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Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization—A Review

A review of Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization by Samuel Gregg, Gateway Editions (June 2019) 256 pages.

The role of Christianity in Western history presents an interesting puzzle. Those who argue that Christianity has nothing to do with the success of the modern West need to explain why the scientific method, constitutional government, market economics, and the modern concept of human rights arose in Christian Europe rather than somewhere else. On the other hand, those who argue that Christianity is critical or integral to the success of the modern West need to explain why these developments did not occur until 12 centuries after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. For most of its history, Christianity didn’t seem to be making much of a contribution to freedom, peace, and prosperity.

One interpretation which has gained currency is the “Athens and Jerusalem” argument, according to which, Western civilisation is based in a unique combination of Greek reason and Judeo-Christian faith. This argument was recently rehearsed, for example, by Ben Shapiro in The Right Side of History (reviewed for Quillette by Jared Marcel Pollen last year). In Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, Samuel Gregg makes a similar but more specific case—Christianity is based in reason and threats to Western civilisation come from what he calls “pathologies of faith and reason.” In this short and engaging work, Gregg argues that Christianity spent its 12 notionally dark centuries perfecting this delicate balance.

In the first part of the book, Gregg looks at the development of faith and reason though Western history from ancient times. The two streams—Judeo-Christian religion and Greek philosophy—arose from different wellsprings and then converged in the Scholastic philosophy of the Medieval Catholic Church. Theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) studied the works of the Ancient Greeks and concluded that, notwithstanding their paganism, they had stumbled upon profound truths without the benefit of Holy Scripture. Clearly, God had not left his creations without any way of guiding themselves. Aquinas’s explanation was that there was a natural law, an inherent order to the universe created by God and comprehensible to man through his reason.

This natural law was complementary to the divine law revealed in the Bible, but could be discovered by anyone. It was a complete system which explained everything from the revolution of the sun and planets around the Earth to the sinful nature of homosexuality and usury. Aquinas was a great admirer of Aristotle, to whom he referred as The Philosopher, and so Western thinking on questions of science, politics, economics, and ethics closely followed Aristotle’s throughout the late Middle Ages. Gregg describes Aquinas as the “master integrator of faith and reason” and clearly has a close affinity with the traditional thinking of the Catholic Church—he quotes Pope Benedict XVI no fewer than seven times throughout the book.

Scholastic Philosophy was challenged and largely overturned by the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. Gregg has a more nuanced view of the Enlightenment than one might expect of someone writing from a traditional Catholic perspective, although he may understate the degree to which Enlightenment thinking was bitterly resisted by existing religious authorities. The Enlightenment was a varied and diverse movement, and its advocates followed a religious spectrum from the very conventional Anglicanism of John Locke to the fierce anti-clericalism of Voltaire. God had an important place in the thinking of many Enlightenment writers, from Isaac Newton’s watchmaker to the source of the rights guaranteed by the American Founding Fathers. And Gregg acknowledges the extent to which modern Christians have benefitted from the material progress and guarantees of freedom of speech and religion which came from Enlightenment thinking.

When we get the balance between reason and faith wrong, Gregg argues, we fall prey to “pathologies of reason” and “pathologies of faith.” The first pathology of reason is Prometheanism, or the belief that humans can be completely re-shaped by their environments. If people are blank slates and all knowledge comes from our senses, as the Enlightenment empiricists such as John Locke contended, then it would be possible to make a new and better humanity with a new and better environment. This was, Gregg writes, the thinking which led to the communist “new man” and the re-education camps.

The second pathology of reason is “Scientism,” or the belief that the scientific method is the only way to know anything. Science can provide answers, but cannot explain why those answers matter. It can explain why penicillin kills germs, but not why we should protect human life. He quotes Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design (2010), who say science can now explain the big questions and “philosophy is dead.” Hawking later added that, while he could not prove that God doesn’t exist, God is unnecessary. Gregg argues that the Achilles’ Heel of scientism is a self-refuting premise: “No claims are true unless they can be proved scientifically” cannot itself be proved scientifically.

