Economics and musing part two

Part two! I forgot to post this on Monday. Continued from the previous post.

-I’m not against taxes, especially targeted taxes, smart ones that make people act more intelligently or at least help us recover some of the money that the community loses as a result of unwise activities (eg cigarette taxes). And it seems to me that there should be some taxes, both to shape economic behaviour and to finance government programs. On the other hand, I certainly don’t think that all taxes are intrinsically good; in particular if taxes effectively discourage something that we should be encouraging, that’s a problem.

-I’m not against the government giving people money directly, although often there are certainly dangers or unintended consequences that need to be thought through in any particular version of the government distributing money to people. Still, whenever it’s possible and not completely unadvisable, I do find myself inclining toward the option of giving people money to spend or save, to stimulate the economy and reduce hardship.

-Somewhat related, I think giving people vouchers is probably a smart idea. Give people housing vouchers maybe to spend on rent or mortgage, or even better, food stamps that can be spent on fresh produce. I’m not sure why this isn’t done more. It seems like it could have a lot of benefits.

-I’m suspicious of people who always talk about the dangers of legitimate governments having too much power but who never worry about whether businesses can get too big or too powerful or too influential. Some businesses do some things better than some governments, and so as I’ve said I think a wise government will leverage the market as a powerful tool, but I’ve never seen any evidence that our problems will be solved by taking power away from legitimate governments and giving more authority and power to corporations and the wealthy.

-I think involuntary poverty is an evil thing and we should basically not rest until it is abolished, no matter the tradeoffs. Maybe that is too strongly stated. Perhaps there are hypothetical tradeoffs that wouldn’t be worth it. But in the real world, I find it hard to think of consequences of feeding the hungry that would be worse than leaving the hungry in their hunger.

Okay! There are still at least a couple more posts in this series to come. See you Friday!

Economics and musing

I’ve written a fair bit about philosophy and the ideological side of politics, but I don’t think I’ve written as much about economics. I’m really interested in economics, have done a fair bit of reading and studying of it, and I think it’s extremely valuable and important. I’m by no means an expert. My interests are less academic or nitty gritty and more big picture, speculative, practical.

I think I want to explore my thoughts on economics a bit more. Here are some of the directions I might take my writing in the coming weeks, listed in no particular order. Some of these I’ve given much more thought to than others. This is by no means an exhaustive list of my economic convictions, just a collection of some of the things I’ve thought about in recent years. My plan will be to expand on some of these points in future posts.

-I’m against price floors and price ceilings and Soviet-style price controls. I say that first because most of the other things I’m going to say will probably sound a bit more economically progressive.

-Similarly, I’m against central planning and think the spontaneous market is a powerful tool that should be used to greatest effect. However, I think intelligent governmental influence in the market, through things like taxation, is not just allowable but invaluable to the life of the community.

-I think businesses should be as small as possible — little money, little land, few people, little geographical reach. Sometimes, rarely, it’s impossible to do a particular task without giving it to a massive corporation, but whenever we can I think we should maximize competition by having many many small suppliers, rather than a few big ones.

-I’m not against people getting rich within a system that allows for it, but I suspect that to the extent that the system lets you get super rich while others are impoverished, or to the degree that you can have an outsized political influence thanks to wealth, the system is probably in need of fixing.

My list has gotten so long that I think I will turn the list itself into a series of three or four posts. That will also give me more time to think about it and try to avoid forgetting any important points. Come back on Monday for part two!

The Philosopher’s Apprentice

Intellectually, we all start off as apprentices. We know that. But I suspect the period of apprenticeship lasts a lot longer than most of us realize. Indeed, most of us never finish our term as intellectual apprentices during our lifetime.

The surest way to get stuck in a period of intellectual apprenticeship is to pretend to be free of it sooner than we’re really able. True intellectual apprenticeship, that can lead to intellectual progress, requires deliberate, self-aware, determined effort; as soon as we deliberately end that effort, no matter our reason, we cease progress, no matter how far along we happen to be at the time.

To exit that process too soon, is to be forever bound to accepting unexamined the thoughts and prejudices of others. In a way, it is to exchange apprenticeship for servitude, though only under the illusion of freedom and mastery.

Does that mean apprenticeship is really always endless? Are we consigned to having only the thoughts of others no matter how long we study?

Some people think so. This corresponds closely to what the Straussians call historicism — the belief that our beliefs are determined by our time and place in history and are beyond our own control.

