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 valuable 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.

Room for failure

I think the key to succeeding with habits is leaving oneself enough room for failure that it becomes easy to avoid the real failure, which is to drop the habit.

Don’t punish yourself for failure, if you want to keep the habit long term. You’ll feel strong in the moment, like you’re being tough on yourself, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s a place for that. Just not in setting up the habit itself.

Give yourself a generous, forgiving framework to act within. Most days, you’ll do better than the bare minimum you’ve set for yourself, and that is exciting. Some days, you’ll do way, way better than that bare minimum, when the inspiration to do so is there. Those days will be pretty rare.

And then some days, whether because of schedule or stress or health or just mood, you’ll only do the bare minimum.

On those bare minimum days, there will not be much progress, but there still will be a little, which counts for something, since all the little bits add up over time.

But far more importantly, those bare minimum days precede more days of practicing that habit. