Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Meaningful Meditations

I picked up The Quest for God based on the endorsement—if we may stretch the term to call it that—which the imperturbably irreligious John Derbyshire gave it in one of his pieces for National Review: "I am tempted to say that any believers out there who feel like writing a book of apologetics should imitate P.J.’s approach, if they want to make any impression on the unbelieving reader." Since apologetic tracts seem to have lamentably little influence on those whom they were written to convince, when a casual visitor doesn't run out shrieking in the midst of all the preaching to the choir, the preacher merits further investigation.

In contrast to some of his more opinionated works—Intellectuals, for instance—The Quest for God is largely respectful and even-handed. This is not to say that Johnson avoids the difficulties inherent in a meditation on tricky theological issues, either by avoiding them altogether, or by pretending that they do not exist. Instead, he freely admits that the most important areas of belief are usually those most shrouded in mystery, and confesses his own ignorance and uncertainty. "We may not be able to being to understand God. We may not even be able to believe in him."

While admitting that he wants all to experience the riches of Catholicism, Johnson admits: "I never proselytize, as such... I want to help -I do help when asked or when it is clear my help is needed and will be useful. But I also confess my own woeful ignorance and shortcomings and uncertainties." This is a good approach to take. Our attempts to provide spiritual assistance may be well-intended, but they are not always appreciated. Instead of attempting to cajole reluctant converts, Johnson provides useful thoughts for anyone who is concerned with the questions which vex us all, while also giving incite into the mind of an intelligent believer.

Unfortunately, the book is not exactly orthodox: "Not only do I think there is salvation outside my church; I also think that, for some people, salvation is more likely outside my church - in other churches or no church." Since few people would turn to Johnson for theological certitude, fellow Catholics shouldn't be too bothered with this passage—see instead CCC 816. Of greater concern: one wonders why anyone would become a Catholic if salvation can be had without bothering with all that awful church business. It is a tricky balance to maintain: charitably interpreting the more difficult aspects of Christianity while insisting that truth is nonnegotiable. For the most part, Johnson achieves this by adequately exploring each issue he examines. Death, heaven, hell, purgatory: they're all here--and much more besides.

The closing chapter on prayer he calls "the most important". Although he does not cite Pascal in this context, Johnson maintains that all can and should pray; since our belief in God ultimately has no bearing on whether or not he exists, it is prudent for everyone to do so. This holds even for the agnostic or atheist: "In a way, the prayer for faith is the purest form of prayer." If God exists, and he is at all concerned with human beings, he cannot help but assist those who implore his help. This is why prayer is "the one thing I have found in life that never fails completely."

The Quest for God was enlightening and edifying—as most of Johnson's books are—and it draws one's attention away from worldly things to that which really matters, if only for a brief while. That is the merit of books of this type. There are better reflections out there, but Paul Johnson has contributed a worthy addition.

The welfare state

Iamyouasheisme has been kind enough to respond to my recent post in which I attempted to use the thought of Ludwig von Mises to expose some of the flaws in the neo-Keynesianism of Paul Krugman, as well as the Monetarist approach to which the latter rightly objects. I made some quick replies, but I believe the criticism is substantial enough that it is worthy of more substance and length than I gave it.

He writes:

Everything I have heard or read of libertarian economics seems to require - even if it is not acknowledged - a retreat from bigness. Not just in government, but in business.

This appeals to anarchists, populists, back-to-nature hippies, and right wing libertarian types, but not to most people. Call them suckers, but they know what they want. What they really want is the welfare state, without having to pay for it.

First, he is completely correct in that libertariansim requires--I quite like the phrase--"a retreat from bigness". Whatever term we use for the current economic system, it is categorized by bigness. Sure, both parties offer occasional paeans to the small businessman, but the system is designed so that corporations with lobbyists benefit to the exclusion of actual entrepreneurs. There is some virtue in bigness; there are valid arguments against Wal-Mart, but it manages to provide cheap goods for the consumer. At the same time, any large entity will move sluggishly to adapt to the consumer's changing needs. Libertarian theory envisions a system in which small entities react readily to meet these needs.

