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Human nature's unchanging folly

By Daniel Ryan
web posted August 19, 2002

Being a conservative at university is subject to the drawbacks we all know; the publicity and the confabs available to the New Left-ish are denied us. Not a very good existence for a young man or woman determined to succeed.

For the average strapping conservative, this deficit is easy to block out. Just memorize, regurgitate, get as high a mark as possible, be agreeable with your professors and tutorial assistants, concede them the High Chair of Idealism...and carefully compartmentalize the experience of the university from the "real world." Then, when you get out, use the accepted secret-handshake word for which this compartmentalization is made known. Like "theoretical" or some such. If you're an efficient exam-passin' machine, this leaves a fair bit of time for the various types of schmoozes formally called "extra-curricular activities."

But for the more scholarly sort it's only a matter of time before you discover the best-known conservative scholar-archeologists, Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet, and what they did for the dusty old thoughts of Edmund Burke and Alexis de Toqueville (respectively). Or, if you're the more workin'-fellow type, or more libertarian, there's always the example of Eric Hoffer and his Michel de Montaigne. At this point, one hears the call of the back of the shelves and another kind of character-building exercise develops...shelf-diving. In the sections of the library so old, some of the volumes you'll see haven't been introduced to a checkout laser scanner at all.

If you're the type that's inclined towards fantasy of one sort or another, the search for "hidden knowledge" is even more compelling. The ancient tome, long forgotten, despised by society, waiting for your eyes...no one else's. Almost as addictive as scarfing out old LPs in used record stores.

Thus we reach a paradox of conservatism: the more intellectual sort, devoting his time to the mysteries contained in the library, is likely to emerge from undergrad-hood with a lower GPA than his non-intellectual counterpart. Such is the price of reconciling one's love of knowledge with contempt for what passes for it in your syllabi.

Of course, many of the scholarly works that you'll find in the dank shelves is clearly targeted towards the mature mind - thirty and over. The average, normally quick-study undergrad has to struggle with them and is likely not to comprehend the nuances that the mature reader will see; when the argument is simple, and the propaganda button-pushing level is high, this gives us a formerly common-sensical student whose brain is about to be leveed by an ideology. When the argument is complex, though, and the author more true-to-fact, the result is an attack of tiredness, and sometimes confusion. And if the after-effect is a sense that your brain is interpreting events in a different way after the jaw-clamped plow-through, a sense of being hooked by knowledge your more pragmatic peers will never see.

Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of CrowdsCharles Mackay's Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is, formally, unlike these books. It has not only been a steady seller since the famous American investor Bernard Baruch not only recommended it to advice-seekers but also wrote a 1932 introduction to the tome, but also is cited so frequently in investment circles, you'd be more of a stand-off among investment types if you claimed not to have read it.

But Wall- and Bay Streeters are as pragmatic as the guy three rows ahead of you busily calculating whether the marginal gain to be reaped by an appreciative laugh as the professor's swipe against "monopoly capital" is worth the marginal cost of a few explanations to his future mentors at the end of the day, and the cumulative risk of being seen as a lover of "theory" himself. Only the first three chapters are of any direct worth to the investment type, and that's where they tend to stop. I have to admit that the long list of alchemists which we are presented with in chapter four was a sufficient deterrent to me back in my university days.

This implies that what's in the rest of the book is hidden knowledge. The future stock jobber is likely to be deterred by the absence of market wisdom after the discussion of the Tulip Madness bubble, and the lover of scholarship is not very likely to feel any romance resulting from being seen with a book in his or her hand that convention associates with publications which revolve around "Day-Trade Your Way To Retirement At Thirty!", "Long-Term, Careful Investing In Futures Options!", "Eight Percent A Year? How Does Eight Percent A Week Sound?", "As Seen On The World Famous Late Night Infomercial...", and their upscale cousins which currently sound off on CNBC. So the bulk of the book, and the lessons therein, is effectively hidden in plain view.

Charles Mackay

A pity - for there are so many sights worth seeing in this travelogue of history, I used my Compton's CD-ROM to add a sort of play-by-play commentary to the events he described. And cursed myself, sometimes, for not paying enough attention to the important dates in my high-school history class. At times, it was as frustrating as an English-speaker reading through a treatise in German after memorizing the English-German dictionary of his or her choice; in order to comprehend the various narratives, and how they hang together overall, you need access in memory to those dates and events in the same way that a reader in German needs a fairly comprehensive access to the meaning of German words. Mackay, being the usual naive type of Victorian, assumed that the pedagogues of the future would be more concerned with diligence in their craft than in diligence in covering up the charm-school stupidity of more than one Eastern Seaboard Four Hundred family by dragging down the rest of the country to their level. Simple observation reveals plainly that universal tenure didn't exactly stop this covering-up, which has progressed to the point where a universally deprived educational system has made the differences in I.Q. sufficiently jarring to make MENSA types the hunted minority. Mackay came from an innocent time where people assumed that a publicly expressed desire to increase equality in society was backed up by techniques that were shown actually to work in achieving this end.