I don’t think that is necessarily true. But I do think it’s true in the vast, vast majority of cases. The only to make it false in one’s own case is through plenty of hard work (and no small measure of luck).

So willingly apprentice yourself to the greatest thinkers who have ever thought, and settle in for the long haul. Graduation is a possibility, but at best it is years and decades off in the distance.

The murder of one’s own mind

I have a friend who has gotten lost deep down an intellectual rabbit-hole. (I use the word “intellectual” only loosely here.)

It occurred to me recently that the deeper he goes down this hole, the worse are his chances of ever being able to think like a reasonable person again. He’s building an identity for himself as someone who’s intellectually lazy, intellectually arrogant, intellectually insular, intellectually inflexible — even if that’s of course not how he’d characterize it to himself or to anyone else.

He happens to be very rightwing. I believe that what has happened to him can certainly happen also to people elsewhere on the ideological spectrum, and it’s my strong personal conviction (though evidence is increasingly thin these days) that a person can be right of centre without needing to abandon the brain as part of the deal.

These days though, it does seem to be the rightwingers who are making an especially strong showing in the ranks of conspiracy theorists, and conversely, the rightwing demographic is being filled alarmingly quickly with all manner of conspiracy theories and bunk.

My friend, who in his great love for truth now refuses to talk to me or even to hear from me, is convinced that the governments of the world, the media, the universities, the medical establishment, peer reviewed science, and publicly available statistics, are deliberately uniting to suppress what they know to be true, and knowingly promulgating a falsehood, for the explicit purpose of achieving global bolshevism in our lifetime.

Any evidence that supports what he doesn’t want to believe is apparently just a part of the conspiracy, or is apparently just being promoted and interpreted in dishonest ways by this conspiracy. Any lack of reputable evidence for his own views is clearly nothing but a result of the conspiracy suppressing such evidence, which must doubtless exist in great abundance somewhere, unpublished and unknown. How then does he know he’s right? Strangers on social media offer anecdotal support in all-caps, spellcheck-challenged masterpieces of rationality. And the odd disgruntled academic exchanges intellectual integrity for a moment’s prestige with the mob, as has always been the case. Who could need more evidence than that?

My friend is excessively suspicious of anything he doesn’t want to believe, and astoundingly credulous, even gullible, toward anything that confirms his biases. I spent months yanking one piece of bad evidence after another from the jenga tower of his reasonings, and somehow, no matter how many pieces easily came tumbling down, his confidence in the sureness of his conclusions would not waver for a second.

He will never escape from using this circular, hyperdogmatic mode of thinking without repudiating the conclusions he has already defended by it. I can’t really imagine him choosing to do so anytime in the next couple decades, no matter what history might reveal to us during that time. So he will continue to think all of his thoughts according to these same inhibited, self-pleasing patterns for years to come.

It seems highly likely to me that in this way, a bright, promising young mind could be relegated to intellectual swamplands for the remainder of its fearful, angry, shrunken existence. How many more similar cases are out there? Do we have an entire generation of thoughtful, intelligent conservative minds being slowly shipwrecked in this same fashion?

What a waste. What a damned waste.

Desiring to be right or desiring to know truth

There are two main ways to approach the intellectual life. They can shade over into one another somewhat, and each has its subdivisions, but it’s helpful to think of these two main versions structuring the possibilities of the intellectual life.

There’s the person who wants to get good at debating. The person who wants to find the best arguments and the best counterarguments against opponents, for the conclusion that’s known beforehand as right. The person who will trade arguments and evidence like changes of clothes as needed, but for whom the position defended will never alter.

I think we all start there, somewhat. Our upbringing and peer groups shape us to favour certain views, and even if we occasionally change or develop, we still approach the intellectual life as a matter of learning to prove ourselves right.

And then there is the alternative, which is the person who recognizes vast ignorance within and who is continually, laboriously searching for little bits of knowledge to fill up the yawning lack of understanding.

Somehow, the former group are very good at dragging you into long arguments, but most of the time the arguments won’t lead anyplace very worthwhile. If they inspire us to deepen our knowledge in one area or another, that can be a good outcome, but such a benefit tends to happen outside of the argument, almost in spite of the argument, and not as a part of the argument itself, in my experience.

It can be hard to recognize dogmatism within ourselves. It can feel reasonable to say that I know the answer already and I’m just trying to find the best way to explain why it’s the correct answer.

