Civilization Miscellany World

The Danger of Climate Certainty

We know from the study of social insurance that uncertainty—regarding whom a misfortune will strike—is a great spur to social behavior. It is the veil of ignorance that makes the healthy pay for the medical care of the sick. It is only because the healthy pay their premiums before they learn, at the end of life, that they did not in fact need to pay them, that the sick can afford medical care.

By the same token, the great spur to collective global action against climate change, such as it exists (and admittedly it does not much), is the fact that no country knows yet quite what the effects of climate change will be. As with all complex changes, that of climate will make winners as well as losers, at least in the medium term. Some countries will be submerged. Otherwise will thaw, or be the beneficiaries of rains diverted by changing weather patterns. But because no country knows yet into which category it will fall, each has some incentive to pay to insure against climate change, just as each of us has an incentive to pay a heath insurance premium.

But as climate change advances, and the consequences for individual countries become easier to predict, that incentive will lessen, at least for the countries that stand to benefit. If it becomes clear, for example, that the zone of arable land will shift northward into Canada and Siberia, then Canada and Russia—or the countries in the best position to invade or dominate them—may find it more expedient to promote climate change than to ward it off, just as improvements in the use of genetics to predict health outcomes may one day give some people the confidence not to buy health insurance.

Indeed, one can imagine not only Canada and Russia pulling for climate change if the arable zone ends up moving northward, but also China, which teems on Siberia’s southern border and has a historical claim to the territory. As soon as it were to become clear that Siberia would replace America as breadbasket to the world, China would have an immense prize right on her doorstep. It would be in her interest to carry climate change forward, at least long enough to cement her new strategic advantage.

Civilization Despair Meta Miscellany

The Possibilities of Hierarchy

We can represent the possibilities of hierarchy with a matrix of hierarchy. It looks like this:

Person B
Believes himself to be inferiorBelieves himself to be superior
Person ABelieves himself to be inferiorClassical Equality (each looks up to the other)Domination
Believes himself to be superiorDominationConflict (each believes himself to be better than the other)
The matrix of hierarchy.

In a world of hierarchy, each of us believes himself either to be better or worse than others, but never equal. When two people meet, there are therefore four possible relationships that can appear between them.

Two are relationships of domination, which occur when one believes himself to be better than the other and the other agrees.

One is a relationship of conflict, which occurs when each believes himself to be better than the other.

And the third is a relationship of equality, which occurs when each believes himself to be worse than the other, with the result that each seeks to follow the other and do for the other. I call this a relationship of “classical” equality because it is the only equality known before the modern period.

The matrix of hierarchy explains why domination is so often associated with hierarchical thinking: it is the most common outcome (i.e., you find it in two of the four boxes in the matrix).

It also explains why conflict is often associated with hierarchical thinking.

Finally, the matrix of hierarchy explains why romantic love so flourished in the premodern world, for is romantic love not an example of a relationship characterized by mutual feelings of admiration—of looking up at the beloved?

The new conception of equality that came into being with the modern world can be represented by a box of equality:

Person B
Believes himself to be no better or worse
Person A Believes himself to be no better or worse Modern Equality
The box of equality.

The modern conception of equality eliminates domination and conflict. It also eliminates that sweetest of all relationships, that of mutual admiration, which I have called classical equality. It eliminates love.

Question: Can we have classical equality without domination or conflict? Can we have a world in which each man looks up to every other?

That would be the best of all possible worlds.

It might require only that we change the way we look at others.

Or it might require that we change ourselves.

Civilization Meta Miscellany

Two Equalities

There is the equality in which one man looks up to another, and the other looks up to him. The first is convinced that he is inferior to the other. And the second is convinced that he is inferior to the first. The first therefore wishes to follow the second. And for the same reason the second wishes to follow the first. In the end, they follow each other. This is an equality bred of hierarchy and hierarchical thinking, of domination and obedience, of excellence and humility, of admiration and connection.

There is another kind of equality in which one man looks straight across at another and says to himself: “he is no better or worse than I.” And the other man looks at the first and says: “he is no better or worse than I.” This is an equality of isolation, mediocrity, resentment, orgeuil.

Give me the first equality. Never the second.

Civilization Despair Regulation World

The Free-Market-Will-Save-Us Theory of Great Power Competition

First it was: China cannot succeed because she does not have a free market.

Then it was: China is going to be our friend because she has embraced the free market.

Now it is: China is secretly going into decline because she has turned away from the free market.

Maybe that’s right.

Or maybe we are just very, very high on our own supply.

I do not recall that German markets were free in 1939. I do not recall that German markets were free in 1914. I do not recall that Japanese markets were free in 1931.

