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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What's Obvious and Not So Obvious

In the wake of the current political and economic crisis, there are several questions that I have asked that I would assume are also being asked by those who value freedom and individual rights. The questions take the following related forms: Isn't it obvious to people that what Obama is doing is not going to work in the sense of bringing about economic recovery, e.g. you can't borrow your way out of debt and you can't encourage production by punishing producers? Don't people grasp the implications of these monumental violations of our rights and the loss of freedom? Why don't people see the connection between history and what is happening now - virtually everything that is happening has happened before in some form? In other words, there is an intense frustration that the consequences of the government's policies should be obvious to anyone who cares to think about it - yet, every day it is obvious that it is not obvious.

A commenter after a post on SimplyCap claimed that modern Americans are "asleep" attributing current events to "complacency" and the idea that people have it so good they in some way need to be shocked into action - a sentiment I have heard many times. Others might claim that people are just ignorant, uneducated, or unwilling to think. I don't agree with either as I think complacency, apathy, or ignorance are symptoms rather than causes.

I believe most people sense that something is wrong. However, fundamentally, they are unable to think in principle and do not have the philosophical tools to integrate the facts and make generalizations about the causes of what is wrong. Therefore, the events that are taking place represent a bewildering array of isolated, unconnected concretes which appear to have no solution. Ironically, such a mindset is often the result of modern education and it is the so-called "educated" that are the most unprincipled and most disintegrated intellectually. Modern educators teach that knowledge is impossible, ethics is relative, and the only thing of which we can be certain is that the United States is evil.

Here is an example of how I believe a typical unprincipled mind might react to the following facts: The economy is collapsing - it's the evil greedy bankers; the government is spending trillions of dollars -maybe it will work, I'll have to wait and see; the government is threatening to censor the media - it won't affect me, I'm not a writer; Iran's building a nuclear bomb and Russia wants to build bases in Latin America - who are we to say and I don't want American soldiers to be killed; Al Gore says we are going to roast in an apocalyptic hell on earth - better reduce my carbon footprint...

In other words, the unprincipled mind would fail to see any common denominators in any of these events nor would they even look for them. They would fail to grasp the relationship between government intervention into the economy and declining production. They would fail to see that the very act of government spending is a significant cause of the declining economy so that more spending will only lead to worsening conditions. They would fail to see the relationship between individual rights and government intervention into the economy in that government intervention represents an abrogation of property rights. They would not be able to see that a violation of property rights is in the same category as a violation of free speech in that the freedom to think and the freedom to keep the products of your labor are preconditions to survival. They would fail to grasp that it is the governments proper function to protect these rights by banning the initiation of force which would include defending the country from foreign threats like Iran or Russia and that there is a risk to inaction. How could such a mind then possibly comprehend how the philosophy of the environmental movement is antithetical to human survival let alone grasp how it uses pseudo-science to justify massive violations of individual rights and profound economic destruction?

I think this observed "complacency" is really a form of intellectual paralysis, i.e., an inability to make sense of what is happening. This leads people to focus on what they can control and what they do understand, i.e., what is in front of them in their everyday life. "Shocking" people by subjecting them to dire circumstances will not work because people will not necessarily induce the proper generalization. Many people voted for Hitler and Chavez, supported Stalin and Mao, join cults, etc. In fact, such examples demonstrate that dire circumstances often lead people to the opposite conclusion, e.g., they might conclude that the path to success can only be achieved through political power or violence.

I made the point in a previous post that the American colonists were far less taxed and regulated than we are today but risked their lives and went to war to secure their liberty. Most of the Founding Fathers were wealthy, established businessmen. Why would they risk it all - shouldn't they have been complacent? No, because they thought in principle. They understood that the harassment, regulations, and taxes they faced would only get worse and that they would need to declare independence to free themselves of an oppressive monarch. This intellectual integration led to the philosophy of "give me liberty or give me death" not "well I guess I don't mind if I'm a slave for 6 months since my 401k went up 8% this year" which is the unfortunate intellectual state of most Americans today. As products of The Enlightenment, the Founding Fathers revered reason and therefore valued their independence, i.e., the freedom to think and act on their own judgment above all else. This is why they rebelled against monarchy. It is why the valuation of reason and the valuation of freedom are corollaries.

