, Albert thought the going market price was the just price. It is shocking to me, too. And should give us pause that the early 13th century already had people, brilliant outliers, perhaps, who were quite advanced, or if you don’t like the value-laden term, “modern” in their economic analysis. Both of these statements of Albert contradict core New Polity principles. 1) That money was founded to allow people who don’t know each other to trade, i.e. it concerns “alienation,” (This is not an idea found in the medieval corpus, as far as I know. Aristotle says the purpose of money is to serve a common measure for diverse objects, allowing us to compare houses to shoes in terms of cost, and that is what Albert is building off of). 2) Value of an item is based upon the production costs and what use buyer can make of it for his salvation. But for Albert, value is also contingent upon market circumstances that occur beyond the individuals making the transaction. It’s relative to time and place, not merely costs of production and needs of the individual.

“Okay, one example! Sure, Sebastian…” Fine, I say. Let’s turn then to the OG fat cat of Catholic philosophy Saint Thomas. While Thomas’ views on the just price are less clear and more contested than Albert’s [3], even he admits that selling high when there is scarcity is justified, even if new shipments will reduce the price shortly. He considers the case of a merchant who knows that a new shipment is coming of some good.

“Whence a vendor who sells according to the price he finds in the market it seems does not act contrary to justice, if he does not reveal that which is coming. However, if he should reveal this information or lower his prices, it would be an abundance of virtue, although it should seem outside of the duty of justice,” [4] (translation mine).

This is not something New Polity would admit into their “Christian economy”. For them, to speak of the justice of selling at a significantly higher price than the costs of production would be nonsensical. But Aquinas, although he shares many of the concerns of New Polity, is decidedly not in their camp, though he shares their concern in other places about a rupture in economics between what is natural and what is good.

So Albert conceived the just price as something practically equivalent to the equilibrium price of supply and demand, and Thomas while more circumspect, still connects the idea of exchange to scarcity. Such views of market exchange were developed further throughout the Middle Ages, by other thinkers, thinkers who have similar theological and moral concerns as our New Polity friends. The fact that medieval philosophers and theologians shared views strikingly similar to the mainstream economics profession should call into question some the revisionist economic thinking that has crept into much Catholic social philosophy recently, especially the stuff which purports to be inspired by a medieval ideal.

Thus, I think the definition of the just price offered by our New Polity friends merely presents some pious fiction based upon wishful thinking for a world motivated by a theology of personal encounter and easy liberality due to a lack of scarcity. But in the words of economist Armen Alchian, “Since the discouraging fiasco in the Garden of Eden, all the world has been a place conspicuous in its scarcity of resources, contributing heavily to an abundance of various sorrows and sins,” [5].

Amidst the glorification of medieval thought, sometimes stylized facts worm their way in. And that brings us to idea number two.

  • Using mechanisms for determining price and value dehumanize us by removing the need for personal virtue from our account of the good society.

They are worried a lot by alienation, by external mechanisms that we can’t shape, dominating our lives, and humans losing our capacity for virtue as we lose our autonomy within the greater system.

(“When I raised concerns like this in college, I was a wise and humane thinker, boldly questioning the trajectory of society, but when New Polity raises this concern, they are foolish luddites who rely on armchair philosophy and ignore empirical reality.”)

I no longer get the intuitions behind this claim. In my collegiate youth, I made it because I didn’t understand what half the words in the sentence really meant. In truth, I can’t really remember why I thought that, and I don’t know how to reconstruct that mind-space. I didn’t know what different types of mechanisms were, or why they mattered. I didn’t know what society was, or how to think about autonomy, or how they actually functioned. I was, frankly, an idiot. But why do these gentlemen make this claim? What does it mean to them?

First of all, taken at face value, the statement is absurd, even bargaining and bartering is a mechanism. Courts are a mechanism. Letter writing is a mechanism for communication. So what does Marc mean? Can anyone explain what they are talking about? Well, everyone admits that producers need to cover their costs and total upkeep, so whatever method we use to figure and calculate that is a mechanism. Is there something dehumanizing about counting and accounting? Math-phobic theologians and social philosophers have always had a vendetta against Plato’s injunction to learn Geometry, even more so are they suspicious of accounting and economic models. This, of course, makes them poor judges of the use and abuse of models. Far easier is it to dehumanize and dismiss the mathematicians, than to learn their occult crafts. I am not saying that Jacob and Marc are making this error here. I frankly don’t know what they’re doing.

What I do know is that complex societies require supra-personal mechanisms to function and any honest and consistent attempt to function without them would put one back into a time before laws had to be written down.

Although, like a Spanish Man-of-War, NP makes a broadside attack against all mechanism, I suppose I should address their claims about the “mechanisms” for price setting and the “mechanisms” for determining value.

While Saint Albert and Saint Thomas and the following scholastic philosophers believe that aggregate behavior and relative scarcity can produce a just price, they never adopt a hard line against market mechanisms for prices the way New Polity does. New Polity is deeply worried that market failures and injustices are strong indicators that the majority of modern exchange is in fact morally deficient. They have never produced a sustained argument for this position as far as I know, but they suggest it very often.

In related news, error number three.

  • Arbitrage is exploitation. Interest is exploitation.

Arbitrage is not only NOT exploitation, it is oftentimes truly praiseworthy. Arbitrage creates value by moving goods from where there is less desire for them to places where there is more desire for them, until the costs are equal. This allows more people to partake in the good than otherwise would be free too. A flea market or garage sale where you sell old items is a type of arbitrage. Pawn shops deal in arbitrage. The distant merchant who buys low and sells high is only able to do such a thing because the low cost represents a low value placed on the item locally, and the profit he makes represents the high value placed on the item in some other location. As goods become more evenly dispersed, arbitrage opportunities close. If you look at the world today, most goods that travel well, like cell phones and spices cost the same everywhere precisely because there are no arbitrage opportunities left. This is great! It means that the price reflects the something very close to the average production cost everywhere and allows for the maximum number of people to benefit from that item. In general, this is a very good thing, Marc!

Let’s take it back to Aquinas’ example of the merchant who knows a new shipment of some good that he sells is about to hit the market. That merchant will try to sell as much as he can right now before the price drops. Notice that in Aquinas’ account it is implied that lower prices are good for the consumers, and the merchant’s desire to sell at the current price before the supply increases is not considered to be unjust. In a word, Aquinas does not assume these normal economic actions and reactions to be morally unjust. This brings us to arbitrage. The merchant who brings the new goods to market commits the good action of creating lower prices by increasing supply in a constrained market. If lowering one’s prices in anticipation of new goods coming to market was virtuous on the part of the original merchant, how much more praiseworthy is it that the new merchant is bringing the goods themselves to market?

The low price means that even the poorer person can obtain this good, so he or she may use it for their good and the good of their family, friends, community etc. If you care for this relatively poorer person being able to make use of goods, then arbitrage is generally praiseworthy!

But according to New Polity’s episode on prices, “A merchant starts with money, buys a product, sells the product and then is left with additional money… that is not okay.”

Consider 1780s France. Each county and duchy had its own import and export duties. This diminished arbitrage opportunity and kept production quite local. It was a localist dream! Except for the constant grain shortages, high prices, and local monopolies, which led to conspiracies that the crown was secretly hoarding grain, to civil unrest, and to… you get the picture. It’s one example, but I think it is salient and instructive. Allowing money and goods to flow to where they are most needed is generally helpful to people in their own estimation.

Marc might say that a merchant’s profit is not good for the merchant. But it is for the people he sells to. There is no one wronged here. And while Marc may want to object that the merchant’s disposition is bad for wanting to make a profit, I simply observe that the profit is only possible because of a service provided, and thus is not necessarily unjust.

Once I am granted the good of arbitrage, I will be able to make the basic story of interest sensible to the theologically scrupulous.

  • A Paraphrase: “Mises says that the economy must be based upon self-interest and scarcity. Hobbes says that the state must be based upon violence and scarcity, therefore our modern liberal state is based upon an anthropology of self-interest and violence to neighbor through the profit motive.”

To what shall I compare this mistake? Or what fallacy can we call it? The theorist-phenomenon fallacy, I will call it, a terrible fallacy. Watching what the economy actually does is how one should judge the economy. Knowledge of the economy comes from the senses, descriptions of what people do, not from philosophical works.

Error number four is very typical of over-blogged, post-empirical post-liberals, and so it is unfair to pick on Marc and Jacob for this one. New Polity combines a normal lack of economic insight with Catholic studiousness/infatuation with the history of ideas. For example, while Locke and Hobbes are important thinkers and theorists of political economy, their effect on the actual workings of our society approaches zero. Yet, when it comes to understanding economic theory, our New Polity hosts and writers put great weight on these philosophers as representative examples of what “capitalism” is all about.

  • Most businesses are monopolistic in price setting.

Empirically not true. Really what is happening here Marc and Jacob are just crying in frustration that we don’t live in a society where people are negotiating prices all the time. They do not like (attempted) equilibrium pricing. They feel they are powerless to oppose it. Ironically, one the key texts for helping write this article, I purchased off Amazon… after negotiating for a better price from the private seller.

And furthermore, negotiation on prices is constant in our society, if one cares to look for it.

When New Polity describes the economy, the businesses they list are frequently big name consumer facing tech companies and other vogue villains, as though that is where all the value is in the economy. It’s a skewed picture.

(Unrelated: I tried to negotiate for a better price on YouTube Premium, and they didn’t get back to me. So I go without, because $12/month is just egregious!)

  • Putting money in index funds is unchristian and selfish.

By far New Polity’s take with the worst consequences for the individual, for families, and the common good is this one. But explaining why this claim is wrong in a way that is succinct and capable of moving the needle for Marc and Jacob is hard. Their two main concerns are lack of personal connection and lack of capital autonomy. Let’s take these objections one at a time.

Because index funds are impersonal your investments are not tied to investing in something or someone you know. This means that your money is not being used to benefit your community, but rather a diffuse unknown group of persons. Thus, investments become divorced from personal charity, so the thinking goes. I don’t think this is a very strong objection. Like the objection to mechanism before it, it’s too broad. If I accept it, then I wind up committed to all sorts of bizarre notions that forbid me from doing things that generally and systematically produce good, even if I don’t see it or know the people who benefit from it.

The other objection to blind investing complains that when one loses control over what one’s money is going towards, one is enabling some evils in society by providing material cooperation with evildoers or bad businesses which are not making the world a better place. At some margin, this is certainly true. But is indexing morally problematic? Is the financial sector mostly bad? I am not so cavalier.

What I will say is this, we should presume that most businesses provide positive value to society. The value businesses provide would not exist without investors and lenders, and so, on average, index funds are creating a lot of value – for individuals through returns, for businesses through financing their projects, for consumers by enabling those businesses to arbitrage opportunities, and for society as a whole through the growth in capital goods, which make this cycle of growth possible in the first place. Are they entrenching incumbents? Or buoying the size and inefficiencies of big businesses? Perhaps! It’s an empirical question I’d like to know more about.