This argument strikes me as dubious. It’s obviously true that, the more we have naturalistic explanations for the world around us, the less we need religious ones. Once you know about electricity and the behaviour of heated gases, you don’t need Thor’s hammer to explain thunder. But this is dealing only with descriptive claims which can be tested and proven (and equally importantly, disproven). While there are those who are attempting to build systems of ethics based on science, such as Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape (2010), there are many others who seem quite happy to follow Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magesteria. Gregg seems to be thinking in terms of complete systems of knowledge akin to Scholastic Philosophy. Science, or even “scientism,” doesn’t depend on being able to prove the claim that “no claims are true unless they can be proved scientifically.” It requires no absolute claims of truth and falsehood at all. An experiment showing that penicillin kills germs shows that, nothing more and nothing less. And even within the scientific framework, there are areas of knowledge such as mathematics which are non-empirical but still perfectly valid.

From the pathologies of reason, Gregg moves on to pathologies of faith—destructive ideologies produced when our religious impulses go astray. The “faiths of destruction” are represented by the ideologies of three men—Karl Marx (communism), John Stuart Mill (liberalism), and Friedrich Nietzsche (nihilism). The inclusion of Marx makes sense, as he has been highly influential and communism has been widely destructive. But even though Communist regimes openly used religious imagery, I’m not sure why communism appears as a pathology of faith when Gregg himself sees it as derived from pathologies of reason. I find the inclusion of the other two odd. Mill has been hugely influential, but it’s hard to argue that liberal ideas haven’t been a net positive for human happiness. And although Nietzsche’s ideas are certainly questionable, it’s hard to see how he had enough real-world impact to justify naming him alongside the prophets of communism and liberalism. Gregg tells us that Nietzsche was an influence on Nazism, but the impact wasn’t huge and it’s quite easy to imagine Nazism emerging much as it did had Nietzsche never existed. We can’t say the same about communism and Marx.

Next, Gregg discusses the dangers of religion divorced from reason. This is one of those points where it’s obvious you’re reading a book written by a Catholic and not a Protestant. While he skirts around the topic a little, it’s clear that Gregg has a certain scepticism of Christians whose faith is based in the subjective experience of a personal connection with Jesus rather than the exercise of reason guided by divine grace. Gregg makes one of his few references to the Protestant Reformation here by pointing out that the early Protestant reformers tended to be fiercely critical of Aristotle and Scholastic Philosophy. There is probably a lot more to be said on this subject. For example, early Calvinists were often fanatics who smashed stained glass windows and overturned altars in their quest to purge the Church of idolatry and paganism (Jerusalem over Athens, you could say). Yet two countries critical to the Enlightenment and the rise of the modern economy, Scotland and the Netherlands, were Calvinist. Then again, Gregg doesn’t dwell on this point, probably because he doesn’t consider conservative Protestants to be his political opponents.

The bulk of Gregg’s criticism of irrational religion, therefore, is directed at liberal Christianity and Islamic fundamentalism. The discussion of Islam is particularly interesting, although I am not familiar enough with Islamic theology to comment on its accuracy. As in medieval Europe, the philosophy of the Islamic world was based on a combination of Abrahamic teachings and Ancient Greek thought. Through the ninth and 10th centuries, the leading centre of study into Greek philosophy and science was Baghdad, and Aquinas himself accessed the works of Aristotle through the commentaries of the Islamic writer Averroes.

Obviously, though, the West subsequently overtook the Islamic world. Gregg’s explanation for this is the abandonment of a reasonable interpretation of faith and the rise of voluntarism in Sunni thinking. Voluntarism is the view that God is not bound by reason and His will is absolute. As Gregg explains it, God can therefore announce that two plus two is five and this would make it true: “The implication is that if God’s will conflicts with what reason suggests is right, God’s will must prevail—no matter how unreasonable the actions that might follow from this obedience.” Aquinas, on the other hand, argued that God’s omnipotence was not absolute—He could simply do all things which are possible. According to Gregg, the Mu’tazilites, a rational Islamic school with an interpretation of religion similar to Aquinas, were displaced between the ninth and 12th centuries by the fundamentalist and voluntarist Ash’arites. This, he writes, is why constitutional government has struggled to take root in the Islamic world. It’s a plausible theory, but one that demands deeper analysis—this is an instance in which the book’s brevity works against it.

Gregg finishes the book by concluding that the success of Western civilisation rests on the “four theses” of creation, freedom, justice, and faith. He argues that even the non-religious can recognise the importance of Christianity and Judaism to the four theses, and “the free choice for Logos, and thus for reason and faith, is never beyond us.” The overarching argument the book offers is interesting and engaging, but there is a danger in trying to bundle Western civilisation and its enemies into neat boxes and tie them up with a bow. These are obviously hugely complex topics.

More specifically, Gregg declines to accept the magnitude in the shift in thinking between the 16th and 18th centuries. The Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment all took sledgehammers to Scholastic Philosophy. For example, Gregg cites both Aquinas and Locke as defenders of the balance between faith and reason. Both, he points out, were devout Christians who believed morality was based in natural law. But in Summa Theologica, Aquinas argued that the government should put heretics to death, as reason could point us to the correct religious belief and it was unreasonable to allow heretics to live and continue to corrupt the spiritual community. By contrast, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke argued that the civil magistrate could not know which religious doctrines were true and which were false. And since the government couldn’t force people to change their beliefs anyway, it should tolerate religious difference and leave the rewarding of the pious and the punishing of the impious to God. This is by no means a small difference, and it goes directly to the fundamental understanding of reason (one of the key subjects of Gregg’s book) and the role of the government in a free society.

Gregg downplays these shifts and instead emphasises Western continuity (I suspect this is related to his Catholicism—I am certain a Protestant writer would have placed far more emphasis on the Protestant Reformation). For example, he argues that it is simply untrue that there was a hiatus of scientific discovery in the Middle Ages, citing the astronomical calculations of Roger Bacon, the physics and mathematics of Nicolas Oresme, and the science of Jewish scholars living in the West such as Levi ben Gershon and Jacob Bonfils. “The foundation of all these inquiries,” he writes, “was an understanding that the world is characterised by order, that the human mind can comprehend it, and that because the world is the work of God, it merits study.”

But this was a huge part of the problem. If the world follows a comprehensible order, and that order is established by God, then you don’t need to perform any experiments to figure it out. You can study the scriptures and infer answers to all questions using reason. The Ancient Greeks, Medieval Catholics, and Muslims, for example, all believed the planets orbited the Earth in perfect circles, because reason dictated that the heavens were the realm of the divine, and the realm of the divine must be perfectly regular (you can see this Medieval Catholic cosmology described vividly in Dante’s Paradiso). Anyone who actually observed the planets night after night could see this was not the case, but observation did not trump reason. Even those who speculated that the Earth revolved around the Sun, among whom Nicolaus Copernicus was the most famous but not the only example, still thought in terms of fixed spheres. Recognising that the planets revolve around the Sun in irregular and elliptical orbits took a willingness to discard pre-conceived ideas and take a far more radically empiricist approach than anyone had taken before. This was not possible while Scholastic Philosophy still dominated Europe’s universities.

The proof of this philosophical pudding was in the eating. There wasn’t a hiatus of science in the Middle Ages, but Medieval scientific progress was still minimal. The 20 years between 1608 and 1628 saw the invention of the telescope, the discovery of Jupiter’s moons, Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion, the first use of logarithms, Snell’s Law of refraction, and the discovery of blood circulation—a more significant two decades of scientific discovery than the entire Middle Ages from the Fall of Rome to the Fall of Constantinople.

This touches on an interesting and salient problem with the entire “Athens and Jerusalem” argument. The Enlightenment was obviously about questioning religious dogma, but it was also about questioning human reason. Francis Bacon in Novum Organum (to whom Gregg refers) warned of how human reason is clouded by “idols of the mind”—what we today would call cognitive biases. Locke’s argument for toleration and free speech rests on the premise that our rulers simply aren’t smart enough to know what we should say or think. David Hume warned us that reason could only ever be the slave of the passions, and Immanuel Kant entitled his most famous work Critique of Pure Reason. Much of modern Western civilisation is grounded in a certain scepticism of reason. The scientific process has blind trials and peer review because we recognise that individual scientists are not perfectly reasonable. We restrain our governments through constitutions because we recognise our legislators are not perfectly reasonable. Capitalism works on the assumption that there are no universally rational choices and each individual should be left to maximise his or her utility. We call the Enlightenment “the Age of Reason,” but it was actually an age in which reason’s utility and authority were interrogated and reappraised. It was not so much a triumph of Athens over Jerusalem as a curtailment of both.

Gregg also undermines the credibility of his arguments by tying himself up in Christian apologetics. The question of the truth or falsehood of the Christian religion is actually irrelevant to the question of its historical or social impact. Christianity could have nothing to do with the success of the modern West and still be absolutely true. Conversely, Christianity could be a total fiction and still absolutely critical to the way Western civilisation developed. Nevertheless, Gregg maintains that reason must have a basis, and pure materialism cannot provide an explanation as to why humans have value. A materialist, according to Gregg, cannot actually say that there’s a reason to condemn Auschwitz any more than he or she can say there’s a reason to prefer the Parthenon to a pile of rocks. In support of this claim, he quotes Anglican theologian Ian Markham: “You cannot assume a rationality and argue that there is no foundation for that rationality. Either God and rationality go or God and rationality stay. Either Nietzsche or Aquinas, that is our choice.”