I think there is a strong argument that can be made for smallness, especially in business. This was a main component of the distributist theory of Belloc and Chesterton. And while we ought not pretend that there is a silent libertarian majority out there somewhere, I think there is an urge for smaller things by many people across the political spectrum. Still, it is apparent that most people are comfortable with the Welfare State, especially if they don't have to pay for it.

It is also true that libertarians tend to assume that the welfare state is much worse than it is. Certainly, one who believes in the free exchange of goods and services on the market, both because it doesn't involve a violation of rights, but also because it tends to increase wealth for all members of society, will be reluctant to endorse the welfare state. Still, the current system is far better than the socialist regime, in which, as Rothbard puts it, the market is violently abolished, and in which a board of advisers must attempt to perform economic calculation in the dark, to the detriment of all its subjects. It is telling that while Ron Paul would readily have abolished most departments of the Federal Government, the majority of his rhetoric was devoted to attacks on the Empire and the Federal Reserve. Returning welfare to the market was much less of a priority.

Charles Murray, a very thoughtful libertarian, explains well the workings of the welfare state:

[T]he European model has worked in many ways. I am delighted when I get a chance to go to Stockholm or Amsterdam, not to mention Rome or Paris. When I get there, the people don't seem to be groaning under the yoke of an evil system. Quite the contrary. There's a lot to like--a lot to love--about day-to-day life in Europe, something that should be kept in mind when I get to some less complimentary observations.

Murray recognizes that it is an exaggeration to suggest that the welfare state does not work. It is plainly false, and thus undermines the good in libertarian theory, in the same way our more paranoid and conspiratorial members give us a bad name. I've been careless on this point; while my critiques have tended to focus on the long run, in the end, unless a fundamental contradiction can be exposed in the system as it exists, such that long run stability is impossible, insisting that a system will not be permanent is merely a trite truism. Of course the United States will not last forever. Nothing does. What must be done is locate the problems with the welfare state and explain how a libertarian system would be preferable.

Let us return to Murray's talk. He draws on Madison's Federalist 62 to argue that: "A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained." Murray argues that Madison is speaking here in an Aristotelian sense. In other words, we are speaking of eudaimonia.

He tries to sketch some framework for this happiness:

To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don't get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché "nothing worth having comes easily"). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.

He goes on to note that there are four institutions which provide this framework:

family, community, vocation, and faith. Two clarifications: "Community" can embrace people who are scattered geographically. "Vocation" can include avocations or causes.

The critique of the welfare state, then, is that it significantly narrows this framework, and actually encourages its citizens to avoid the human activities which lead to deep satisfaction. To use one of his examples: although it is profoundly challenging, being a parent is rewarding. Yet parenting is precisely the sort of thing the citizens of Europe are no longer doing, and they are avoiding it because the welfare state no longer places a priority on parenting. Absent strong encouragement from the institutions Murray mentions--or discouragement to duck one's responsibility--there is evidently little reason to become a parent, and certainly even less to have a large family.

It is not that Europeans hate children, nor is it that the government doesn't want them. On the contrary, in many European nations one can be paid for having children. For a time, declining birth rates were greeted with approbation, but this has changed. The welfare system will have to be rolled back unless more workers are found to perpetuate the system. In lieu of European babies, immigrants have been imported from Africa and the Middle East. Setting aside any commentary on the prospects of substantially different cultures living in harmony, this method too seems destined for failure. Immigrants have been quick to realize the good in the welfare state without contributing as meaningfully to the number of workers as was expected.

Now, we might argue that being a parent is its own reward, and that people should have children regardless of government policies. In fact, this is my own position. But it appears to be no more popular than libertarianism, as falling birth rates attest. The welfare state is able to provide for the poor; and although this is not my position, it may even do so better than the free market ever could. However, it is incapable of fostering the institutions necessary to the well-being of man. It provides a comfortable material minimum beneath which the lowliest citizens shall not be permitted to slip. Meanwhile, it enervates the human spirit.