But even though I think normal index funds are good, I do like value investing. Well, I like the idea of it. Matt Levine, my current and only heartthrob for finance news, has been tracking the growth of ESG investing (environment, sustainability, governance), that is, the growing number of investors who don’t only want shareholder value maximized by the company but are also interested and agitate for reforms in other non-pecuniary areas. Why would they do this? Because they are indexed! Investors own parts of lots of companies, and if one company is going around doing something bad for society or government stability or human reproduction or the environment or something, then that company is a liability to the entire portfolio of the world by making it less sustainable. Hence the recent story Matt wrote today about the shareholder complaint lodged against Facebook. A possible moral is that indexing allows us as a society to internalize the costs of the bad things all the companies do, because “bad things” makes the world worse and more volatile. Not that money isn’t being made off of vice, surely lots of dough is rolling in because of the intemperance, ignorance, and general failings of human nature. The world can still hum along despite quite a bit of vice, but when it gets too out of hand, finance sometimes can step in to take the longer view. It’s a weird world.

Is there a problem in the amount of money in index funds? Are there supply-side bottlenecks throughout our economy? Should we have a more “venture-capitally” world? Probably. I don’t know. It’s worth investigating. But any investigation into these problems is going to be a very empirical data-heavy endeavor. I will take a long bet that our world could be so much better and greater than it is today. But I think the innovations which will improve the current state of affairs will build from and transform the good that is already present, especially fundamental insights of mainstream economic theory, rather than some new “opt-in” polity born from whole cloth.

Conclusion

I think New Polity can do great things and create an inspiring message of how to be a Catholic in the modern economy. Right now, they are stuck in a scrupulous theological mode, which corrupts all the interesting analysis by lacing it with mistaken empirical claims, sloppy arguments, historical fiction, and missing engagement with the actual existing economics profession. Grace builds on nature. They are all grace with not enough substance to build on. I don’t think it would take much for them to break out of the silly presumptions common in their Catholic milieu; they just need to learn how to think like “bad economists” as well as “bad Catholics.”

[1] Kaye, 68. Albert 334b.
Sic ergo dicimus, quod si fiat mensuratio artificialium secundum esse suae speciei, non mensurantur omnia numismate, sed domus domo et sic de aliis. Si autem mensurantur quantum ad hoc accidens ipsorum, quod est appretiabile esse, secundum quod veniunt in usum et utilitatem communitatis, sic possunt habere omnia mensuram, quae sit certissimi pretii inter alia, quia hoc est dispositio mensurae.

I was successfully harassed, so I put the Latin in here, thanks Joe!

[2] Kaye, 76. Justum autem pretium est, quod secundum aestimationem fori illius temporis potest valere res vendita.

[3] Kaye, 96.

[4] Kaye, 97. Unde venditor qui vendit rem secundum pretium quod invenit non videter contra justitiam faere, si quod futurum est non exponat. Si tamen exponeret vel de pretio subtrahet, abundatiatoris esset virtutis; quamvis ad hoc non videatur teneri ex justitiae debito.

[5] Alchian, 1. This was written in English.

References

Joel Kaye, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought. 1998. The footnotes are mostly in Latin.

Armen Alchian, Universal Economics. 2011.

McConnell Brue and Flynn, economics, 2016. It’s the AP book I teach out of.

Marginal Revolution University. A great website for watching economics videos and learning the subject.

The Loyalty Advantage

Life is a matching problem. We arrive in the optimal place for ourselves often after a lot of sampling, in our hobbies, in jobs, in romance, in vocation. Cf. RANGE for research on the utility of sampling different things.

While I am strong proponent of sampling, testing, and experience, I wonder if the advantages of loyalty get overlooked when it comes to truth-seeking and matching.

One advantage of loyalty over the course of a long period of time may be that in the course of ups and downs one gains a clearer, more accurate, and more complete view of a thing.

If one first experiences ups, one may overrate an institution, person, etc, and become fanatically loyal or unrealistic or overoptimistic. If one first experiences downs, one may underrate the matter, flee from it, and never get the fuller picture. The fuller picture, however, is the most important thing to gain when trying to find a good match.

Examples: First dates. Social groups.

When one sticks around, a clearer view presents itself. However, in the course of negative experiences there is opportunity cost for loyalty, but that loyalty is also an investment to see the matter through, which in many cases is ultimately valuable even if the negative experience persists.

Examples: Rocky times in a marriage. A risk that isn’t working out.

We can’t get the outside view or an objective view of interior situations. Stubborn stick-to-it-tive-ness allows us to see through a situation long enough to get a fuller picture.

Agnes Callard’s account of Aspiration starts with reasons which are superficial, but ultimately lead to deep inner transformation. However, such transformation is only possible with a type of loyalty and faith that the transformation will come after certain trials. To me, this seems very similar to a loyalty advantage, that is, only time can give one enough experience to judge a thing whose most important characteristics concern your internal experience of it or relation to it.

Of course, this all just begs the question. When should one stick to it, and when should one abandon the sinking ship or the job that’s not the right fit?

On the other hand, loyalty often does not preclude time set aside for exploration, to see what other jobs are out there, to get to know more people, to see what other types of skills one could acquire, or hobbies one could take up.

I think the answer is to judge whether the truth and longevity of the matter matters sufficiently that it is worth extended suffering on behalf of it. A non-answer like this still cashes out in a few guidelines.

  1. Jobs in which you are suffering are generally not worth sticking to. Exceptions include learning skills you really want to learn and the possibility of switching roles within the same company.
  2. Dating/ engagement should last long enough that it goes through a few cycles of negative and positive.
  3. One can overdose on flitting around at the expense of finding the right match (Applied Divinity Studies discusses the optimal dating problem).
  4. When you expect loyalty to a thing result in a positive change to your own character, it worth sticking around.
  5. Loyalty is a long-term strategy. Sometimes it won’t pay off as success, but it might be right call anyway.