In fact, I do not recall that American markets were free in 1941. One quarter of the American economy by GDP was subject to price regulation as a result of the New Deal and decades of progressive activism.

And that was before we entered the war and FDR imposed wage and price controls.

And, you know, we won.

But not alone. Russia did most of the fighting.

And Russia had a command economy.

The free market does have its charms. But please, enough of the you-can’t-be-a-great-power-unless-you-run-on-Reaganomics.

That’s a great way to underestimate your adversaries.

And get killed.

Civilization World

Defeat as Model

America rested its policy toward China in the crucial decades of the 1990s and 2000s on the notion that China did not aspire to become a great power but only a wealthy and free one, and so America encouraged Chinese development at every turn. America’s model, oddly enough, was Europe. She looked at Britain, France, and Germany—all wealthy, free, and perfectly happy to submit to American greatness—and she supposed that was all that China wanted. America did not stop to consider why Britain, France, and Germany so happily lacked ambition.

The answer was that all three were defeated powers.

France exhausted herself mentally on the battlefields of the First World War and thereafter, as A.J.P. Taylor has noted, came to fear war more than she feared defeat, a sure sign of the demise of a great power. Britain exhausted herself mentally on the battlefields of the Second World War. And Germany was physically defeated. (Not twice—1918 left the state intact—but once in the Second World War.) It is defeat, mental and physical, that explains the docility of Europe in our age.

It was pure folly for America to suppose that China—or, indeed, Russia, which America viewed through the same lens during this period—would aspire to defeat. China was, of course, defeated in the 19th century and again in the early 20th. But that was the old China. As a modern power, she has never been defeated; why would she not aspire to greatness? Similarly, Russia, so far from being exhausted by the Second World War, went on to enjoy decades of superpower status from which she fell not through defeat by an outside power (no, America did not spend Russia into collapse—how characteristic of a business culture to imagine death by spending) but through internal upheaval. Why should she not continue to aspire too once she had reestablished internal stability?

Europe’s docility, and the international order that it exudes, reminds us that order in human affairs—within countries as much as between them—is always the child of defeat. Great nations of law-abiding citizens are themselves nothing but concentrations of hunter-gatherers whose will to live independent of the state has been crushed so completely that they have forgotten that they ever had one. The really extraordinary thing about American policy during those crucial decades was that America looked at order in Europe and saw not defeat but kumbaya.

Order requires defeat and defeat requires: defeat. Not physical, necessarily, but, certainly, mental. How will we get it over the next few decades, and who will suffer it?

One wonders.

Antitrust Civilization Monopolization

Nietzsche on Competition and Monopoly

When the traveler Pausanias visited the Helicon on his travels through Greece, an ancient copy of the Greeks’ first didactic poem, Hesiod’s Works and Days, was shown to him, inscribed on lead plates and badly damaged by time and weather. [I]t . . . began straight with the assertion: ‘there are two Eris-goddesses on earth’. This is one of the most remarkable of Hellenic ideas and deserves to be impressed upon newcomers right at the gate of entry to Hellenic ethics. ‘One should praise the one Eris as much as blame the other, if one has any sense; because the two goddesses have quite separate dispositions. One promotes wicked war and feuding, the cruel thing! No mortal likes her, but the yoke of necessity forces man to honor the heavy burden of this Eris according to the decrees of the Immortals. Black Night gave birth to this one as the older of the two; but Zeus, who reigned on high, placed the other on the roots of the earth and amongst men as a much better one. She drives even the unskilled man to work; and if someone who asked property see someone else who is rich, he likewise hurries off to sow and plant and set his house in order; neighbor competes with neighbor for prosperity. This Eris is good for men. Even potters harbor grudges against potters, carpenters against carpenters, beggars envy beggars and minstrels envy minstrels.’

Hesiod . . . first portrays one Eris as wicked, in fact the one who leads men in hostile struggle-to-the-death, and then praises the other Eris as good who, as jealousy, grudge and envy, goads men to action, not, however, the action of a struggle-to-the-death but the action of competition. The Greek is envious and does not experience this characteristic as a blemish, but as the effect of a benevolent deity . . . . Because he is envious, he feels the envious eye of a God resting on him whenever he has an excessive amount of honor, wealth, fame and fortune, and he fears this envy; in this case, the God warns him of the transitoriness of the human lot, he dreads his good fortune and, sacrificing the best part of it, he prostrates himself before divine envy.