The sooner we can embrace our ignorance and set out to do something about it, though, the better. Let’s not waste time. There’s learning to be done, and a lifetime is barely enough time to get started on the project.

When I turn to Epictetus

I probably read Epictetus’s Enchiridion a few times a year. It’s not something I plan or schedule at all.

I read Epictetus when something is wrong. When I’m grieving, or when someone I care about is grieving. When a friendship I care about is in a stormy place. When I’m stressed out. When I’m worried about the future. Or just when things feel off, even if I can’t point to a reason for it.

When I read Epictetus, I have a glimpse of a bigger, grander, more beautiful truth of which I’m a small part. It feels like lightness, freedom, joy, peace.

A shot of that experience at the right moment can reorient me, redirect me, give me a centre and a ground.

Whenever I read Epictetus, I think to myself that I ought to be reading him all year long, memorizing and internalizing every treasure that fell from his great mind.

And I think that’s true. I think I’m right to say so to myself in those moments. But I haven’t yet followed through.

For now, Epictetus is a comfort who arrives in my dark moments to share his brilliance. For now, even that is an indescribable gift. But one day, I hope, he will be an even closer companion. I think that such closeness is going to be a necessary part of the path to becoming the person I want to be.

Winning graciously

Sometimes, especially on social media, an argument is best won by a sudden falling-silent.

Here’s how I approach it. If you make a winning argument, and the other side in their reply tacitly admit the grounds of your valid argument, then that’s the best chance there will be for making a getaway.

The temptation is to point out in that moment that you’ve won. Doing that will only make the other person angry, defensive, pushy. They’ll bring up something else, the conversation will no longer be over, and it will be endless and fruitless.

Maybe a sudden departure will make the other person think you lost the argument, and that’s fine. If they ever bring it up later, it’s easy to explain who really lost.

And if they don’t bring it up later, but just go on thinking they won, where’s the harm in that? Two happy people seems like as good an outcome as you could possibly hope for.

An argument, with one or both people feeling argumentative, isn’t the time for seeking truth. It’s one of the worst times to try seeking truth. Emotions of indignation or contempt or anger can make us all but impervious to reason, to recognizing truth or sense.

There are times for the arduous task of seeking truth, no doubt. An argument, though, is usually good for nothing except making a quick getaway.

Thoughts on Greek and Latin

I have big dreams for my study of Greek and Latin.

I’m currently reading through what are effectively two graded readers, one each. For Latin I’m reading through Ørberg’s famous Familia Romana. For Greek, after way too much trial and error, I’ve finally settled on the ubiquitous Athenaze; it feels silly to have arrived at such an obvious choice after so much searching, but I guess there’s a reason it’s so common! I’m using the English version of Athenaze, not the Italian; I know many people love the Italian one and I hear from knowledgeable people that it has real advantages over the English, but I’ve found that for me, for this moment, the English is the better option for self-directed study.

I’m a fair bit further along in my Latin book than I am in the Greek, since I had several false starts in looking for a Greek resource. However, because of the way the two books are set up, I’m also progressing through the Greek book considerably more quickly than the Latin, so at some point, probably not too far away, I’m pretty sure I’ll overtake my Latin progress.

Each book has a second volume, a sort of sequel. I don’t yet know whether I’ll choose to resume in the second volume for either Greek or Latin, or if I’ll just feel ready or eager to go straight to reading ancient texts once I reach that point.

I was thinking recently that once I reach the end of the textbook (whether that means the end of the first volume, the end of the second, or some point in between), I will hover for a time, and then branch in two directions.

When I say that I will hover, I mean that I hope to spend some months just rereading the last three to five chapters, again and again until their vocabulary and grammar have been really internalized.

When I say that I will finish by branching in two directions, I mean that when I’m feeling comfortable, I will pick an ancient text that feels around the right level for me and will begin reading through it. At the same time, on alternating days, I will spend time studying the grammar of the language. Currently I’m not spending much time on grammar, since I’ve studied it in the past for both languages and know it “well enough” to be able to read what I’m reading. One day, though, I’d love to know the grammar of both languages inside out.

That’s the plan. It will take years of patient, frequent efforts, if it’s going to be possible at all. But if it works, that will hopefully still leave me decades to enjoy reading the vast literatures of both languages. I am so excited at the thought of it.