Is this not a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem?

I’m wanted to play around with Fermat’s Last Theorem, and the proof seemed very obvious to me! Find the errors!

An + Bn ≠ Cn if A, B, C are whole numbers and n > 2.

Let’s try for a reductio ad absurdum. Let’s put Fermat’s claim in logarithmic form.

  1. loga X + logb Y = logc Z in which all terms equal n, n > 2.
  2. If a, b, and c are whole numbers all raised to the same power n then we can rewrite the above.
  3. (logc X / logc A) + (logc Y / logc B) = logc Z. Converting to the same base.
    1. Side notes:
    1. log5 9/ log5 3 + log5 16 / log5 4 = log5 25
    2. log5 (9/3 * 16/4) = log5 25
    3. logc (XY/AB) = logc Z
    1. (XY/AB) = Z
  4. (logc X / logc A) = (logc Y / logc B). Since all terms equal n.
  5. (logc X / logc A)/ (logc Y / logc B) = 1.
  6. (logc X / logc A) + (logc Y / logc B) = 2.

But we already said n > 2, thus logc Z cannot be greater than 2.

[Hahah! The errors here are super obvious!]

Judging By Courses Taught

If I were placed in history entirely by what courses I taught each year I would be a different person. Consider the courses that this teacher marshaled on the field of battle last year: Latin, Geometry, Church History, Medieval History, Writing, Logic, Rhetoric. Why wasn’t I wearing one of these?

Sounds like a Late Medieval University Professor. I should have worn a robe and cap like so…

https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http%3A%2F%2Fmedia.web.britannica.com%2Feb-media%2F84%2F148984-004-9B982B91.jpg&f=1&nofb=1
The different hats represent current grades – hair-net wearing ones being the ‘A students.’

This next year I am either moving into further into the future or deeper into the past. With Ancient History, Latin, Geometry, Morality, and Economics, I would think one of two things must be true. Either this person is a juggler fit for the circus, or he is literally from the school of Stoics.

Now the stoics had a great porch-game.

https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=https%3A%2F%2Fi0.wp.com%2Fstoicjourney.org%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2016%2F07%2Ficonstoic.jpg%3Ffit%3D816%252C486%26ssl%3D1&f=1&nofb=1
If I had a porch like this, darn right, I would have a lot of philosophical followers. We would play table tennis, offer libations, discuss the intricacies of corn-hole, and then test our theories with libations in one hand and a bag of potential life-giving seeds in the other. All in accord with the Logos.

But perhaps I am actually reenacting the life of someone at the other end of history, an Adam Smith who wrote on morality and economics and certainly knew his ancient history, or a statesman like John Stuart Mill, whose father forced him to learn Greek by age 12 and carved out from ancient philosophy and personal experience modern theories of liberty, economy, and ethics.

https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.talkativeman.com%2Fimg%2FJohn_Stuart_Mill.jpg&f=1&nofb=1
The Greek language was contained in that bump on his head. Greek is like that.

To follow in the footsteps of these greats is good, but to pass on the best that I have discovered in my own life to others is an honor. Perhaps laboring in the human flourishing mines is the best one can do.

https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http%3A%2F%2Finthesetimes.com%2Fimages%2Fmade%2Fimages%2FSorrentino_Uranium_Mine_Mil_Uranium_Radon_MHSHA_Safety_Health_Cancer_850_593.jpg&f=1&nofb=1
“I loaded 16 tons of enriched Geometry, and what did I get?”

I get a lot out of it.

Why Economics and Probability Should be Part of Classical Education

Discussing prudence, St. Thomas Aquinas quotes St. Isidore of Seville, “A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties.” Economics is the modern term for this ancient prudence, for the principles of economics allow us to foretell the likely consequences of an action, event, or law and then decide whether the prior action is desirable. Prudence, then, is our goal in such a class. This intellectual virtue empowers moral virtue to fulfill its ends.

When I was a kid, I had no interest in economics or money (except that one could use it to get things). I thought econ was for people obsessed with superficial stuff. By the time I was in high school, I had renounced superficial stuff and was trying to attain whatever high school me thought was wisdom, which turned out to be an exclusive focus on literature, poetry, and religion.

I was converted into an interest in economics when I learned about how incentives influence people’s behavior, and that people’s seemingly bad actions are more often unfortunate economic effects rather than deliberate maliciousness. People do what they think is good for themselves and those they care about by following incentives. In short, I learned not to jump to blaming individuals for the way things are and instead to think through what dynamics made things become the way they are. This study, just as the literature I love, reveals much about the tragedy of the human condition.

An economist as an economist studies how these games of exchange and choice work and how changes in the rules or environment will change behaviors of the players in the game. The ideal economist can foretell the effects of different actions, events, or laws with a high probability of being right.

The Armenian economist Alchian wrote, “What the economist can do with economic analysis is to deduce some of the consequences of a proposed act, presumably more accurately than a noneconomist. But to assess and appraise whether the consequences of the action are good or bad is, to the economist, forbidden fruit. Yet, like Adam, many economists eat of it.”

I have greatly enjoyed Alchian’s beautiful book Universal Economics from which I took this quotation, but no one is only an economist, and as sons and daughters of Adam, we need to learn how to appraise the likely consequences of an action AND judge whether the consequences are good or bad, for distinguishing good from evil is the most important thing for living a good life. I don’t know to what extent prudence can be taught, but I do know that the study of probability and economics lays the groundwork for wise decision making in personal, business, and political life.

