Do Intellectuals Make Life Any Better?

There’s a path my life could have taken – could still take – toward the life of an intellectual.

I’ve just about always been interested in one or more of the favorite intellectual subjects of philosophy, history, politics, theology, economics, psychology, and sociology (whatever that is). I’ve always liked to have big opinions on things. And I’ve always preferred toying with ideas to toying with numbers or machines.

But I’m beginning to think this is an aptitude worth resisting. It’s not obvious to me that intellectuals as such bring a whole lot of benefit to the world.

Obviously this will be controversial to say.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be using a Wikipedia-derived definition:

An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking and reading, research, and human self-reflection about society; they may propose solutions for its problems and gain authority as a public figure.”

Let me be clear that I think everyone ought to engage in critical thinking. It’s in the rest of the definition that the problems start to emerge.

Every intellectual is a person who not only has a pet theory about what’s wrong with the world – but who makes it their job to reflect/research on that problem and write about that problem.

When you think about these intellectuals, what do you think of?

My mind wanders to the endless number of think-pieces, essays, and books with takes what’s wrong with humans, what’s wrong with society, or what’s wrong with intellectuals (that’s right – I’m currently writing a think-piece. Shit.) The history of this produce of intellectualism is an a stream of lazy, simplified pontifications from individuals about things vast and complex, like “society,” “America,” “the working classes,” “the female psyche,” etc. in relation to something even more vast and complex: “human life.”

It’s not that thinking about these things are wrong: it’s that most of the ink spilled about them is probably wasteful. Why?

Because core to the definition of intellectualism defined above is its divorce from action. Intellectuals engage in “reading, research, and human self-reflection,” “propose solutions,” and “gain authority as public figures,” but none of these acts require them to get their hands dirty to test their hypotheses or solve their proposed problems.

The whole “ivory tower” criticism isn’t new, so I won’t belabor the point. But I will point out two consequences of intellectualism’s separation from practical reality.

First, intellectuals don’t often tend to be great people. Morally, I mean. Tolstoy left his wife in a lurch when he gave up his wealth. Marx knocked up one of his servants and then kicked her out of his house. Rousseau abandoned his children. Even Ayn Rand (whom I love) could be accused of being cultlike in her control of her intellectual circle. Those are just the notable ones – it’s fair to say that most of the mediocre “public intellectuals” we have aren’t exactly action heroes. While they may not be especially bad, they aren’t especially good on the whole.

There seems to be some link between a career which rewards abstract thought (without regard for action) and the mediocre or downright bad lifestyle choices of our most famous intellectuals.

The second major problem with intellectuals springs from the fact that nearly everything the intellectual does is intensely self-conscious. Whether it’s a philosopher reflecting on his inability to find love and theorizing about the universe accordingly or an American sociologist writing about the decline of American civilization, the intellectual is reflecting back upon what’s wrong with himself or his culture or his situation constantly, usually in a way that creates a strong sense of mental unease or even anguish.

Have you ever seen an intellectual coming from an obvious place of joy? The social commentators are almost always operating from malaise and malcontent, which almost always arise from a deep self-consciousness.

Of course it’s anyone’s right to start overthinking what’s the matter with the world, and to feel bad as a result. The real problem is that the intellectual insists on making it his job to convince everyone else to share in his self-conscious state of misery, too.

How many Americans would know, believe, or care that “America” or “Western Civilization” was declining if some intellectual hadn’t said so? How many working class people, or women, or men would believe they are “oppressed”? How many humans would be staying up at night asking themselves whether reality is real? Both are utterly foreign to the daily experience of real, commonsense human life. And while the intellectual may draw on real examples in his theories, he’s usually not content to allow for the exceptions and exemptions which are inevitable in a complex world: his intellectual theory trumps experience. The people must *believe* they are oppressed, or unfulfilled, or unenlightened, or ignorant of the “true forms” of this, that, or the other.

I’m wary of big intellectual theories for this reason, and increasingly partial to the view that wisdom comes less from thinking in a dark corner and more from living in the sunshine and the dirt. The real measure of many of these theories is how quickly they are forgotten or dismantled when brought out into daily life.

People who use their intellects to act? The best in the world. But intellectuals who traffic solely in ideas-about-what’s-wrong for their careers? More often than not, they are more miserable and not-very-admirable entertainers than they are net benefactors to the world.