The obvious problem with this argument is that it doesn’t match reality. Millions of people live quite happily rejecting both Aquinas and Nietzsche. Secularism has not brought violence and chaos. You are far less likely to face a violent death in modern secular Europe than deeply religious 17th century Europe. Europe’s wars of religion killed a higher proportion of the continent’s population than the Second World War and the Holocaust. You are also far more likely to face a violent death in El Salvador and Syria, where a majority of the population believe the world was created by a loving God who endowed men with reason, than in Switzerland or Sweden, where a majority do not. This is not to play a game of one-upmanship or insist that secular ethics are better than Christianity. Atheist regimes, like religious ones, have their own mountains of skulls. But a historian does need to explain the world as it is, and Gregg would have been better off making the narrower argument that Judeo-Christianity had a decisive influence on modern secular ethics.

Readers are likely to find insights in Gregg’s book which will pique their curiosity and send them scurrying for more information. But his argument isn’t entirely consistent with what we know about the world and is coloured by his partiality to Catholic theology. And by the end, no explanation is provided for the brutality and closed-mindedness of the Church for the majority of its history, or the lack of material, scientific, or political progress for the long centuries of the Middle Ages. At one point, Gregg describes Western civilisation as a tapestry, which is a good analogy. But this tapestry appears to be too elaborate for neat explanations.

 

Adam Wakeling is an Australian lawyer and writer whose work has explored Australian political, social, and military history. His most recent book, Stern Justice: The Forgotten Story of Australia, Japan and the Pacific War Crimes Trials, was published by Penguin in 2018. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamMWakeling.

Featured Image: “Faith and Reason United” (1887) by Ludwig Seitz (wikicommons).

Comments

  1. Any interpretations about Western Civilization, Christianity, Islam, Judaism is reflective more of the period in which it is written than the subject matter. Islam once produced many of the leading mathematicians and builders. The answer to the of question whether or not on balance Christianity is a net benefit to Western civilization depends solely upon period in history which is given the most emphasis.

    One factor that made Christianity a net benefit to Western civilization was a switch from a need to smite its nonbelievers to a need to peacefully convert nonbelievers. Islam on the other hand has drifted more into fundamentalist Wahhabism.

    As the critic points out the author spends little time on the Protestant Reformation. This is a mistake but not from the stand point of Protestants were a force for good in Western civilization whereas Catholics were not. One of the motivating factors of the Protestant Reformation was the fact that printing the Bible in languages other than Latin or Greek was forbidden and punishable by death. Thus prior to the Reformation Christianity was what the Church or the priests said it was, not necessarily what was contained in the Bible. Once the Bible became open to both Protestants and Catholics, the true meaning of Christianity began to shine through, making it on balance a net benefit to Western civilization. Another error most writings of this nature make is acting upon the assumption that Religion and science or reason are mutually exclusive.

  2. The concept that man is imperfect is a very important part of both Christianity and constitutional democracy.

    For the church, man’s imperfection should keep him humble and accepting of God’s grace, for that is the only way to salvation. In a constitutional democracy, man’s imperfection is the basis of democratic debate: you might be in office, but since you are imperfect and can’t be sure you are right, you and the electorate must listen to and respect the opposition.

    In that, constitutional democracy rejects some elements of the Enlightenment, namely that man can figure out anything with pure reason.

  3. An understanding of the successes of the Enlightenment, requires the use of both orbits and circles. God is required because of the system of ethics which accompanies the Major Religions, and because of the presumption of an orderly universe- one not compelled by dice- but God and neither be too distant or too close. Similarly, their needs to be a temporal authority, but it is best placed at a distance that is optimal for both a free society and an orderly one, in which individuals are expected to maintain the social contract.

    But it is in the area of circles that we have lost our way, because if the Enlightenment is a movement, it is a movement away from status and towards contract, in which individuals are able to access equality of opportunity, allowing all to participate as their aptitudes allow. Within the framework of the circumstances of their innate talents, birth and subject only to the equalising force which a public education system and minimal welfare provisions can achieve, the greatest tragedy is that people are never born equal as individuals.