If a classical education wishes to carry the torch of those liberal arts, which liberate people to know what is true and do what is good, then, strange as it may sound, the principles of economics and probability is not optional.

Mankind: The Dynamo

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis. It is a response to John’s letter “The Prayer to the Dynamo” found here.]

Dear John,

What can human society become? Can human society be improved? Fear and trembling! The Third Reich wished to purify a nonexistent race! The Bolsheviks sought to reshape the conditions of society itself! They brought death and destruction. Robespierre enthroned another Moloch and called her Reason, and the Alhambra Decree sought to improve Spain through the dispossession of Muslims and Jews.

But has society improved? No small feat, yes, in many places all around the world. Rule of law, norms of civility, balance of powers, federalism, the incremental process, standardized production, specialization, high yield agriculture, the end of serfdom, literacy, numeracy, and online booksellers have created a freer, more prosperous, and a more fecund world. But even these little triumphs seem tiny compared to the problems we face as a society.

Society’s norms and technologies can improve, but each individual still suffers the same issues of impulse and weakness, fear and anger, love and death. The essential problem of life for the individual still concerns becoming a full person, even when basic needs are met. We still know the difference between what we wish for and what we have. That gap can only begin to be healed through transformations of the mind and heart, society may help or hinder but it can’t solve this problem for us.

I suppose you grant me all this, and you will even concede that our society can become a greater and grander and freer, more prosperous, and more creative thing than it is today. But you take exception to the idea that our machines will help us achieve this. Surely, though, machines are merely the most obvious outgrowth of the human genius, which has invented many subtle technologies such as the subjunctive and the subpoena.

Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none
More wonderful than man; the storm gray sea
Yields to his prows, the huge crests bear him high;
Earth, holy and inexhaustible, is graven
With shining furrows where his plows have gone
Year after year, the timeless labor of stallion teams.
The light-boned birds and beasts that cling to cover,
The lithe fish, with one fling of his nets
woven and coiled tight, he takes them all,
man the skilled, the brilliant!

Antigone

The Chorus of Antigone goes on to say that man has a mind for law, law which he has taught himself. Without the law, man is a beast. Yet, not even this technology of man always secures a good society. Some laws are beastly. (Hence the play!) Some research programs lead only to destruction. Some technologies surely could destroy us, and in all honestly, the future holds more destructive ideologies and technologies than the past or present.

You say you know the supernatural destiny of man. But, the natural destiny of human societies remains a mystery. Death? Yes, ultimately. But when and where and how? What will we have become by that point? How much better could society become? Perhaps Moloch had us licked a million years before we got here. Yet we don’t know the destiny of society, but we should wish for its constant renewal and progress, even on the purely natural level of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, and victory over chaos.

We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!”

G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
1886 Bradshaw Tables

So I ask, is there any contradiction between a human society which overcomes its troubles and masters more and more of nature and an assembly of people whose souls have been healed? I see none; I want both! Thus we should hope for and work for both, for they will complement and invigorate each other.

Some see a contradiction because their religious instinct says there is only One Good, and that this love of productivity makes an idol of the Amazon Warehouse. (Moloch in the Warehouse pissing corporate profits into a bucket!) But I say, the Amazon Warehouse only exists because it provides goods, true goods to fellow people! Rejoice and thank the delivery person for their service. For this little package in the mail, while but a small good in the grand cosmic creation, truly is a good which one harvest day will be gathered up for the Sower who seeded all the goods of creation. And on that day all the goods created by the heart and mind and voices and hands of our human societies, including the little package that saw a dozen hands made of materials from a dozen countries, He will reckon up as a credit to humanity. He will give us our reward.

Thus, “Produce!” I shout. “Propagate!
Ensoul matter, ye rites rational!” For in utility’s gallant gait
Truth is put to use of soul and matter transubstantiates.

The Child of Generations Responds to Auden

The Prayer to the Dynamo

[This letter written to me is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis. I did not write it, and thus do not necessarily agree with everything said. I post it because it worth engaging with. I am always accepting letters.]

Dear Sebastian,

I just read “Meditations on Moloch” as well as Ginsberg’s poem, and his footnote thereto. Here are some of my thoughts. Feel free to repost them if you like. (Having just completed this I realize my tone is a bit cruel. But you know me, I like polemics!)

I.
Henry Adams in the late 19th century felt that his country, and the western world as a whole, were grappling with two opposing forces. In his poem “Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres”, he compares these forces, the Virgin–feminine, medieval, receiving and bestowing grace, and the Dynamo–modern technological power, masculine, forceful, manipulating nature into our control. For Adams the contrast between the two brings him great anguish, because he realizes the emptiness of this new zeitgeist, but he cannot accept the image that gave order and harmony to the medievals. He is, as it were, stuck in the middle.

Allen Ginsberg, in his own way, seems to be stuck between the same conflicting forces, albeit, in a much deeper way; despite framing his Howl within “the best minds of my generation”, one does not get the impression that this pain and suffering is in any way merely a historical phenomenon. This is the anguish of what it means to be human: Moloch is eternal. Nevertheless, without refuting any of this nihilism, he can still say with true sincerity, “holy, holy, holy” after all that. But this is precisely what I find so interesting in Scott Alexander’s commentary on “Howl”. He recognizes the same problem, the same deep cry of anguish from the depths of the human soul, but unlike Ginsberg, he has a response: a response that is a fascinating blend of nihilism and utopian optimism.

