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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Happy National Tired and Grouchy Week

On Sunday, March 8, millions of Americans woke up an hour early, having set their clocks ahead by an hour the night before, and dug in for a week or so of bleary-eyed, irritable attempts to tweak their bodies’ natural sleeping and waking rhythms. This fatuous semi-annual “spring forward, fall back” ritual, called “Daylight Saving Time,” ranks high on my personal list of “dumbest ideas in the history of mankind.”

Why do people put up with Daylight Saving Time and obediently change their clocks twice a year? You may have heard that it has to do with saving energy, or making sure children don’t arrive home from school after dark or have more time to do farm work when they get home, or other such nonsense excuses.

In reality, the practice was first proposed by a George Hudson, a New Zealand postal worker and entomologist who wanted more daylight after his regular job to catch bugs, then later by William Willett, a British builder who hated having his golf games cut short by darkness.

More than a century later, is it fair to say that Willett’s tee times and Hudson’s bug hauls were worth the 30 additional deaths (and associated $275 million in costs) that come with “springing forward” every year (according to a 2017 study in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics)?

Or the billions of dollars in other costs, including, it turns out, increased rather than decreased energy use?

Or, for that matter, the cost of the extra cups of coffee I have to add to my morning intake to jolt myself awake for the first week or two of getting up an hour early?

I don’t think so. But then, I’m grouchy this morning. I wonder why that might be?

Changing our clocks back and forth on command doesn’t magically alter the passage of time. Basing our schedules on  periodic changes to the markings on those clocks, or vice versa, won’t make our day/night-based circadian rhythms go away, or even become less relevant (ask anyone who’s worked “graveyard shift” for an extended period — the body doesn’t easily adjust).

As an alternative to conscripting everyone into these silly back and forth “Saving Time” games, individuals and groups should be left to adjust their own schedules to fit their own needs. Since I don’t collect bugs or play golf, I don’t need to get up an hour earlier in the spring and summer.

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Richard Ebeling: Non-Intervention, America’s Founding Foreign Policy (34m)

This episode features a talk by ethics and economics professor Richard Ebeling from 2018. America is enmeshed in permanent, ongoing foreign wars and interventions. The results of foreign interventionism have been catastrophic, not only in terms of massive death and destruction abroad, but also in terms of ongoing, ever-growing destruction of liberty, privacy, and prosperity here at home. It is time for America to do some serious soul-searching. The best place to begin is by examining first principles — especially the founding principle of non-interventionism on which our nation was founded and which remained its guiding principle for more than a century. Purchase books by Richard Ebeling on Amazon here.

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Open Borders: Think of the Children

I love to see kids reading Open Borders.  When my daughter was five, she read it over my shoulder as I wrote it – and I knew I was right to make it a graphic novel.  Since then, I’ve heard about dozens of kids enjoying the book.  When I advertise it and add #ThinkOfTheChildren, I’m not joking.  I really would like to put Open Borders in the hands of every kid on Earth.

The uncharitable explanation is that I want to brainwash ignorant children with absurd dogmas.  I predictably reject that explanation.  My story:

1. It is mainstream society that is guilty of “brainwashing” children in favor of immigration restrictions, with a steady mix of economic illiteracy, innumeracy, misanthropy, and status quo bias.

2. I, in contrast, calmly present a long list of well-crafted arguments, many of which are straightforward enough for bright, motivated children to understand.

3. Open Borders teaches many of the fundamental principles of economics en passant, including the causes of economic growth, the value of trade, and marginal productivity theory.  So I’m not just telling kids about one important topic; I’m giving them tools to analyze a broad range of issues.

4. I’m making social science fun, as it should be.

5. Could I persuade children of falsehoods if I tried?  Probably.  But I know I’ve done my homework, so why shouldn’t I share what I’ve learned?

6. My conjecture: (a) People who learn popular views as children tend to believe them for the rest of their lives – whether or not those views are true.  (b) People who learn unpopular falsehoods as children, in contrast, tend to abandon those views in adulthood.  (c) People who learn unpopular truths are quite likely to retain them later in life.

7. Upshot: If you think you have some unpopular truths to share, share them with the young.  If you’re right, you’ve plausibly saved them from being wrong for the rest of their lives.  If you’re wrong, they’ll probably figure it out and change their minds.