    This last bit is crucial, because any attempt to gerrymander or correct for the inequalities of birth, beyond bare limits, is both doomed to failure and stir our ancient resentments. Doomed to failure, because our parents are an additional source of education and natural investors in human capital- the latter of which can only be reclaimed by death or disability. Ancient resentments are important because we thrive in reciprocal systems, perceptions of uneven playing fields disturb us, and attempts to equalise post hoc, destroy the narrow margins of wealth which exist in competitive systems.

    The best way to equalise by birth, is to study what works and emulate it. Innate abilities cannot be overcome, but some modicum of closer equity can be reached by teaching the next generation how others thrive, when their predecessors did not. And, of course, this is the rub- because to the Left, there is always some theft that occurred- some injustice that lies at the root of inequality.

    Nevermind, that all the wealth generated by slavery is a pittance in modern terms- that people lived in absolute poverty even after it’s abolition. Nevermind, that the almost all wealth and income growth occurred after colonialism and a youngster on welfare today would struggle with the average material standards of the fifties. Nevermind, that every successful society today has copied the Western Enlightenment blueprint wholly, or in part- and have mostly profited by emerging from the worst effects of Socialism, or Keynesian overreach.

    The flaw in the DNA of humanity as a complex social organism, is that we often cannot see the failing or ourselves, our ideas, our communities and our approaches to balancing personal freedoms with raising kids. The contest of ideas is the only tool we’ve found to correct for our love of superstition and our tendency to believe that which is most palatable. We’re dug into our ideological bunkers and are no longer willing to stop fighting to play football on Christmas Day.

  4. That’s about it. Some of the righties here have trouble with the fact that whereas I’m a big supporter of ‘real’ capitalism, I see the banksters and the moneyists as parasites who don’t really make or do anything useful. Even the Silicon Valley tycoons who are now far to big for their britches have, every one of them, created things. Lloyd Blankfein, not so much.

  5. “For most of its history, Christianity didn’t seem to be making much of a contribution to freedom, peace, and prosperity.”

    That depends on how one imagines the world would have been without Christianity. Jesus’ teachings were widely ignored or perverted over much of Christian history, but not always or by everyone. The world might have been a much more vicious place in their absence.

    “The two streams—Judeo-Christian religion and Greek philosophy—arose from different wellsprings and then converged in the Scholastic philosophy of the Medieval Catholic Church.”

    Actually, those two streams had converged over a thousand years earlier, in the Roman Empire.

    “Atheist regimes, like religious ones, have their own mountains of skulls.”

    Indeed! And the atheist mountains grew vastly faster and higher, to over a hundred million skulls in the middle half of the twentieth century alone, between 1925 and 1975.

  6. In fact they both believe the same thing: that everything woud be wonderful if we just got rid of the evil parasites

    & the fundamental difference is in the getting rid part: a (serious) libertarian gets rid of the evil parasites by not giving them the governmental power to do their parasitic exploitation. Doesn’t want to kill or imprison anyone.

  7. I somewhat disagree with Chambers’ analysis, though. To understand AS, we must understand that it is essentially a perverted religious text, offering an age-old story perverted, from pointing the reader to the worship of God, to asking him to worship himself. I hope you don’t mind a short essay on the subject.

    Let us start with a “regular” literary analysis. On the surface the book is a teenage wish-fulfilment fantasy, and a crude and monstrously overlong one at that. As in most science fiction or fantasy books, the reader is supposed to identify with the 0.01% or so of humanity that matters, being certain in his own mind he is one of the elect, not with the 99.99% of the hoi polloi.

    SF or AS are far more childish than fairy tales. “Once upon a time there lived a king…” does not to make the reader identify with the king because kings are superhuman and only kings matter. It is usually the precise opposite: to have the king express emotions or feelings we all have. This is done on a much higher level in, say, Shakespeare. Fairy tales or Shakespeare identify the reader with the king without any hubris. AS and most SF are not just not Shakespeare, but do no rise to the psychological depth of a fairy tale told to five-year-olds. You identify with Galt precisely because he is superhuman, infinitely better than the common clay.

    This is, by the way, also why I think Harry Potter is much superior to The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter does have his ultimate special fate, of course, but his adventures and trials are quite human; he acts mostly in a way we would act if we happened to be magicians with a mysterious curse upon us. Lord of the Rings, like superhero movies, bore me to tears since none of the characters have any real relation to humanity.

