Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Reason, Passion and Salvation

Stefan Molyneux
Host, Freedomain Radio

For the audio version of this article, please click here.

When I was younger, and optimistic to the point of being naïve, I had an economics professor – let's call him Dr. Destructo – who repeatedly made the following argument:

"War is good for the economy, because it reduces unemployment, and raises the demand for goods, capital and services. Government demands for gear, men and munitions stimulates production. Men are sent overseas, which creates job vacancies at home. More employment means more income, which in turn creates demand for additional production."

I clearly remember asking him if the elimination of unemployment and so on was a desirable end, and I remember him staring at me as if I were slightly stupid, and saying: "Of course, because it adds to the net wealth of society! And this demand keeps increasing, because in war, goods get continually damaged and destroyed!"

One student, who was much better read than I was, brought up Hazlitt's arguments about the fallacy of the broken window, which is that a broken window will provide work to the glazier, but only at the expense of everyone else, and to the detriment of the economy as a whole.

Dr. Destructo went into a long and convoluted argument as to why this was not the case. No one could follow it, but no one asked any questions, because in those days we were mightily pressed to sell our common sense for good grades.

As I said, in those days I was optimistic to the point of being naïve, and had faith that our teachers truly believed what they preached. After the class, I was walking through the parking lot when I saw a nice Porsche with the vanity plate "Destructo". Humming to myself, I thought about what the good professor had said, pulled out my keys, and scratched his car up and down both sides.

Just as I was finishing, I heard an enraged scream. Dr. Destructo came sprinting up, demanding to know just what the hell I was doing.

I blinked. "Well, I'm increasing employment, of course! Why?"

"You little punk!" he snarled at me. "You're going to pay for this!"

"What? But – why would that be necessary?"

"Why? Because you've just scratched up my car!"

"No – this can be paid for by the increase in the net wealth of society – remember, you said that reducing unemployment was a good thing, and that destroying stuff adds to the wealth of society – which is desirable. So I'm a little confused…"

"Well, damn it, I'm not going to pay for this. We're going to march straight to the Dean's office and call your parents, you little vandal!"

There followed quite an altercation between Dr. Destructo, my parents and myself – which in hindsight could be termed my real education. My parents were not as sympathetic to my perspective as I'd hoped they might be. When I explained my reasoning, my dad retorted: "Everyone knows that professors talk a lot of trash!" I asked him why I should go to university then, but he accused me of changing the subject.

I did end up having to pay for the repairs, and received a fairly poor mark in Professor Destructo's class. I did, however, learn a very valuable lesson, which is that there can be a cavernous gap between what people preach and what they practice.

Why did this professor teach that the destruction of goods was beneficial, but then rail against me when I destroyed his goods? Why did he intellectually believe that war was good for the economy as a whole, but then emotionally he recognized the truth? Why did he scornfully dismiss the fallacy of the broken window, but instinctually grasp that fallacy when he saw me keying his Porsche?

Even more importantly, when he reacted emotionally in an economically sound manner, why did that not cause him to doubt any of his intellectual ideas?

I wanted to know how widespread this rank hypocrisy was. The next semester, I had a sociology professor who preached that the strong must be taxed in order to support the weak – that the able must be forced to serve the less able. I found all this rather hard to swallow, because it bothered me on so many levels, but did my best to understand it. Sadly, my best was not good enough, and I was getting a steady stream of D's in her class. After pondering her instructions for many days, I finally realized – in a burst of illumination – exactly what she had been talking about. I asked her to point out her best student, so I could get some help improving my marks. She pointed out a girl named Sue.

Right after class, I caught up with Sue in the parking lot, and said that I would beat her up if she didn't do my homework for me.

What a mess! Tears, protestations, marches to the Dean's office, threatened suspension and charges of bullying all ensued. I did my best to stand my ground, but it did no good. I told them that I was merely forcing the more able to help out the less able – as I put it, a form of "Marks-ism" – just as I had been taught! I couldn't for the life of me understand why everyone was so angry. "You're like a politician who tells me that it's good to pay my taxes, but when I actually pay my taxes, you throw me in jail!"

This happened many, many times throughout my academic career. I had a history professor who told me that history is completely subjective – then gave me bad marks for getting historical dates "wrong" on my final exam. I told him that if history is completely subjective, then those dates cannot be "wrong," because they are "right" for me. "In fact," I said, "I decided not to study because you told us that history was completely subjective, so studying made no sense. When you asked for dates on the exam, I thought it was a sort of test – and that if I put down 'objective' dates, I would fail!"

Again, this escalated to the Dean's office, where little understanding – and less sympathy – awaited me.

My psychology professor kept telling us that morality was subjective, that there were no absolute standards of right or wrong, and that imposing our own values on others was bad. That was a great relief to me, since it is far easier to buy a term paper than it is to write one. After I handed in my paper, however, my professor dragged me to the Dean's office and accused me of plagiarism. "But," I protested, "you told me that ethics was subjective, and that it is wrong to impose my beliefs on other people. I don't believe in plagiarism, but you do – what gives you the right, by your own theory, to impose your beliefs on me?"

The Dean and the professor both looked at me with a mix of scorn and pity. I can imagine the same look coming from the manager of a corrupt casino, who sees a man keep coming back and losing his money, not realizing that the game is rigged.

Every time I tried to put into practice what my professors taught me, I was violently punished. It took me a long time to figure out what was going on – I did not have the cynicism back then to ascribe it merely to a corrupt form of fraud – but eventually I think I came up with something useful.

The most fundamental barrier to the spread of libertarian ideas is this terrifying gap between theory and practice. "Theory" describes a vague, almost Platonic realm, while "practice" describes merely pragmatic actions in the present.