Consider another example: Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged in the 1950's when one could argue that the country was far more free than it is today. If you read her writings, it sounds like America was about to collapse, i.e., it sounds like she was writing yesterday. Why? She thought in principle and understood that fundamental ideas cause history. She understood the implications of the smallest infringement of rights or the smallest flaw philosophically which could lead to disaster.

People that think independently and who value reason are passionate about ideas because they understand the power of thinking in principle. No matter what their circumstances, they can abstract the implications of ideas and government actions both positive and negative. On the other hand, people who can not think in principle are docile conformists unable and unwilling to exude the slightest outrage over the most heinous abrogations of liberty.

The process of transforming a culture mired in pragmatism and relativism to a culture energized by reason, individualism, and reverence for the power of the human mind will not be easy. However, when you consider the contrasting images of Robert Reich talking to Barney Frank and a Space Shuttle launch - it's at least obvious what is at stake if we fail.


Anonymous said...

Incidental supporting evidence from the education front.

I have had occasion to read thousands of very brief papers written by high-schoolers, although I am not a teacher and cannot interact with the kids.

The great majority of the students are clearly attempting to think; their minds are not dead and even though they fail at it, they try, with touching earnestness. A substantial minority have strongly held opinions, that they seek to defend. A tiny minority can really express themselves to make valid connections between ideas.

And that is what stands out to me, in the midst of all the atrocious spelling and illegible handwriting: the inability of the students to syntactically (let alone logically) connect one sentence to another. English conjunctions, prepositions, and adverbs are almost never used correctly; and are often not used at all. But, which, in, on, while, for, that, when, as, or--it doesn't seem to make much difference to the students which one they use; they just pick one, apparently theorizing that these are some of the words adults use to hook things together, and it sounds adult to them, and thus must be correct, and must be imitated. They just kind of slap two sentences next to each other, sometimes separated or joined by a hooking word, implying that they go together "somehow."

There are at least two disastrous results of this indiscipline, laziness, and indifference, which is permitted and occasionally encouraged by the schools. First: certain students who know what they mean, cannot express it. Second: many students inevitably become confused and frustrated over any attempt to think and reason about things, and fall into a "what's the difference?" mentality. Some of these young people accuse their teachers, often with justice; most accuse themselves and on some level start to give up.

School is a game; language is a game; approval by the teacher and by one's peers is the game above all games to be mastered; little or nothing makes sense, or is even interesting; who cares; at least I'll do what I want and won't do what I don't want. So it can go, in the minds of wonderful little ones, as yet full of life.

It is a terrible crime for this sort of thing to be tolerated by any educator. This brief space for comments is not the place for me to expand on this idea.

I'm agreeing, Doug: an actual inability to think is at the root of a large part of the intellectual and emotional passivity--or docility--that is to be observed in the country at large. It begins early.

Let's have private schools; home schooling; honest self-education if nothing else is available in some particular personal context; let's have Objectivism and capitalism; let's have a view that teachers awaken, train, and cultivate minds for the sake of anything those minds can legitimately imagine, value, and achieve, and not for the sake of addressing shortages of certain real occupational (or politically mandated) skills in the national "workforce"!

To have it, we must earn it.

Steve T.

Phoroneus said...

Steve T. I am one of those educated poorly in English and experience many of those problems in my own writing. What books would you recommend for me to study to learn proper grammar?

The Rat Cap said...


Thanks so much for that excellent and enlightening comment.

Let me ask you (or anyone reading)- what is more responsible for this state of affairs? I realize it is a combination of the ed schools (philosophy of education) and government schools (no incentive to teach). However, do private schools even take this anti-conceptual approach, i.e., do teachers even in "good" schools regard grammar, proper writing, etc. as unimportant? Do the parents not care or understand the issues?

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The Rat Cap said...


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Michael Labeit said...

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