The progressives who agitated for the welfare state were no doubt filled with good intentions. Some were truly revolutionary, and wished to replace institutions like the family. But others merely sought to use government to buttress them. What we have found in our decades of social experiments is that this is not the way things work. Attempting to help single mothers provides a disincentive to form families. It may be laudable that single mothers are no longer social pariahs. But concomitant with the acceptance of single motherhood as a viable alternative to married life has been the undermining of marriage. The neglected ghettos of our inner-cities are resplendent with children who can usually eat, thanks to our welfare system, but whose family life is insufficient to provide them the means to live happily. If the State can take credit for providing the food, it also deserves blame for destroying the family.

I said earlier that we learned that the State cannot easily buttress institutions, but what I should have said is that we ought to have learned. There are thoughtful advocates of the welfare state, but many of them seem to ignore the great shortcomings of such a system. It is not enough to insist that welfare policies will have no deleterious effects on the family when we now know that they do. These effects may be a price we are willing to pay, but they must be considered as part of the equation.

Lest I be seen as a mere critic, I will briefly offer some suggestions for a way out, though I am not optimistic that we will take it.

There are two things that must be done to revitalize our way of life. First, we must reduce the size and scope of Government. This is politically impracticable, but it is necessary if we do not wish to lapse into anemia. If the rise of the State reduced the efficacy of essential institutions, reduction of the former will provide much needed breathing room for the latter. This is not to say that the family would be honored the instant welfare is ended. As it is far easier to let an institution decay than to build it up again, I think it highly likely that, at least during an indeterminable transition period, things will look dark indeed. But the State must be reduced if our institutions are to thrive.

Second, those of us who reject the welfare state must do everything we can to foster the institutions which the State has undermined. The early Christians built a community in the rotting carcass of Rome. When Rome at last fell, civilization did not stop; the torch was passed on. There is no reason we cannot begin to build as well.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Back to Keynes

Paul Krugman is at it again. His column asks a good question: How Did Economists Get It So Wrong? Alas, rather than run to one of the economists who actually got it right, Krugman finds another way to offer a paean to Lord Keynes. It's getting so mind-numbingly predictable that Jeffrey Tucker of Mises economics blog has simply thrown up his hands at Krugman's latest drivel.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to produce a complete take down here, but I want to highlight a couple of problems with this piece. Essentially, Krugman divides economists into two camps: freshwater and saltwater. The former are variously described as monetarists, adherents of Milton Friedman's Chicago school, and "neoclassical purists"; they believe that the market should be trusted, but that a central bank should be used to inject liquidity into a lagging economy by lowering the interest rate. The latter are New Keynesian, and believe that in addition to manipulating the interest rate, Government should also augment unemployment by increased spending. Obviously Krugman is a member of the later camp.

The thrust of his argument is leveled at those who believe that markets are infallibly rational: "But the New Keynesian models that have come to dominate teaching and research assume that people are perfectly rational and financial markets are perfectly efficient." This is apparently the explanation for the economic crisis.

His dichotomy allows him to insist that the freshwater economists are the champions of the free market. Moreover, freshwater theories failed to predict the current problem and are powerless to reverse the current recession. This is because one cannot raise interest rates below zero, and, as Krugman avers, "But zero, it turned out, isn’t low enough to end this recession."--which is true from a monetarist perspective. The implication seems to be that, unregulated capitalism having failed, we can now turn to government stimulus to end the current recession.