But not innocent enough to assume that the madness' and fancies of the crowd have disappeared with the Age of Enlightenment. A minor part of his discussions of haunted houses and legends of spirits include a note that such legends were very much alive at the time of his writing, and anyone who has followed the activities of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal (C.S.I.C.O.P) will recognize the delusions recounted by Mackay as making themselves manifest, in variations, in our lifetimes. There's even a brief discussion implicitly showing how to take the town of England's London by coining a catch word or phrase which captures the imagination of its residents in Chapter 13. It clearly showing that the soil from which the Beatles reaped fame with such argots as "Fab" and "Gear" is centuries old in London Town. There seems little doubt the "Alien Invasion Cult" would merit a full chapter in a version revised for the present day, right after a longer one on "Technology Fetishes In The Stock Markets Of The United States."

The bulk of the episodes of crowd hysteria, though, concern events that are of more geo-political significance, such as the Crusades and the continued witch hunts in Europe and North America. Like most inquiries in the scientific spirit, Mackay's serving of facts tastes much like castor oil to believers: he doesn't suffer illusionists gladly. Any Catholic delighting in the bringing of peace and religious unity to Europe in the so-called "Dark Ages" through the sword held in part by God need only read labouriously through Chapter 9, "The Crusades," to reach the face-freezing realization as to why the age of Charlemagne and Emperor Otto bears such a name. For the Protestant sort, the next chapter, "The Witch Mania," leaves one with the feeling that the cynosure of Protestantism is the Scotsman in his kilt running through golf courses and paddling through lochs in the fervent pursuit of the demon-worshipper that made his Yahoo stock plummet. "Ie hae to be witchcraft, lads! There dinna exist no reason for it!" One suspects that the mercy of God had far less to do with the sparing of so many old women and young lovelies in the Highlands than the publication of The Wealth of Nations by an Edinburghian named Adam Smith.

Keeping economic folly in the back of your mind will give you some insight into a few of the events in this book: the history of the Mississippi Bubble (chapter 2) does read like a highly-compressed history of the breakdown of Keynsianism, including a de Gaulle-like spoilsport whose "unsportsmanlike" insistence on his rights foreshadows the collapse of the entire scheme. But this lens will simply put you on the Wall Streeter track and make you lose interest in the more salient points in the rest of the volume.

A much better perspective to use is the effect of inverted hierarchy. A brief psycho-analysis of the delusions presented for your inspection, along the lines of dream-interpretation, will reveal how society becomes disrupted, and disruptive, when the traditional bounds of authority dissolve. It is at these times when the spell of madness grips the sober mind, and the clash of new, often usurpative, authority and old behaviors signaling above-reproach innocence lead to bloodbaths. The most obvious example of this we find in the witch-hunts, where toughness in the face of administered pain (proof of innocence in trial-by-ordeal days) became proof of guilt under the goblin-scotchers. That's surely one hell of a misunderstanding, not to mention a history most graphic of the costs, in human blood, of a clash between "new modes and orders" in governing and old customs and traditions which still hold the effectively conquered subject group together. If you ever needed reinforcement of the conservative belief that seemingly irrational and even weird folkways are in fact the structural beams of a nation, and that careless shifting or demolishing of even one of them carries the real risk of part of the whole building collapsing right on top of everyone in the immediate vicinity with the probable exception of your own self, then Extraordinary Delusions is a book you'll derive much education from.

The best kind these days. Ever since sex was learned in schools, we've had to learn about real political philosophy (along with certain brands of economics) in the back woods anyway; why not the need for memorization of dates and events as a tool for understanding sophisticated applied history? Hell, maybe we can smarten ourselves up to the point where we can intelligently discuss the question:

"DISCUSS: Is Hayek's Theory of Unintended Consequences really an attempt to coddle a political machine?"

Daniel Ryan last appeared in Enter Stage Right on July 29, 2002 with his piece Future Learning.

Buy Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds at Amazon.com for $10.47 (30% off)

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