    But back to AS, what of the plot? In Galt’s Gulch, the superhumanely talented capitalists seem to have comsumer goods, from oranges in the kitchen to huge machines, magically appear despite there being no labor to create them. It is not hard to see that in real life, any such withdrawal of 1,000 or so leading capitalists into the wilderness (if only they would, one ruefuly hopes) would just result in their starvation, affecting the world not at all. Cemeteries are full of irreplaceable geniuses.

    Of course, Galt inventing a free energy machine is the ultimate deus ex machina, but it annuls the whole supposed “economic” point of the book. Since a free energy machine is de facto a machine that gives humanity infinite resource, you might as well use it the machine to feed and enrich the millions of “parasites” rather than teach them a lesson. Nothing except for pure sadism can justify letting the world go to pieces in that sense.

    But is “sadistic” fair? One may say in defense that it is not so much that Galt wants, or causes, billions to starve. Surely it is just that Rand, using Galt as a megaphone, forgets the billions of non-superhumans in the novel have any literary existence that means anything. But we often, after all, read SF disaster novels which are what Brian Aldiss called “cozy catastrophes”, where the hero’s romantic entanglements during a nuclear war means more than the death of billions. Whatever the literary faults of such stories, they aren’t written - or populated - by genocidal sadists. It’s just that the imaginary death of billions of fictional others makes the hero, and the reasder who identifies with him, even more special.

    Alas, calling Rand and Galt sadists is fair. For unlike SF of this sort, which is purely escapist, merely asking you to imagine yourself superhuman or billions of fictional persons dead for an idle hour, AS is in dead earnest. It is supposed to tell is the truth about this world, not an imagined one. And what is this truth? The capitalists’ withdrawal, free energy machine and all, is only in order to come back and rebuild a new, just world. AS is a religious text: one of the well known religious story of the withdrawal and return of the savior: the story of a Jesus, dying and coming back; a Moses, lost on Mt. Sinai and returning; the Islamic or Druze hidden Imam; and so on.

    Yet the religious message is horrific, and this is why the book is supremely sadistic.The god who delivers vengance on the sinning world by his disappearance is the reader himself: John Galt, the avenging angel, with whom the reader identifies. (Nobody that reads the Bible, except perhaps the insane, ever identifies himself with Jesus or Moses, let alone with God.) Rand does imagine, indeed, as Chambers pointed out, the billions of “parasites” quite clearly. She thinks they have it coming, and exhorts all of us, in dead earnest (she was utterly humorless and compassionless) to do our best to become, in real life, a John Galt.

    That is, to become in real life someome who would see the deaths of billions as of no consequence, if the supreme truth of objectivism could then rule - precisely because there is no supernatural or divine agent to punish the sinning world. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to starve those billions; how else will our objectivist utopia ever arise?

    Rand’s view is that of a Hitler, a Stalin, an Ayatollah. She is not an egoist. She only thinks she is. A real egoist would be far less bloody-minded, to say nothing of blood-thirsty. She is as committed to an abstract ideology regardless of consequences, to herself or others, as they were. This, as I see it, is why AS is a deeply wicked book.

  8. Like our friends at Goldman. They will cut down a tree to make it easier to pick the fruit. They will destroy an economy if they can make a few quick bucks doing so.

    That’s the story. And it’s probably partly true. But I wonder if there might be a bit more to it. Seems to me the CEO class have learned to protect themselves from genuine competition. Should the CEO also be the chairman of the board?

    But what counts as punitive? Is it not rather a race to the bottom? I manufacture in China, sell in America, and stash my money in the Caymans. Shouldn’t be permitted.

    Many say so. I’m inclined the other way but people I respect say I’m wrong.

    Taxes are not vengeance, they are the overhead of living in a civilized county.

    As I’ve said so often, what bothers me is that over last decades productivity is said to have tripled but with no corresponding increase in real standards of living for workers. I suspect that the reason is exactly what we see, namely that all the wealth has gone to the top 0.1%.

    Sure. Bread and circuses. The lefties are no more to be trusted than the righties. The lefties speak for the Victims, the righties speak for Wall St. Who speaks for working people?

    Yup. As always I distinguish between real, productive capitalism and moneyism.