For instance, I am often asked how a stateless society could conceivably work, and if there are any examples of such a society existing at any time. In response, I ask: "Do you use violence to achieve your goals? How many times a year do you use the state court system? Did your wife marry you voluntarily, or did you kidnap her and lock her in your basement? Did you get your current job by going for an interview and winning the position voluntarily, or did you kidnap your employer's children and hold them hostage?"

I have never met anyone who regularly uses violence to achieve his ends (I'm not saying that such people don't exist, but they tend not to move in debating circles). I have also never met anyone who regularly uses the state court system – though I have met many people who hate the courts for their injustice and inefficiency.

This is very strange, when you think about it. People who don't use violence to get what they want say that not using violence to get what you want is impossible. People who would never pick up a gun and force their neighbours to pay for their children's education enthusiastically support the public school system. People who would never shoot a foreigner just because some gray-haired guy told them to are rabid supporters of military imperialism.

I have written a book called "On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion" detailing just how this cavernous disconnect between theory and practice arises – but I will sum up one or two additional points here.

The most important lesson my experiences in university taught me is that no one has a clue about ethics. What people really do is repeat the nonsense that they have been told in order to get the things that they want. Professors spout the most irrational nonsense about subjectivity and relativism and argue that destruction equals wealth because if they do, they get to be professors. Court toadies praise the king not because the king is praiseworthy, but because if they do, they get to be court toadies. Rappers have a "posse" due to their wealth, not their virtue.

However, it is fundamentally humiliating to lie about virtue for a living. Misleading the young about morality is a particularly sickening way to earn one's daily bread.

When people do bad things – and what can be worse than teaching the young that evil is virtue? – they have only two choices. They can either stop doing bad things, or they can redefine those bad things as good things.

There are no prizes for guessing which is the more prevalent solution.

The immoral pragmatism involved in making a living by corrupting the young is so ghastly that it can only be sustained by completely separating theory from practice. When you want to keep doing bad things, you must separate your self-justifying theories from your empirical actions, otherwise your guilt and self-hatred will arise and compel you to change your behaviour. You must numb your conscience by repeating over and over that morality has nothing to do with practicality – but only because the practicality that you have chosen is completely immoral.

Of course, when you come across someone who joins theory and practice together – as I did when keying my professor's car – this threatens the split that you have set up between theory and practice, between ethics and action. The rage that you feel is really hostility towards your own corruption, not for my action. You want to punish me because my actions make you feel bad. Since I make you feel bad, punishing me becomes a twisted form of self-defense. Since you are not living up to any kind of decent values, when your real values are put into practice, you realize how corrupt you are, which causes you to lash out.

Recognizing and understanding this psychological mechanism is, I submit, essential to libertarians. The greatest barrier we face is not the state, or taxation, or imperialism, but rather moral hypocrisy. People are well paid to do bad things – it is always emotionally volatile to confront people on their corruption, but it is a habit that we must cultivate within ourselves. We know that we are right, that our arguments against violence and statism are both valid and moral – but the arguments themselves will never change the world.

It is our passionate commitment to those arguments, and the strength we must find in ourselves to confront people on their hypocrisies – and to live our values ourselves – that will save the world.

Reason is the engine, but passion is the fuel. The truth must be defined logically; the world must be saved passionately.


Stefan Molyneux [send him mail] is the host of Freedomain Radio, one of the most popular Libertarian podcasts on the internet. He is also the author of On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion.


FSK said...

Did you really do all those things? (Keying your professors' car, etc.) Or, were you just saying that to make a point?

Kevin Carson said...

Hilarious post.

I suspect that by "the economy," Dr. Destructo meant the large corporations that manufacture the replacement glass for the broken windows (or the heavy industry that runs in full capacity during wartime). Generally, when neoliberal economists refer to what's good for "the economy," that's what they mean.

And of course, that goes double for treating GDP as a measure of social welfare: the GDP is heavily inflated by broken window expenditures. Likewise, neoliberal panglossian references to exploding GDP in the Third World ignore the fact that much of the increase reflects only the monitizing of activities previously carried out in the informal and household economies, and the imposition of rents and taxes on things that were originally free.

One example I like to use is British colonialism in East Africa. The colonial authorities dispossessed the native peasantry from the best 20% of the land, and gave it to settlers for cash crop agriculture. The peasantry that remained on their land were encouraged to enter the wage labor market (on the buyers' terms, of course) by a poll tax. Now, I'm guessing that the nominal GDP of Kenya exploded under the effect of these policies. Likewise in Britain after the Enclosures, as previously self-employed peasants engaged in subsistence production were forced to earn money wages to buy what they'd previously produced on their own land with less expenditure of labor.

Or to take a converse example, imagine modern America shifting to a free market economy without subsidized, wasteful use of production inputs. Instead of eating food grown in California on plantation farms with subsidized irrigation water, and shipped via subsidized highway across the country, people in rain-rich Massachusetts would buy produce grown where they lived. Instead of buying goods produced in an inefficient giant factory a thousand miles away, people would buy most goods from small, efficient factories in the same county where they lived. And if along with the rest there was a shift to informal production and exchange within LETS systems... well, I could easily imagine 75% of the GDP simply disappearing off the econometrists' radar.

Ella said...

Your analysis of discourse and institutions such as universities echoes Michel Foucault's archaeology of knowledge, amongst other things. One of my favorite Nietzsche quotes is "Truths are illusions of which we have forgotten they are illusions". But your perspective is much less nihilistic of course...

I think the problem with truth is consensus, and that consensus really just relies on authorities sanctioning a view, a truth, a philosophy...