8. Learning about Open Borders when you’re young almost certainly isn’t as effective as learning a new language when you’re young, but let’s give it a shot!

 

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Caplans of the Caribbean

I just returned from cruising the Caribbean on Anthem of the SeasMaybe you’ve heard of it? Fortunately, no coronavirus panic marred our vacation, and the concluding scare at the dock turned out to be a false alarm.  Though I’d seen a little of the Caribbean before, this trip was a heavy dose: after a stop at San Juan, Puerto Rico, we sailed on to St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts.  My social science reflections:

1. I’ve been writing about Puerto Rico for years.  Its great open borders experiment doesn’t just put an upper bound on the dangers of “brain drain”; it also shows that liberalization makes migration serenely “snowball” rather than frighteningly “flood.” I was excited, then, to finally see Puerto Rico with my own eyes.  San Juan, at least, met my high expectations.  It’s a rich and beautiful city – and I didn’t merely visit the tourist areas.  The country is packed with Walmarts and other big-box retail.  Uber works well.  I saw near-zero remnants of Hurricane Maria, and – through my bilingual sons – had two fun chats with jovial Uber drivers.  Next time, I’d really like to drive the Ruta Panorámica.  No doubt I’d witness some serious poverty, but I doubt it’s more disturbing than driving around rural Mississippi or West Virginia.

When I invoke Puerto Rico, immigration skeptics often scoff.  Hurricane Maria aside, they deem Puerto Rico a disaster zone.  After all, if it were a U.S. state, Puerto Rico (with a per-capita GDP of just $32,000) would be even poorer than Mississippi, right?

I call this a willfully misanthropic comparison.  To grasp the effects of open borders on Puerto Rico, you have to ask, “How would Puerto Ricans be doing if they didn’t enjoy free migration to the U.S.?”  To answer that question, you’ve got to look not as Mississippi, but at other Caribbean islands.  Which I then proceeded to do.

2. Our next stop was St. Maarten (the Dutch side).  Official estimates of its per-capita GDP vary very widely.  While the CIA absurdly sets it at $66,800 (PPP), Wikipedia provides only a 2008 estimate of $15,400 (nominal).  Compared to Puerto Rico, in any case, the island looks quite poor.  A good chunk of this admittedly stems from low population; 42,000 people plus tourists aren’t enough to sustain more than a few restaurants or entertainment venues.  Even taking population into account, however, living standards look low.  Desperate peddling of tourist wares is a common job.  Roads are bumpy.  The shiniest business we saw was a KFC.  The biggest grocery store we found wasn’t bad, but about a third of the refrigerated shelves were empty.  There’s no Uber, but since there are plenty of taxis, I blame regulation.  After SNUBA diving (awesome), we taxied to the local tropical zoo, which sadly turned out to be shuttered since Maria.

What explains the gap between the official economic statistics and what we saw?  The simplest story is that a few super-rich expats drive up the average, but it’s hard to believe that’s close to the whole story.  The next explanation is that I’m such a spoiled American that almost everywhere on Earth looks impoverished to me.  Another is that the statistics are fake; but wouldn’t countries want to overstate their poverty to get extra foreign aid?  Last, CPI bias is plausibly astronomically unfavorable in small islands where there’s not much to spend your money on.  (As I told Tyler, there are odd parallels between small Swiss towns and these Caribbean islands; in both places, even the rich have little to buy).

While we’re on the subject of CPI bias, the Internet has clearly been a nearly unmeasured godsend for the whole region.  In 1990, islanders would have been cut off from 99% of humanity’s cultural bounty.  Today, the curious can sample and savor this bounty for modest connection fees.

3. Then we sailed on to Antigua (a subset of Antigua and Barbuda), with recent per capita GDP estimates of $17,500 nominal and $28,000 PPP.  It did indeed look a little richer than St. Maarten, though that too could be confounded with higher population.  The downtown was fun to see, but the roads were bumpy and even the main sidewalks poorly maintained.  While shuttling to snorkeling, we saw a huge sports stadium (10,000 seats!) largely funded by the government of mainland China.  (Other islands, in contrast, seemed oriented toward Taiwan).  There were fewer desperate peddlers, but almost no businesses even in the historic downtown.  As Richard Scarry famously inquired, “What do people do all day?”

4. Next, we saw St. Lucia.  Geographically, it was the most beautiful of the islands.  The Pitons are splendid, and we passed some scenic harbors and resorts.  Economically, though, St. Lucia looked the worst.  This fits with official statistics, which put its per-capita GDP at $10,000 nominal and $15,000 PPP.  Even though it has roughly twice the population of Antigua and Barbuda, the KFC was again the shiniest business we saw.  The main downtown church was closed, and the nearby park contained about a dozen apparently homeless men, though perhaps they were just relaxing and drinking alone.  Desperate peddling was intense.  The local police seemed to be one of the main employers.

5. Our last stop was on St. Kitts (a subset of St. Kitts and Nevis), whose per capital GDP of $19,000 nominal and $31,000 PPP make it the richest island we saw after Puerto Rico.  Since we spent six hours hiking Mount Liamuiga, the local volcano, we never walked the town.  Yet we did get to see a long stretch of one of the main coastal highways, and the country did indeed look marginally richer than Antigua.

My hiking guide described himself as “fascinated by economics,” and we had a good amount of time to chat.  He suffered from severe pessimistic bias; I tried in vain to calm his fears that U.S. agro-business faced imminent crisis.  When he playfully accused me of having naive faith in mankind, I told him, “No, I just believe in business.”  He mentioned his Netflix subscription, but I didn’t have time to rhetorically build on that foundation.

My guide knew a handful of islanders who worked in the UK, but viewed his countrymen as deeply provincial.  Cruise ships dock all the time in St. Kitts, but when I asked him if he knew anyone who worked on such a ship, he insisted, “It’s not something they would ever think about as a possibility.”  This surprised me, because workers of Caribbean origin were fairly common on my ship, especially relative to their countries’ populations.

6. Are the latter four islands the ideal comparison group for Puerto Rico?  Not really.  Antigua, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts are all former British colonies, and St. Maarten’s is so anglophone that it might as well be.  A better approach is to compare Puerto Rico with other former Spanish colonies; the Dominican Republic is the most obvious counterpart.  Since the latter’s per-capita GDP is only $9000, Puerto Rico’s open borders experiment look even better.

7. I’ve repeatedly heard people claim that open borders would turn the U.S. into Haiti.  On this journey, I was struck by the fact that almost nowhere in the Caribbean is remotely as awful as Haiti.  St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts all have roughly the same demographics has Haiti – all are 90%+ black.   They all have roughly the same history of hellish slave plantations.  Furthermore, according to the least-bad estimates, their national average IQs are all extremely low.  St. Lucia comes in second-to-last on Earth, with an average national IQ of 62 (versus Haiti’s 67).  Despite these parallels, St. Lucia roughly matches average global per-capita income, and St. Maarten, Antigua, and and St. Kitts are comfortably above this average.

8. With the able assistance of Nathaniel Bechhofer, I’ve pointed out that “Deep Roots” theories of national development are highly sensitive to population-weighting.  If you count China and India as two data points, the empirics say that national ancestry matters a lot.  When you weigh countries by their populations, however, national ancestry barely matters at all, because the two most-populous countries on Earth have done poorly in modern times despite their illustrious histories.  Critics have pushed back; each country should count as a separate “experiment,” so we should base our worldviews on the unweighted results.

Yet in that case, each and every tiny upper-middle-income Caribbean country should statistically count as much as China and India.  I just checked Putterman and Weil‘s data, and found that none of my last four islands is actually in their sample.  (Haiti and Jamaica are, but even the Bahamas fell through the cracks).  If we re-did Deep Roots estimates with ten more Caribbean data points, I predict that their results would markedly attenuate.  So would Garett’s main findings in Hive Mind.

Personally, I continue to think that population-weighting is the way to go in cross-country regressions.  If you disagree, though, you’d really better add the island nations of the Caribbean to your sample and watch what happens.

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Thomas Sowell: Economic Facts and Fallacies (1h6m)

This episode features an interview of economics professor Thomas Sowell from 2008 by Russ Roberts, host of EconTalk. They discuss the misleading nature of measured income inequality, CEO pay, why nations grow or stay poor, the role of intellectuals and experts in designing public policy, and immigration. Purchase books by Thomas Sowell on Amazon here.

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