If we want to see that feeling revealed in its na├»ve form, the feeling that competition is vital, if the well-being of the state is to continue, we should think about the original meaning of ostracism: as, for example, expressed by the Ephesians at the banning of Hermodor. ‘Amongst us, nobody should be the best; but if somebody is, let him be somewhere else, with other people.’ For why should nobody be the best? Because with that, competition would dry up and the permanent basis of life in the Hellenic state would be endangered. . . . The original function of this strange institution is . . . not as a safety valve but as a stimulant: the pre-eminent individual is removed so that a new contest of powers can be awakened: a thought which is hostile to the ‘exclusivity’ of genius in the modern sense, but which assumes that there are always several geniuses to incite each other to action, just as they keep each other within certain limits, to. That is the kernel of the Hellenic idea of competition: it loathes a monopoly of predominance and fears the dangers of this, it desires, as protective measure against genius—a second genius.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Homer on Competition, in On the Genealogy of Morality 187, 189-92 (Keith Ansell-Pearson ed., Carol Diethe trans., 1995).

Three observations. First, Nietzsche’s remark that “[e]ven potters harbor grudges against potters” reminds us that McCloskey ought to have included envy (the second Eris) among the bourgeois virtues, though she did not. In fact, one often senses that the only really human feeling left in the modern world—the only one for which any individual really is capable of killing or dying—is that of envy. Caged, to be sure, hidden, so rarely acknowledged that one would call it subconscious if one did not so often see that knowing look in the eyes of those it is consuming. I suppose in modern guise envy is what Nietzsche elsewhere calls resentment. Which leads to the second observation.

Second, Hellenic potters may have envied Hellenic potters, but what is distinctly un-bourgeois about the Hellenic world, as described by Nietzsche, is this: “[b]ecause he is envious, [the Greek] feels the envious eye of a God resting on him whenever he has an excessive amount of honor, wealth, fame and fortune, and he fears this envy[.]” The modern does not fear God; he believes, instead, that he deserves his wealth, even when he doesn’t have it, which is why envy spoils into resentment in him. Only the successful Greek would ever mistake himself for a God; but even the unsuccessful modern does that.

Third, Nietzsche is a Chicagoan through and through, not an antimonopolist in the contemporary mold. Yes, Nietzsche does ask : “[W]hy should nobody be the best?” And he does answer: “Because [if someone were the best], competition would dry up and the permanent basis of life in the Hellenic state would be endangered[.]” But the reason for which the best must be smashed is not to promote fairness. It is not to make equal.

On the contrary, it is to achieve even greater heights of inequality. As Nietzsche says: “[t]he original function of this strange institution [of smashing the best] is . . . not as a safety valve but as a stimulant: the pre-eminent individual is removed so that a new contest of powers can be awakened[.]” So far from making equal, the purpose of competition is to create “—a second genius.” Thus, in the language of today’s antitrust, Nietzsche’s antimonopolism is dynamic and Schumpeterian. He would smash the best only where the best stand so high above everyone else that they inhibit the process of overcoming and surpassing associated with dynamic competition. The notion that markets should be fair, in the sense that the best should be placed on an equal footing with the rest, plays no role in this calculus.

Are we there yet with the Tech Giants? Is Google already an Alexander—“that grotesquely enlarged reflection of the Hellene,” as Nietzsche calls him in the same essay—raging unchecked across the earth? I suppose that the “kill zone” narrative comes closest to making a genuinely Nietzschean case for breakup: no one will innovate in Google’s markets because Google will win.

But only to the extent that the harm of the kill zone is thought to be the toll it takes on excellence.

Civilization Meta Miscellany World

Why Do Mechanical Explanations of the Social Deny Software?

They say that a good social theory must throw out some reality in order to have any explanatory power. Thinkers who favor mechanical explanations of the social—the people who claim that it is climate or asteroids or guns, germs, and steel that explain the rise and fall of civilizations—always seem to throw out the part of the mechanism that is the software. Why?

That is, all mechanistic explanations of the social treat people as machines—robots—that have certain operating limits. They need food and water. They need temperatures that are not too high and not too low. They cannot withstand the slash of a steel weapon. They are susceptible to disease. And so on and all true. These operating limits do constrain what the robots can do. But that is far from all.

Robots need an instruction set to run; they need, in other words, a behavior. And if the dawn of the age of artificial intelligence should be teaching us anything, it is that behavior matters a lot. There is a very big difference between a car, a car that knows to break before hitting something on the highway, and a self-driving car. There is a very big difference between a Rhoomba that moves only in straight lines and one that criss-crosses the room. It would seem to follow that the robots’ software should matter a lot in the rise and fall of civilizations. So why not make social theory by keeping the software and throwing out the robot hardware instead?