In a series of brutally accurate examples, Alexander brings our attention to the many ways Moloch is present in our world, as cited in “Howl”. Nations’ arms races, corporate welfare, education in America, third world plantations, and the exploitation of laborers, etc. All have the common thread of a harsh system that manipulates the weak and perpetuates its own chokehold on civilization, all without ever being necessarily endorsed or supported by those who give it their lifeblood. Sure there have been Henry Fords, Cecil Rhodeses and Josef Stalins in the past. But the genius of this system is that it does not need its slaves’ approval of it, for it to maintain control. Thus, the image of a demon from the ancient world is appropriate.

How can we break free from this system? How can we kill Moloch? Alexander dismisses Marxism as far too shallow. Greed, Capitalism, while a significant portion of Moloch’s ubiquitous body, will not bring us to the heart of the monster. Similarly, he does not want to consider religion, severally, or as a whole, as any kind of response. Sure a religion like Christianity encourages altruism–even demands it in the Golden Rule. But if we take a step back we realize that Christianity (and really all organized religions) is but another part of Moloch’s body. Do these good things or you will be eternally tortured. Likewise, you are required to spread this religion across the whole world, and enjoin it upon your children–or you will be eternally damned. This caricature of religion is so simple that he doesn’t even think it’s controversial.

‘”I hope it’s not too controversial here to say the same thing is true of religion. Religions, at their heart, are the most basic form of memetic replicator – “Believe this statement and repeat it to everyone you hear or else you will be eternally tortured.”’

Alexander then considers another way to defeat Moloch, to create a bubble of sanity and reason in which all of the members are deliberately, and consciously resisting Moloch’s reign. “My love is an enclosed garden”, we read in the best book in the Bible (my opinion, but also the medievals’). He doesn’t specify whether this enclosed garden could be an entire nation, a city, a community, or even a family, (dare we suggest, Scott, a marriage, as in Song of Songs??) because in whatever manifestation, it wouldn’t work.

“As foreigners compete with you – and there’s no wall high enough to block all competition – you have a couple of choices. You can get outcompeted and destroyed. You can join in the race to the bottom. Or you can invest more and more civilizational resources into building your wall – whatever that is in a non-metaphorical way – and protecting yourself.”

Even an entire civilization, he goes on to say, that has the perfect conditions to manipulate the system against the manipulator, will not keep Moloch out. The wall can never be high enough.

“Hint: is it part of the cosmos? Yeah, you’re kind of screwed.”

This was by far my favorite part of his essay. Because finally, here, he gets into the depth of the matter. Moloch is not this unfortunate demon who happens to live within the cosmos, and gives us trouble every now and again: he is the cosmos, Alexander seems to be saying. Or as he says repeatedly in UNSONG he is “a facet of God.” This is why I find Alexander’s analysis to be much more interesting than Adams’. Moloch, suffering, “nature and nature’s gods” or “Gnon” (a mixture of Darwinian and Hobbesian metaphysics), etc–all these are one and the same. You can’t try to make peace with them. You can’t try to compromise with them (“they enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin”, from Alexander’s favorite poem in UNSONG). So you have to kill it. Nothing short of total destruction will suffice. No enclosed garden that does not enclose all things will be good enough. Those who attempt to create some pocket of sanity and rationality to hedge out Moloch fail to see the point entirely. To make a compromise with him is to already concede that he is master. If he rules in one place he rules everywhere, for his presence is woven throughout the cosmos.

II.
How do we free ourselves from him, then? Ginsberg saw no way forward, hence his unrequited howl. He was content to accept that despite Moloch’s presence everywhere, despite the best minds of his generation all falling to this madness, each in his own way, despite all this pain and suffering, the soul could still cry amidst its howl, “holy, holy, holy holy…!” But Alexander has a solution, a clear, lucid, reasonable, optimism. “I am luckier than Ginsberg. I got to see the best minds of my generation identify a problem and get to work.”

This exciting work (irony of ironies) is nothing less than a twenty-first century rendition of Henry Adams’ Dynamo.

“And the whole point of Bostrom’s Superintelligence is that this is within our reach. Once humans can design machines that are smarter than we are, by definition they’ll be able to design machines which are smarter than they are, which can design machines smarter than they are, and so on in a feedback loop so tiny that it will smash up against the physical limitations for intelligence in a comparatively lightning-short amount of time. If multiple competing entities were likely to do that at once, we would be super-doomed. But the sheer speed of the cycle makes it possible that we will end up with one entity light-years ahead of the rest of civilization, so much so that it can suppress any competition – including competition for its title of most powerful entity – permanently. In the very near future, we are going to lift something to Heaven. It might be Moloch. But it might be something on our side. If it’s on our side, it can kill Moloch dead.

And if that entity shares human values, it can allow human values to flourish unconstrained by natural law.”


Reading this, one has the impression that if only Ginsberg, writing in the fifties, had a deeper appreciation for the computing potential of computers, if only he could have lived in an age of more sophisticated processing units, and data analysis he could have encouraged the best minds of his generation into something more productive than their primal howl.

Alexander, in his defense, recognizes the hubris of his statement. But he does not apologize for it. Rather, he genuinely sees the possibility of mankind creating a more intelligent processing unit, which will in turn create a more intelligent one, etc, until one has emerged with such power that it will eliminate all of man’s competition, and thus Moloch himself, as Moloch will no longer have the lifeblood of human victims to sustain himself.

Finally, once Moloch has been cast down, not in one enclosed place only, but across the world, this machine, given that its origin, however far back, was born from human values, will share them with all mankind, and usher in a technological utopia. [Alexander, incidentally, is very free with this phrase “human values”. He never attempts to define it, nor even suggest that there may be some disagreement about what this is. He refuses to present his anthropology, as if his entire argument didn’t hinge upon it].