However, he fails to note that there is another school of economic thought, namely the Austrian, which rejects both freshwater and saltwater assumptions, and whose theories predicted the current crisis. The difference between libertarian philosophy and Krugman's Big Government are sufficiently obvious, but there is a considerable chasm between Friedman and the Austrians as well, which Murray Rothbard explains here:

[W]e must recognize that this "purely monetarist" approach is almost the exact reverse of the sound – as well as truly free-market – Austrian view. For while the Austrians hold that [Benjamin] Strong’s monetary expansion made a later 1929 crash inevitable, Fisher-Friedman believe that all the Fed needed to do was to pump more money in to offset any recession. Believing that there is no causal influence running from boom to bust, believing in the simplistic "Dance of the Dollar" theory, the Chicagoites simply want government to manipulate that dance, specifically to increase the money supply to offset recession.

It is difficult to see how the market can be seen as free if the State can at anytime create money out of thin air. In fact, Austrians see this as the very cause of the business cycle. I've covered this at least briefly in my review of Meltdown, so I'll not return to it here. Suffice it to say that, however small its number of adherents, and however marginalized its members, the Austrian school did see this coming. For that reason alone, their theories require our attention, if not our allegiance.

Returning to the piece in question, Krugman writes: "To get anything like the current slump into their models, New Keynesians are forced to introduce some kind of fudge factor that for reasons unspecified temporarily depresses private spending. (I’ve done exactly that in some of my own work.) And if the analysis of where we are now rests on this fudge factor, how much confidence can we have in the models’ predictions about where we are going?"

He's absolutely right that the models are flawed, but the solution isn't to introduce a fudge factor: the models should be scrapped altogether. As Ludwig von Mises pointed out long ago, economics is a science, but it is a qualitative one, not a quantitative one. We can derive general trends from economics, but we cannot make any reliable quantitative predictions. Thus we know that unemployment will increase if the minimum wage is raised beyond that which the market can support, but we are powerless to assert how much unemployment will be created, or in what sectors of the economy. As Mises writes in Human Action:

There are, in the field of economics, no constant relations, and consequently no measurement is possible. If a statistician determines that a rise of 10 per cent in the supply of potatoes in Atlantis at a definite time was followed by a fall of 8 per cent in the price, he does not establish anything about what happened or may happen with a change in the supply of potatoes in another country or at another time. He has not “measured” the “elasticity of demand” of potatoes. He has established a unique and individual historical fact. (pp. 55-6)

And again:

The [mathematical economists] devote all their efforts to describing, in mathematical symbols, various “equilibria,” that is, states of rest and the absence of action. They deal with equilibrium as if it were a real entity and not a limiting notion, a mere mental tool. What they are doing is vain playing with mathematical symbols, a pastime not suited to convey any knowledge. (p. 251)

Whatever the criticisms of Mises, it cannot be argued that he was unaware of a reliance upon economic models.

Krugman naturally advises a return to Keynes, but he seems oblivious to the reasons his favorite economist fell out of favor with those of his profession. Given the implications of Keynesian theory--spend as much as you want, at least during a recession--there is no reason the State would ever dismiss him if they weren't absolutely required to do so. Indeed, whatever the actual economic ideas upon which are elected leaders draw, they champion something of an implicit Keynesianism.

I haven't the time to go into this here, but the stagflation of the 1970's did significant damage to Keynesian orthodoxy. When your theory says that something can't happen, and then it does, it's time to change the theory. Given the inadequacies of the monetarist position, it's not surprising that Keynes is back in vogue. But Krugman would do well to realize the tenuousness of his own position. If Keynes has failed before, he can fail again. Perhaps this time we will realize that there is another game in town.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reflections on the right

The beast, she wakes. I suppose a libertarian should support anyone who opposes a growth in government, but it's hard to root for the right because it is so impossible to take them seriously. During the Bush years, the deficit was allowed to balloon without the slightest peep of protest from the ostensible champions of limited government. After all, Bush was one of them. He had cut taxes, the surefire panacea for all that ails the right, and an especially useful mechanism if one wishes to war with everyone with the help of the country's credit card.

That bills must eventually be paid apparently escapes the right, for whom monetary policy is a matter of absolutely no interest. Blame is placed on those who raise taxes in an attempt to close our ever-growing budget deficit. It should instead be placed on those who ran up such egregious deficits in the first place.