    You hafta go with what works. Between your opinion and the policy of the Vikings … maybe that’s enough to sway me. You and I could hammer this all out over a few beers Geary :wink:

    Doesn’t it tho? As Skeptic mentioned, the tech billionaires have at least made something. But people realized at the turn of the 20th century that too much concentration of wealth/power is a bad thing, so they broke up the monopolies. The game of the same name is a very accurate mirror of real capitalism – we start playing with equal resources and by the end, one person owns everything. And in ‘Monopoply’ we don’t even have politicians for sale!

    Say it brother. They are infections. They are memes – viruses of the brain that turn the mind into a replicator of the just-so story. The fundamentalist – the infected person – is the property of his story, he can no more doubt it than a honey bee can question whether or not she feels like going to work today.

    I’d add unrestricted capitalism which is not exactly the same as libertarianism – one can have a government that is the perfect servant of the plutocracy.

  9. That is true, but at the cost of social collapse in places like the American Rust Belt. The race to the bottom does help the people at the bottom, at least until someone underbids them. I have mixed feelings about it. If the plutocrats were just a bit more generous with the economies they’ve abandoned, maybe globalization would be more palatable. You can never eliminate economic pain, but you can mitigate it.

  10. You would be less amazed if you seriously thought about it. Japan used to have a reputation like China’s: it would put out cheap products made in poor conditions. They would never have become the tech powerhouse it is today if they thought sweatshops too malevolent for them, as the low-wage factories funded their growth to the tech powerhouse it is today. China, too, has greatly improved its quality of life, and quickly: in 1981, its poverty rate was a shocking 88%, now it is 0.5%. Nothing, no charity or church or government program or anything else, alleviated poverty the way the export industry did. “Sweatshop” is just another spin-word, all it means is “factory I don’t like”. However, like them or not, they lifted people out of poverty and gave them a better life.

    Indeed they do, though I think it is less about the specific pay rate than the mismatch between rate and worker. As you said, the second firm paid above the market “if they thought the person was good.” Consider: how well would the firm have performed if its payments were determined not by its assessment of lawyer’s quality, but by a government agency dictating its rates from on high? Or, even without the government agency: if they paid the lawyers they thought were bad just like they pay those they thought were good?

    Further: if there were no firms like your first one, dour though it be, what would people do if they could not afford the rates your firm charges? Both firms have their place, and while not all firms are run equally well, low-rate lawyers are just as necessary in our society as highly-paid ones, even if the better-paid ones are happier. And if there are no low-rate law firms, there will be no place for an inexperienced lawyer to improve. If we only had law firms that paid great rates, poor litigants would be shafted, and poor lawyers would be screwed. The good lawyers would be fine, but they’re doing pretty well anyway.

  11. For one thing, then there would be no need for a seminar. :wink:

  12. So you’d agree with Andras and our other The Free Market fundamentalists that the iconic Triangle fire was not a problem of any sort and the fact that it galvanized both government and the people at large to pass safety regulations only hurt the workers, yes? All health and safety regulations should be scrapped? BTW history records that the owners of Triangle shared your view. They believed they had done nothing wrong whatsoever and that the subsequent laws were an interference and nothing more.

    One of the formative moments in my life was reading an article (back in the 70s or 80s IIRC) comparing the German, Japanese and American corporate cultures. This was just at the time when ‘Chainsaw Al’ was up to his waist in corporate blood in the US. ‘Shareholder value’ was the buzzword. Anyway the article predicted what we now see. It said that for some few decades Al’s methods would seem to work – shareholder value would increase. But eventually it would fall apart as worker loyalty and social solidarity and concern for the welfare of the nation as a whole eroded. The economy would be effectively gutted over time and first the ordinary guy, but eventually even the stock holder would suffer.

    Now, I’m not wasting your time by worrying about the former – that things would get worse for ordinary folks – because they don’t matter. No, I’m worrying that eventually things might start to get worse for the 0.1% too, like they did in the French and Russian revolutions and the collapse of the commies in the east. But events like that mostly end up hurting everyone including the workers they are ostensibly supposed to help, so I’d rather they were avoided.

    The thing is tho that the Japanese understood that the nation as a whole had to endure some tough times, but that the burden would be shared (the CEO sang the company song in the morning with everyone else, and sat in a cubicle like everyone else, and didn’t even have a reserved parking space). And the benefits, when they came, would also be shared. Lifetime loyalty both ways was the norm. Rising wages were the point of the economy. Safety regulations were asked for by industry. Workers went on strike by wearing an armband that indicated their respectful protest … as they continued to work … and management would loose face if there were too many armbands and the ‘strike’ would be settled.