Thus he has brought us full circle. (1) Man is evil, or at the very least is constrained by an evil force so ubiquitous he cannot be cast off; nor can one compromise with the evil, because to compromise is to be his slave. (2) Man now has the ability to develop and program a machine that shares his human values. (3) Eventually, a much greater machine, far surpassing the processing ability of man will come to be, one that still shares the original human values its ancestor machine was given. (4) This machine can create a utopia for us, free from the evil of Moloch, because it is not human itself. (5) This utopia is born of, and built on, human values.

Therefore, somewhere along the way, this machine must have recast those vague human values, the ones that were bad in man, but are now good because they’re not in man. That seems to be the thrust of his argument. He’s already established that man cannot simply want good things, because Moloch is in him, and Moloch makes him evil. But somehow this machine, which is in one way a reflection of its original human creators, and in another way an entirely separate entity, a dynamo, that is free from Moloch because it’s really, really smart.

III.
So much for Alexander’s Dynamo, then. But let’s return to the image of a garden. I find Alexander’s imagery here especially interesting, given his deep knowledge of the Tanakh. Although he dismisses the idea of an enclosed garden, Alexander still recognizes that it is a garden that we are after here. Let the machine bring us to a verdant, fruitful place with enough of everything to share. (Which is also why he thinks people with many children are deep in Moloch’s grasp–I mean, just look at how those people live!)

“The opposite of a trap is a garden. The only way to avoid having all human values gradually ground down by optimization-competition is to install a Gardener over the entire universe who optimizes for human values.”

This image of a Gardener in an excellent image: one who tends to everything, cultivates each plant to enable it to flourish, prunes and trims so that one plant cannot take over everything, one who takes what is unorderly and wild, in a constant state of competition, and brings all into harmony and beauty. Surely we can all agree that this is what humanity needs.

Well, I for one, couldn’t agree more with Alexander. He is absolutely right–until we have this Gardener (capital G) we will always be compromising with sin. What I wonder, though, is why he would choose such a personalist image to describe his perfect machine; gardeners typically do not optimize, they cultivate. They don’t rationalize, they beautify. Thus, I would add to his perfect machine: let’s develop one that cares for each person as a person, not merely a “cog in the Machine”. Let’s create a machine that will never sacrifice the one for the many, that will never accept the necessary burden of allowing one person to suffer and be marginalized for the sake optimizing the happiness of 100. Rather, let’s have a machine that goes in search of the one lost person, while the 99 are safe. Let’s have a machine that can empathize with our weakness for it has been tempted in every way that we are yet it does not sin.

Alexander has tried to work out a system in which through our own sinfulness we can give birth to something like us in all things but sin. Something that is human yet is beyond human. Something born of a woman yet of another origin (in a Kantian way, insofar as this thing is perfect in its rationality, one could even say it was “from the beginning”). Something that has the power to defeat the ancient curse, and free us from ourselves.

Ginsberg did not attempt to present a way out of Moloch’s clutches. He was content to praise God (in his own way) even as the evil drove him to madness. Adams too, did not see a way forward for his America. The Dynamo would consume them, the Virgin shrines would be desolate, yet he could not turn back to her. Alexander is right to recognize that this paradox can be broken. But he has not seen that this paradox can only be shattered by a greater paradox, the paradox of the Virgin, who resides still in her garden, enclosed, yet open to all the world.

John

A Networked Identity May Be Better

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis. You can read Jared’s response here.]

Dear Jared,

Vogue ideas come in two types: the useful and wrong and the right but unproven. The idea of keeping one’s identity small is the former. Even a modest amount of questioning of the injunction to keep one’s identity small produces a much richer and more robust account of identity and how we should frame it to ourselves. You may start adulthood by pruning your identity, by all means, but to keep it small in perpetuity, I think, does violence to true flourishing.

‘Small id’ as I’ll call the concept begins from a good place. Two motivations led to Paul Graham’s ‘small id’ theory. The first, a desire to be able to think clearly about one’s own life without falling into cognitive traps, traps like motivated reasoning, taking only the inside view, or becoming immune to new information, and the second, a desire to stand outside the ceaseless cacophony of identity-based moralizing and prejudging, that is, to avoid the identity language which replaces explicit reasoning with a signal of group belonging. Both motivations aim towards making the world a kinder and more rational place.

The idea of the small identity attracts people who prefer propositions to group-based thinking – decouplers, Scott Alexander calls them, and for good reason. Identity words in language contain more connotation than denotation, and such a linguistic situation drives explicit reasoners mad. To identify as a rationalist, a philosopher, a Lord of the Rings fan, a Catholic, carries with it all sorts of unwanted associations, misapprehensions, and prejudgments from others. And to the explicit reasoner the only gain of identifying as something is belonging to a tribe at the cost of thinking clearly about any of those identities. But this is a false dichotomy and a confused formulation.

Around college, I stopped identifying as Catholic. When the topic of religion came up, I said instead, “I practice Catholicism,” which to me freed me from the notion of belief and the baggage of the -ism. At the time I rejected the existence of belief and identity! Furthermore, I did not want to be associated with a particular set of propositions, but instead with a particular set of actions. This was not a case of wishing to clear the space to think about the propositions more clearly. I simply didn’t want to use any identity-based terms in my vocabulary, but only to refer to actions themselves under the theory that action captured reality better than these nouns. But in truth, did anyone notice the language game I was playing? Nay, no. The absurdity here is obvious. If small identity were the right prescription, then why not reject all identity as I did? “I’m not your husband, honey, I just practice husbandry (and by the way I am great at it)!”