Programming in the social is thought, belief, training, worship, prejudice, emotion, philosophy, literature, letters, culture, art. It is the humanities. Humanistic explanations for things—Ruskin’s observation that you can read the decline of a civilization in its art—theorize the social in terms of the human robot’s programming. The humanities throw out the hardware.

(By programming I do not mean that we are necessarily controlled by others. In human beings we are dealing with semi-autonomous, artificially (nay, actually!) intelligent robots. So programming, for us, necessarily means self-programming at both the individual and social levels. Our programs are some peculiar function of inputs from other robots, inputs from the programs of the robots themselves (that is, we use our thought to influence ourselves), and hard-coded inputs (those determined by our genes).)

It is a peculiar thing that at the same moment that, as a technological matter, we are coming to recognize the transformative nature of artificial intelligence in relation to hardware, and indeed at the same moment that, thanks to the great financial success of companies like Google and Facebook, which derives entirely from the value of connecting businesses with individual minds, we are coming to appreciate the great difference influence over minds makes in social outcomes, we should continue to favor mechanical explanations for the social, to attribute the fall of Rome to barbarian invasions rather than decadence, or the rise of China to good policy rather than good spirit.

When we do consider the software, we tend to ignore the most important parts. We credit the power of propaganda, but not the power of religion, ideas, philosophy, love, or, indeed, art. But these too are a part of the programming, and if you judge by the things you yourself hold most dear, likely the most important part.

So do not tell me that talking won’t work. That writing will never change things. That symbolic protest is weak. Or that the only political power grows out of the barrel of a gun—unless you believe that your computer will behave the same no matter what software it runs.

Civilization Despair Miscellany World

God Has Died a Thousand Times, and Once in Philadephia

In its most extreme form, the state to an American is ‘a bunch of people’, politicians and their officials whom he watches with critical and even distrustful eyes; he sees the state as a powerful instrument that belongs to and is operated by groups of people for their own ends. At the other extreme one finds in Europe the adoration of the state as something majestic, transcendent and even divine (in the tradition of the ‘divine’ emperors of Rome). Nobody expressed this feeling better than the famous philosopher Hegel, who was professor at the Prussian University of Berlin from 1818 to 1831 and wrote: ‘The march of God in the world, that is what the state is. In considering the Idea of the State we must not have our eyes on particular states . . . Instead we must consider the Idea, this actual God, by itself’.

R. C. van Caenegem, An Historical Introduction to Western Constitutional Law 168 (2000).

Clearly Ruskin Wouldn’t Have Had Trouble Defending a Liberal Arts Education

Taste is not only a part and an index of morality; — it is the only morality. The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is, ‘What do you like?’ Tell me what you like, and I’ll tell you what you are. . . . ‘Nay,’ perhaps you answer; ‘we need rather to ask what these people and children do, than what they like. . . .’ But they only are in a right moral state when they have come to like doing it; and as long as they don’t like it, they are still in a vicious state. The man is not in health of body who is always thinking of the bottle in the cupboard, though he bravely bears his thirst . . . . And the entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things: — not merely industrious, but to love industry — not merely learned, but to love knowledge — not merely pure, but to love purity — not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice. . . . What we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character. . . . [A] nation cannot be affected by any vice, or weakness, without expressing it, legibly, and for ever, either in bad art, or by want of art; and that there is no national virtue, small or great, which is not manifestly expressed in all the art which circumstances enable the people possessing that virtue to produce.

John Ruskin, Unto this Last, and Other Writings 234-235 (Clive Wilmer, ed. Penguin Classics 2005) (1862).

Ruskin’s Conservatism

As I was thinking over this, in walking up Fleet Street the other day, my eye caught the title of a book standing open in a bookseller’s window. It was — On the necessity of the diffusion of taste among all classes. ‘Ah,’ I thought to myself, ‘my classifying friend, when you have diffused your taste, where will your classes be? The man who likes what you like, belongs to the same class with you, I think. Inevitably so. You may put him to other work if you choose; but, by the condition you have brought him into, he will dislike the work as much as you would yourself. You get hold of a scavenger or a costermonger, who enjoyed the Newgate Calendar for literature, and ‘Pop goes the Weasel’ for music. You think you can make him like Dante and Beethoven? I wish you joy of your lessons; but if you do, you have made a gentleman of him: — he won’t like to go back to his costermongering.’

John Ruskin, Unto this Last, and Other Writings235 (Clive Wilmer, ed. Penguin Classics 2005) (1862).

In the event, it was tastes that diffused, and diffused up rather than down, and taste that disappeared, instead of classes.