    As always the truth is complicated. You say your end of the column holds up the roof, I say my end of the column holds it up. The Chinese ‘miracle’ – no, the Chinese miracle with no air-quotes – was a very carefully, centrally planned thing. It was Confucian from the getgo. It was ‘socialist’. Like the Japanese, they had a plan for the nation that involved short term pain for the long term gain of the nation as a whole.

    And note that none of it would have been possible but for the Chainsaw Al people in America who were more than happy to throw their own workers onto the street in return for short term profits. The Chinese understood/understand how stupid and greedy and short-sighted Westerners are. Soon they will rule the world. Shareholder values in the West will collapse as the shell game that is moneyism evaporates.

    This is a strawman. Or at least a strawman in reference to the centrist position. There may be … I guess there must be … commies around somewhere who really do want to impose that level of control, but dismissing them does not imply dismissing everything other than TFM. In Peter’s anecdote the thing worked out just fine on it’s own, no government needed.

    I hafta say you’re a pretty good TFM apologist. Forming a tag-team with Andras, you’ll take some work to beat.

    Interesting place, Botswana. They should rule all of Africa. Something about the T’swana people … something that sets them apart.

    And that’s entirely true, so long as there is a labor shortage and employers can’t offshore. IMHO almost the entire edifice of governmental regulations of economy would be obviated in any economy were it could somehow be insured that employers would always be hungry for workers. Germany in the 50’s.

    Sorta. Not that it’s there and she can’t buy it, but rather tariffs (and other mechanisms) should insure that any company that wants to make a profit in a developed country cannot escape the costs of maintaining the developed country. Apple presumes that there will be folks in America who can drive on roads without fear of being hijacked to stores that have power and water and sewer, and will have the money to buy their Chinese made products. Alas, if everyone does the same, there will be no one left in America who can buy their products. I offshore, but I sure hope that the next factory doesn’t, because I like having well paid customers in my store … but the other factory thinks the same way, thus we have the Rust Belt.

    Nope, tariffs might be enough. Every state, no matter how right, has had tariffs to some degree. (Question: can anyone come up with a counter example? Some country that had zero import restrictions?)

    Both questions should be discussed. There is no one on Quillette more genuine than Joana, don’t be snide with her (please).

    Glad you mentioned that. Was it Lenin who said that capitalists would outbid each other to sell the comrades the ropes that they hung them with? There is the Firm … the business that intends to survive over the long haul. Then there is the Shareholder Value entity, run by some hired thug, who’s concern is for his bonus and who isn’t even expecting to be around for more than a few years – just make the next quarterly report look good.

    Yup, clever Jeff. But sorry Jeff, monopolies aren’t good and we’re breaking you up. JDR will be crying for you from hell. Not too many tears tho, because you’ll still be a billionaire.

    True. All too true. You can’t eliminate creative destruction, but you can insure that folks don’t starve between jobs.

    Some say that your average Western welfare case lives – in terms of lifespan, health, comfort, amusements, security – better than any emperor of the past. Would you trade places with Henry VIII? Not me! Shoot, the vermin alone …

    No sir, it isn’t. There is middle ground. It’s Andras level thinking to suppose that anything other than TFM can only be Venezuela.

    Yes! Andrew Yang is my hero.

    Sometimes. But always? And inevitably? They say that the British government, for most of it’s history, was almost astonishingly efficient. My Dad remembers … I have seen the letter with my own eyes, he saved it … when a British civil servant signed letters:

    Your Humble Servant

    No shit, I have seen this, I’ll send you a scan. They say that from Eisenhower thru even Clinton, the American public service more or less worked quite well.

    How to capture that?

    Love your thoughts as always Geary. We really could hammer this all out over a beer or three.

    Very well said. TFM is a very valuable mechanism, but is it everything?

    Ha! The morning was well spend just waiting for that. Who do I notify that a great aphorism was just coined?

  13. Am I correct in assuming that our most outspoken Free Market guys are all from countries that used to be socialist?

    Coincidence?

  14. And with that other famous once-under-the-sovjets Ayn Rand they form a nice trio, though rather uneven in some aspect.

  15. Help? Italy sent help to china beforehand, for free; china SOLD help to Italy, and only for the publicity. Yesterday in fact china was busted sending out an official tweet of Italians cheering for healthcare workers claiming that they were cheering for china, and playing the chinese anthem, whatever that is…

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