But the Left, it will be said, spends even more than the Right. Lamentably, it is true. Less than a year into the his presidency, as Pat Buchanan avers, "Obama is making that Great Society Republican president [Bush II] look like Ron Paul." But, as I evidently never tire of saying, that the Left is wrong does not make their opponents correct. It is preposterous to insist that John McCain, who stopped his campaign to bailout the banks, or George W. Bush, who oversaw a larger increase in non-defense discretionary spending than did Clinton, or any other Republican for that matter, would somehow govern in a fiscally responsible manner. There is simply no evidence that any GOP leader since Coolidge is capable of reducing government spending.

On the other hand, the Republicans do present, if not an actual obstacle, at least a cacophony of loudmouths, to the ever-growing leviathan. But this, more than anything, demonstrates the absurdity of the modern conservative movement. The only thing they are even reasonably effective at doing is slowing down the rate at which the Democrats expand State control. This is a good thing, but it cannot be the only thing. Once a program has been put in place, the Republicans do not even try to end it. They seldom even talk about it. Often, they expand it.

Just once, I would like to see a mainstream Republican--Ron Paul does not count, alas--or a conservative commentator advocate the complete dissolution of a Federal Department. I'm not in the least particular as to which one goes: Education, Labor, Energy, Homeland Security, Agriculture--few, if any, have merit. For goodness sake, look at this list of agencies. I cannot fathom how it can be so difficult to insist that a few overpaid bureaucrats get real jobs. On the other hand, being bureaucrats, they may not have any actual skills, so we may need to train them.

Obama has been an unmitigated disaster. It's not even one year in, and he's already run up the largest deficit in history. In his defense, he has two losing wars which are eating up a large portion of the budget, but which he cannot end, for reasons of cowardice. This is not to say that I envy the man his position, or fail to appreciate the difficulty of the decision. On the other hand, it's hard to empathize with someone who refuses to end a war, so costly in blood and treasure, because it would be politically inexpedient to do so.

The vicissitudes of politics being what they are, the Republicans may be poised to regain power at some later date. This, assuming they can refrain from shooting themselves in the foot, as is their wont. But I see absolutely no hope that the GOP will represent a return to fiscal sanity. Cutting government programs is even less practicable than ending wars. As John Derbyshire is to argue in his soon to be released book: We Are Doomed.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Plato's Republic, Book X

Despite the love and respect he has for Homer, Socrates resumes his talk concerning the prohibition of certain types of poetry, for "no one is to be honored or valued more than the truth." So much for the noble lie.

He transitions to a discussion of his theory of forms. As everyone who has studied philosophy knows, there is a rather large, and seemingly unbridgeable chasm, between the world of the mind and the world of the senses. Various philosophers have emphasized one of these worlds, though most strive to unite the disparate realms. For instance, Plato is an idealist, who places a premium on the mind, whereas Aristotle, largely in reaction to his teacher, emphasizes the world of sense.

Socrates argues that to make a bed, the craftsman had to have the form (idea) of the bed in his mind. There are actually three beds, the one "in nature", made by the god, the one which is the work of the carpenter, and the one made by the painter. Moreover, while the carpenter may make many beds of similar quality, and likewise with the painter, the god has no need of replicating an already perfect form. The painter, meanwhile, is an imitator, for his product is the third from the natural one, that is, the perfect form of the god.

The objection which Socrates has to the poet is that he, like the painter with the bed, imitates mere appearance rather than things as they are. He argues that imitation of appearance is far inferior to the production of things as such. Since this is so, anyone who is an imitator can have no knowledge of real things; if he did, he would not waste his time imitating. For instance, a poet who writes about doctors cannot know how to be a doctor, or he would spend his time in doctoring. William Carlos Williams might disagree.

May we uncharitably suggest that Socrates knows nothing about living, seeing as he spent all of his time pestering people with questions? It strikes me as unjust to suggest that all of our time must be spent either in action or in philosophy to be deemed profitable. If memory serves, Socrates himself engages in this dialogue on a return from religious festivities, at which, again, if memory serves, plays were acted.