The ability to think philosophically is important. But that skill must be used in the arena. Produce art. Produce inventions. Be kind. Action is the redemption of intellectualism.

Disclaimers

*By “intellectuals,” I don’t mean scientists. On the humanities side, I don’t even mean artists. The problem isn’t artists: it’s art critics. It’s not scientists: it’s people who write about the “state of science.”

There are exceptions to the bad shows among intellectuals, but usually these are the intellectuals who are busy fighting the bad, ideas of other intellectuals: people like Ludwig von Mises fighting the ideas of classical socialism, or . The best ideas to come from people like this are ideas which don’t require people to believe in them.*

And don’t get me wrong: this is as much a mea culpa as a criticism of others. I’ve spent much of my life headed down the path of being an intellectual. I’m starting to realize that it’s a big mistake.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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What You and the Pandemic Virus Have in Common

What can the COVID-19 virus teach us about philosophy?

With any virus – but particularly with an especially infectious one – we get a perfect working metaphor for the relationship between individual actions and society.

Namely: the only thing that spreads as far and as fast as a pandemic are the consequences of your moral actions.

If you contract a virus – say, for instance, the COVID-19 coronavirus – you immediately become a member of a great chain. Someone before you had the virus. Now you have it because of them. And more likely than not, someone else – multiple people, really – will have it because of you. When you become a carrier for a virus, everything you do becomes a potential vector for infecting people. And you alone can infect hundreds or thousands of people if you do things badly enough.

As a member of a chain of infections, though, your contribution to a pandemic can be far worse than just infecting a dozen or a hundred or a thousand other people. Those people you infect aren’t just sick because of you – they’re carriers too because of you. They can now infect dozens or hundreds or thousands more.

It is in this way that a single human being – a “patient zero” – can be responsible for infecting hundreds of millions or billions of people.

This viral example brings home the significance not just of personal hygiene but of all personal ethics and personal action. We live in networks and chains, and all of our actions “transmit” something to the people around us. If we transmit fear, that fear “infects” the people around us, then the people around them. If we transmit

These networks are how an abusive father’s actions can lead eventually to mass prison camps, or how a friend’s faithfulness can lead to the defeat of a great tyrant. The content of our actions transmits virally, and at scale it can become something very dangerous and destructive, or beautiful and healing.

Take time during this time of pandemic to reflect on the vast significance of your own actions and your connectedness to others – not just in health, but in everything.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Paul Krugman, COVID-19, and Broken Windows

The jury is still out on which of two things — COVID-19 or the panic over COVID-19 — will cost more lives and do more damage to the global economy. My money’s still on the latter. In the meantime, I’ve developed a surefire, Groundhog Day type test for whether the emergency is over:

Watch for Nobel laureate economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to start trying to convince us it was, all in all, actually a GOOD thing.

Krugman on 9/11: “[T]he direct economic impact of the attacks will probably not be that bad. And there will, potentially, be two favorable effects.”

Krugman on Fukushima: “[T]he nuclear catastrophe could end up being expansionary, if not for Japan then at least for the world as a whole.”

Krugman would even have us believe that Pearl Harbor ended the Great Depression (which actually ended more than half a decade later). “If we suddenly had a threat of war and a military build up,” he once asserted on ABC News’s Roundtable,  “you’d be amazed how fast the economy would recover.”

Krugman is the 21st century’s foremost evangelist of the Broken Window Fallacy.

In Frederic Bastiat’s “parable of the broken window,” a shopkeeper’s son carelessly breaks a window pane.

A witty onlooker — Paul Krugman’s ideological ancestor — considers this a good thing because it creates business for the glazier who replaces broken windows.

As Bastiat points out, though, while the cost of replacing the  pane is seen, other things aren’t:  That was money the shopkeeper could have spent on a new pair of shoes, or on a book he wanted to read.

Instead of buying something that improves his life, the shopkeeper has to spend that money just getting back to his previous condition.

To cover costs like replacing the window, he probably raises prices, meaning his customers have to spend more on his products, leaving them less to spend on other things they might like.

Even the glazier’s customers get screwed. Broken windows increase demand, which means higher prices. The man building a new house has to pay more, and wait longer, for new windows.

The matter is a loss, not a gain, for everyone except the glazier.

Can we expect to see some long-term beneficial consequences from COVID-19 and its associated hysteria? Yes.

Two likely outcomes are large, permanent increases in “telecommuting” (working from home instead of traveling to an office) and “distance learning” (taking classes from home instead of traveling to a university campus).

Those two trends were already noticeable, but fear of contagion is boosting them tremendously. When the fear subsides, the benefits will be remembered. Not as many people will be returning to offices and campuses as left them. That means lighter traffic, lower energy consumption, and more spare time for many workers and students.

Those are good things, but we could have had them any time we wanted them, with or without COVID-19 and the associated mass hysteria. Contra Krugman, any “bright side” to catastrophe costs more than it’s worth.

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Panic Not a Good Survival Strategy

Here comes Coronavirus; the threat of the month.

How scared are you? How scared should I be? I’m not scared or even worried.

When Coronavirus hit the news I did some research on it at some reputable, non-sensationalist medical websites and decided it wasn’t anything to hyperventilate over. In fact, they classified it not as influenza, but as a cold virus. A virus everyone will come down with at some point during our lives. This variety may be worse than the usual strains, but I’m not going to freak out.

I’ve been around long enough to see scare after scare come to nothing.

The Y2K thing fizzled, Ebola dropped from the news, and Hillary wasn’t elected president. Life on planet Earth goes on pretty much the way it has — but with more robots, rockets, and batteries.

There are still looming shadows on the horizon: human-caused climate disaster, failure of the power grid, a robot apocalypse, and more. These are all things people can panic over. Then they can make foolish decisions because of the panic. Foolish decisions such as saying “There ought to be a law.” Decisions that will have worse consequences for more people than the original threat — a threat that may be real or may be a figment of the imagination.

Someday a real pandemic or widespread disaster will happen … and be worse than we were warned it would be. Won’t I look silly, then? But so far, not allowing myself to be panicked has worked out well.

Do you really want to spend your life bouncing from one threat of disaster to the next, or are you willing to learn from the past?

Sure, there are occasional school shootings, impaired drivers, disease, and other human tragedies. That’s life. But the track record of global doom and gloom scenarios should inspire optimism if you’re paying attention.

It can be fun and exciting to prepare for the worst-case scenario. I do it, too — in ways more fun than frightening. Panic is not a good survival strategy, even if something bad is going to happen. A panicked person doesn’t think straight or behave rationally. They are more likely to make fatal mistakes.

Don’t let anyone cause you to panic … unless panicking is what you want to do.

In that case, I won’t try to stop you, but please don’t allow your panic to affect my life, liberty, or property, or that of my friends and family.

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Natural Law, Fictions, Context

In this post, we will examine 3 related areas of discussion.  They are related in that general failures to understand them are the sources of most (if not all) of our problems in the history, and pre-history, of the Sapiens species.  Natural law governs everything in the real world, but we need to create fictions to draw meaning among the events of natural law.  And we need to understand context to have more precise knowledge among the consequences of natural law interacting with human adaptation.

Natural Law

Natural law is not a topic for debate.  It applies in all events.  It cannot be overridden nor forestalled.  In the literature of freedom, you may encounter a question about natural law which might infer that its existence is a matter of agreement or disagreement.  You may see a phrase such as, “he was a foremost proponent of natural law.”  From that, one might interpolate a premise whereby natural law requires advocacy.  In some cases, one may draw the faulty conclusion that if you don’t like the consequences of natural law, then you can ignore natural law.

Natural law is not a menu item.  Natural law always applies, like it or not.  An example is the law of gravity, which must always be considered.  Sure, technicians can simulate “zero gravity,” but only within the framework of gravity.  Sure, random events can temporarily make it seem that gravity has taken a holiday, but that is only defined within the precise characteristics of gravity.  But think of this, gravity exists, in every venue, at all times in the Universe.

Natural law underlies everything, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Another example of a natural law is that all living things are mortal.  I have been on the lookout for immortality for a long time, but so far to no avail.  In fact I am now beginning to outlive many previously selected candidates.  Nobody has been powerful enough to live forever.  Methuselah?  He was going great for more than 900 years, but he eventually underwhelmed his bucket list.

How about this natural law:  for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction.  That is to say that if a weight of 1000 pounds must be lifted, there must be 1000 pounds of force applied in an upward direction.  When is Congress going to change that?  When will actions not involve consequences.  One of the reasons this natural law is so hard to conceptualize is that the force and its opposite often appear to be unequal in a technical sense.  The ancient torture of drawing and quartering seems to say, momentarily, that a human body has more strength than the sum strength of four horses.  It is more correct to say that the sum of 1 set of forces must be equal to the sum of any set of opposing forces.  It can get complicated, but never overridden.

It is a natural law that ordinary rocks are harder than ordinary marshmallows, but ordinary diamonds are harder than the average rock.  No set of fictional rules can counter this, only can they illuminate this.

Fictions

That which is manufactured by artificially combining facts of natural law is fiction.  Any one individual can only directly perceive natural phenomena by chance (this itself is in accord with natural law).  These chances are separate from one another in space and time.  Therefore, the individual must fictionalize the connections among events.  Scientists try to do this with objectivity, with fair measurements and conclusions based on probability.  But there are no completely objective observers, most of us probably having overweening self-interests which blur our outlooks.

Maybe it’s just me, but I can merely look at others and see how their short-term interests are nearly always served, at the expense of their long-term interests.  For instance, a person may let short-term considerations about coronavirus persuade her to wear a mask to a job interview, rather than reasoning that a prospective employer may instantly reject her as a carrier, or a hypochondriac, or a kook.

No one can know everything.  Most simply because there is no orderly structure or place for all information.  So everyone must extrapolate and interpolate among knowns and likelihoods in order to make rational guesses about all the unknowns.  Donald Rumsfeld famously told us there are knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

Context

Everything must be viewed within an appropriate context.  First, the context which you build through experience with previously observed natural phenomena and the fictions that you provide for getting the most realistic perception of reality.  And the second context comes from outside — what kind of freight has been attached due to the self-interest of others?  Also, we must consider whether the self-interest has been introduced by a natural desire for well-being, or a more sinister impulsion by greed, bias toward exploitation, ignorance, stupidity, and/or aggression.

We are often misled about context.  Inquiries are often deflected by claiming a lack of faith between what is said and what is not said.  Such cherrypicking can be either deceitful or innocent.  One must evaluate the completeness of contextual information.

— Verbal Vol

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No One Policy Good for Everyone

Did you enjoy our recent winter storm? I did, but I know a lot of people didn’t. Most people are not fans of cold and snow. I don’t like temperatures over 85 degrees Fahrenheit, especially if there’s any trace of humidity, while other people love hot weather.

Variety is the spice of life and I’m willing to deal with things I don’t like, without much complaint, so others can enjoy the things they like.

Since no one can control the weather, anyway, it’s a healthy approach.

Natural weather patterns give the Earth variety. Everyone gets what they like, occasionally, within reason. You might not get snow days in the Amazon or picnic weather on the beaches of Antarctica, but you can still get nice surprises.

Sometimes, though, this variety means there are tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, and blizzards. You might believe this justifies a weather control bureaucracy to program the weather, but I don’t think it does.

If there were someone sitting in a government office somewhere controlling the weather, do you think they would serve up weather I like, or weather someone else likes? Maybe we’d all get whatever is dictated by policy. Would some people’s weather preferences be ignored because they aren’t popular?

I’m glad no one can control the weather.

Social control is similar to weather control. It’s going to result in less variety — not as much natural diversity. Even if you could control such things as the weather or society, should you? Whose preferences would be given priority and whose would be banned with reasonable-sounding justifications?

Complex systems with lots of randomness can’t be controlled. Any time someone tries to control a fluid, complex system such as the weather, society, an economy, or healthcare, there will inevitably be unintended consequences that make things worse.

Just as no one type of weather is best for everywhere at all times, there is no government policy — beyond respecting individual liberty — that is best for every individual at every moment.

No matter how unqualified to run your own life you may feel, no one else is more qualified than you. No one knows all the details better than you. If anyone believes they can control your life better than you can, they are not living in reality. What they imagine to be good for you might destroy you. Yet they’ll never suffer any consequences for what they’ve done to you — all the suffering would be yours, alone. I can’t support any such plan.

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