Rejecting all identity is impossible nonsense. But even aiming for smaller identities poorly applies to the goal of clearer thinking. A smaller identity does not free one from cognitive bias any more than a small kingdom is less worth defending to its inhabitants. A person might be more reasonable about a thousand things that have nothing to do with him, but still be infused with a blind and passionate zeal about the few remaining things. A balanced mind can illuminate all aspects of life without becoming far-sighted or near-sighted.

Julia Galef offers a different formulation to counteract the objection here, “Hold your identity lightly.” The phrasing here offers an elegant image of the soft touch. She has said that reducing one’s identity seems like it is asking too much, so she offers this seemingly more achievable advice. I think lightly held identity improves upon the small id concept, but still, we need clearer methods for achieving lightly held identity. To do so we need to define our key term.

Identity is used in many ways. Some people equate it with the thing one is tribal about, i.e. irrationally committed to. This relies upon reducing the entire concept of identity to one negative connotation “of caring too much.” In this view, having hills to die on at all is seen as suspicious. Julia Galef gives the example of programmers who overcommit themselves into some dogmatism about programming languages. I object that the problem of most nerdy people is not that their identities are too big, but rather that their identities are too small and thus they become a cartoon character, a two-dimensional caricature, focused upon trivialities because their identity has not expanded to contextualize their interests and loves. It is a little soul which doesn’t keep deeper thoughts and feelings in the background of their life.

Some people use identity to mean the whole person from the roles one occupies, to principled beliefs, to personal history. In this view identity simply means the explicit aspects of a person we can identify: Father, brother, husband, classicist, philosopher, teacher, rationalist, administrator, fan of LOTR, the Decemberists, Joel Coen movies, skier, rock climber, canoer, ex-traditionalist boarding school student, liberal, conservative, American, cosmopolitan, Catholic, nerd, and on and on forever. The problem with this maximalist view is that it totally ignores what motivates this conversation in the first place, which is that certain principles and loves, especially ones which are socially reinforced, are really dang difficult to examine well.

However, I think starting with the acknowledgment that identity is naturally large instead of the idea that identity is naturally irrational, gives us a better springboard for coming to hold ourselves lightly. As one reflects upon the multidimensionality of one’s own identity, I believe it becomes easier to scout out the geography of the self, to weigh the forces, to identify principal landmarks worth defending, and to choose better which hills to love dearly. Consider the self as a network. The more nodes and connections in the network, the less essential any single node is for the preservation of the network. In this model, self-examination is the process by which we knit together the nodes of self into a more coherent and better whole, while still maintaining a federated system.

Scrutiny of self causes less discomfort and criticism loses its sting when we can maneuver our mental forces among a variety of pathways. Sometimes a severe amendment of one node results in the loss of several others or whole branch gets pruned. I’d rather prune a great pine than a bonsai tree. I contend that a big identity adapts far better to the vicissitudes of life, is more open to critical inquiry, and can afford to change precisely because no single alteration to the ship of self undoes its entire identity, or in the case of the bonsai tree causes its death. Investigate your own nature to discover whether this frame works for you.

Thank you for entertaining my wandering thoughts on this little matter. In a very short time, I have grown a strong appreciation of your friendship and conversation.

Willing your good,

Questions on a Very Long Life

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis]

Dear Hamuel,

About 10 years ago my grandmother and I leaned on a balcony under moonlight in Florida. The black ocean licked sand so white that beneath the pale moon the sand glowed like an enormous, bioluminescent eel, a littoral Jörmungand waiting to be scratched by the bare toes of vacationers. My grandma said to me that summer night, “You know though I’m 68, in my heart I still feel like I’m 17.” When she was 17, she had her first kid, and thus that was the year of her adulthood. The implication was that the body ages but the soul still savors life, still loves youth and laughter, friends and song. If the eyes didn’t dim, and the mind didn’t go, and the knees didn’t ache, would we want to retire to eternal rest? Or would the sweetness inherent in life keep us here?

You and I discussed at length previously the passage in De Anima in which Aristotle posits that it is not vision which fails, and the soul does not grow old, and the intellect has the capacity to be eternal.

The case of mind is different; it seems to be an independent substance implanted within the soul and to be incapable of being destroyed. If it could be destroyed at all, it would be under the blunting influence of old age. What really happens in respect of mind in old age is, however, exactly parallel to what happens in the case of the sense organs; if the old man could recover the proper kind of eye, he would see just as well as the young man. The incapacity of old age is due to an affection not of the soul but of its vehicle, as occurs in drunkenness or disease. Thus it is that in old age the activity of mind or intellectual apprehension declines only through the decay of some other inward part; mind itself is impassible. – De Anima 1.4 408b

As per our previous conversation about the immortality of the soul, I have some follow up questions about long-livedness. Let’s imagine, as an intuition pump, that you will live out your body’s 40’s over the course of about 500 years, during your last 50 years of life you will age normally. (A small population of people also partaking in the thought experiment may also live this long, but not very many as we don’t have FDA approval for mass testing). Given a much longer life span what would change?

  1. Would you change your behavior in life? If so, how and why?
  2. Would the nature of the good life change? No? But the requirements you would need to procure a good life would change, right? And if the necessary accidents for securing a good life change, then in what sense are they accidents if they are necessary? There’s a bit of a puzzle here.
  3. Do you think human psychology can adapt to deal with such an extended lifespan? Why or why not?
  4. If you could adjust the number of years you will live in those long 40s to any round number what is farthest you would be willing to go?

As always, I cast the questions in the most misleading and equivocating manner I could. Avoid the traps and hooks and take the best bait you can without getting reeled in.

Good swimming,