Moreover, there are those truths which are difficult to convey without recourse to poetry, or, at least, which may be better understood through this medium. In addition, the great poets, including a few contemporaries of Socrates himself, were often those with a very keen grasp of human nature. Dare we claim that Shakespeare was an imitator who knew only the world of appearance?

Returning to the dialogue, "there are three crafts, one that uses it, one that makes it, and one that imitates it." Only the user of the craft has knowledge of the thing he uses. The imitator, meanwhile, is bound to distort the thing he is imitating. Our senses can be unreliable; for instance, they tell us that a stick in water looks crooked. But the best part of our soul, the rational part, knows that this is not true. Likewise, our reason tells us that the poets are mere imitators; the part of our soul which rejoices in imitation must be subordinate to the part which studies things as they actually are. Poets cannot be let into the city because they agitate the people, removing the careful balance between the parts--both of the citizens, as well as that within their souls.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that poets influence the masses only. Decent men may be corrupted by them, too. In praising the unmanly behaviors of the characters of a tragedy, courage in the face of misfortune becomes less esteemed. For this reason, the only poetry allowed will be that which praises the good, in accord with truth.

Socrates notes, almost in passing that the soul is immortal. Glaucon, evidently tiring of being agreeable, makes him attempt to prove it. Socrates notes that "bad is what destroys and corrupts, and the good is what preserves and benefits." We should thus seek out a thing which "has an evil that makes it bad but isn't able to disintegrate and destroy it"; for then we have found something incapable of destruction. But the evils which attack the soul, cowardice and the like, clearly do not destroy it. Injustice, for instance, never kills souls by itself, though the unjust man may be killed in body by others.

While as a Christian I agree with Socrates about the immortality of the soul, I remain unmoved by his argument. If he prefers this line of argument, I'd like some way of knowing how we'd tell if a soul were dead, assuming such a thing is possible. Since God is the only necessary being, He alone is necessarily immortal, though it seems that, for reasons that would take us into the realm of theology, He suffices to imbue souls with being incessantly, rendering them, for all intensive purposes, undying. In any event, if St. Thomas or another has proven the immortality of the soul from reason alone, the proof has failed to penetrate my sometimes thick skull.

Returning to the Republic, we must forsake the study of the soul in the prison of the body and use philosophy to truly study it. (This is one of the points in which Aristotle and St. Thomas break with Plato. For the latter, faith in the resurrection of the body required a reinterpretation of its relation to the soul.)

Socrates returns to the theme of justice to determine how the unjust and the just will be in relation to the gods. They will love the just and hate the unjust. Even when it seems as if the just suffer, like Job, the gods have a plan, which will become clear in the end; in the long run, the unjust cannot triumph. Again, while I cannot follow the reasoning of Socrates completely, ultimately, I agree with him. At the very least, in this fallen world, what sweet consolation to believe that good will eventually triumph. Though I will add that it does no good if such consolation only amounts to self-deception.

Our philosopher then recounts the story of Er. He dies, but is revived twelve days later, allowing him to describe the abode of the deceased. Regarding the dead: "For each in turn of the unjust things they had done and for each in turn of the people they had wronged, they paid the penalty ten times over, once in every century of their journey... But if they had done good deeds and had become just and pious, they were rewarded according to the same scale." Those sufficiently evil were condemned to pay back their wrong for eternity.

Er goes on a journey, and sees a complicated collection of spinning and lit whorls, reminiscent, perhaps, of the Paradiso. The Fates, daughter of Necessity, command the souls to choose a life from a panoply before them. Socrates counsels: "And we must always know how to choose the mean in such lives, and how to avoid either of the extremes, as far as possible, both in this life and in all those beyond it. This is the way that a human being becomes happiest." May it be so for us.

Here ends the Republic. My thanks to those who participated, especially PJ.