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Snookered

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted January 15, 2007

I have to admit to being somewhat of a yes-man, like many optimism junkies are. Being agreeable is agreeably easy, and the pleasant lull that agreeableness brings out does lead to finding yourself in spots where you wonder how you got there. Someone with this kind of make-up is more susceptible than most to a non sequitur – especially after trading in the old high-school casualness for the more serious atmosphere of university.

If university students have any weakness, it would have to be as suckers for tightly-reasoned glibness. The very need to buckle down and study makes the naïf of twenty or so extraordinarily prone to swallowing deterministic theories whole, because the important part of one's life is spent sitting down, reading carefully, being attentive to the material, and working diligently at the questions and assignments. You live or die at exam time, where knowledgably distilling all of the course material learned over the previous term, in two or three hours' time, is the crucial survival skill. Success depends upon passively absorbing material and using it as the base for one's own output.

So, it's no wonderment why the typical good student winds up believing that the books are a stimulus, and the thought is a response. Or, the books are an input, and the thought is an output. For those who have a suspiciousness of mechanistic theories of behaviour, the philosophy department offers more verbal-bound substitutes. What makes any variety of this kind of pin-down so compelling to the busy student, is that the way in which the message is presented, and absorbed, coheres with the message itself. The result is a sales pitch that's as credible as a fat baker who munches on his own wares while offering you some. A person pursuing a more active, if atheoretical, lifestyle would be less susceptible to determinism's charms.

Buying into determinism isn't the only way to get snookered while at university. It's wryly pleasing to note that the moolah funneled into the university has called forth an ample supply of ratiocinative glibness, for all there to enjoy.

Take Marxism, for example – the classic way to get snookered when an insecure student. According to the Marxian model of capitalism's doom, the free market weeds out the inefficient by driving them down to proletariat status – to brokedom. Once there, they stay there. Since the mobility is only downward in capitalism, according to Marx, it is inevitable that the proletariat class will keep on growing in number, until this class forms a large majority of the populace. Then, through vote or through means that the vote was designed to replace, the supernumerous proletariat smites down the small minority that are left and abolishes private property entirely. Once the propertied are sufficiently small in number to rate deviant status, then it's all over for capitalism.

Never has an intellectual worked the fear of falling more efficaciously. You really have to hand it to Marx; there's enough common sense in his political model to make it plausible to the student who's a little worldly. It is true that a large majority, when caught in the same lifestyle, are prone to thinking that their way is the only normal way, and to assuming that a small minority who dares to be different is composed of nothing other than deviants. We've all seen this tendency in everyday life. In addition, a person who's broke does have a hard time crawling up to wealth. How much harder could it be for a person who was rich, or affluent, and who winds up in the welfare/McJob dumpster?

Unfortunately for several generations of Marxists, it is possible to go from prosperous to broke and then back to prosperous, or better. In a capitalist culture, trying is considered worthy, so it's not uncommon for a fellow who winds up proletarianized to be sized up as someone who had a bad break, instead of as a miserable sinner who got his or her just deserts through being shunted to Poverty Row. This cultural facet of a capitalistic culture, one where win-win is seen as the norm and the "Comeback Kid" is welcomed back, is what's missing from the Marxian model. Adding it, and the consequent addition to the demand for labor caused by it, makes Marx's model fall flat on its face. If the broke capitalist can, and often does, re-ascend to affluence, then the proletarianization of society doesn't proceed as it should.

But, of course, it doesn't occur to the student (who's worried about career prospects) that the capitalist world isn't that hard on people who crap out. The hothouse atmosphere of university competition for the plush jobs is sufficiently absorbing, that the assumption "one slip down and it's to McJob land for you," generalized from, makes the Marxian model innately plausible. Most students never see the hole in it until they encounter a few real-life "Comeback Kids," including the ones who say that a spell in Poverty Row was the best bad break they ever had.

Of course, Marxian economics can be picked apart too, but no more so than any system that tries to match, through force of argument, specific roles to specific people. The nascent absurdities in Marxism are made most clear in the case of a worker in a company who also owns some shares in the enterprise, who (according to the Marxist model of economics) is thus exploiting him- or herself. The same hole can be found in any system that uses the same pigeonholing technique. Nietzsche's, for example.

According to Nietzsche's theory of meta-morality, all moralities have a master and slave component. The same meme-words that refer to moral values are interpreted in two ways, depending upon whether or not the interpreter is the master type or the slave type.  Master types tend to see morality linked to strength and power; slave types tend to see morality as linked to protection and security. There are only two kinds of people, master types and slave types: this division seems axiomatic in the Nietzschean system. As a postulate, it is typically treated as self-evident.

Except for the people who have bumped into a character called the "subordinate leader," or, to be more grandiloquent with respect to this type, the lord-vassal. Where does this fellow fit in? With respect to the liege, the lord-vassal is clearly a slave type; that comes with the vassalage. With respect to the commoner, though…

These two systems share a common blind spot: illusory mutual exclusivity. Any system whose postulates partition the human race into mutually exclusive categories falls flat on its face if some humans occupy more than one of those categories.

The suppliers of glibness find out relatively quickly that the demand for their wares is reliably high where the pragmatists are. The ethos of "we've got to work with what we have" makes any criticism of a particular approach fraught with the possibility of poking at the field itself. Thus, any reinforcer of the necessary groupthink in such a situation will be welcome. Keynesian economics is a classic example of this kind of glibness.

How easier economics becomes when a nation is treated as if it was a single company! That's what the then-well-established governmental statistical series did at the time when the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money hit the bookshelves. Keynesianism fit much better with those governmental reports than the competing macroeconomic models back then. Of course, the 1930s was a decade of high promises, too, resulting in high pressure for any would-be rescuers of the economy. In such a groupthinkphilic pressure cooker, the patch-work nature of the Keynesian theory mattered little. There was even a confluence of personal pressures to cement a bond of loyalty together: Keynes, an upper-crust Briton with a stage dad for a dad, wrote well to the pressured, as he himself was one of them.

Thus, both he and his readers missed such lapses as: "The value of D at the point of the aggregate demand function, where it is intersected by the aggregate supply function, will be called the effective demand." (General Theory, p. 25.) This statement defines the point of equilibrium between supply and demand curves as the "effective demand." Lest the reader think that I'm picking a nit, this statement occurs in the same page as the definition of his aggregate supply functions and aggregate demand function, which (according to him) is the kernel of the General Theory. (Ibid.) It appears in the chapter where Keynes has set himself the task of getting rid of Say's Law.

To be fair to the fellow, it is an often too-onerous burden to assume the role of the Great Oracle; even Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell came up short in that capacity. (The fourth line of the proof of proposition *40.17, all of whose variables denote classes, invokes proposition *4.79, which, as stated in the note following it, cannot be applied to classes. See Principia Mathematica, pp. 306, 121.) To be fair to the profession, mentioning these lapses do often seem like displaying one's skill in splitting hairs. The economics profession is often harried and put under a lot of pressure – just like the typical student is nowadays. Blind spots come with the territory, sad to relate.

Unsurprisingly, so does being snookered. I should know: I myself have not only been snookered, but also I've also shown a knack for snookering myself at times. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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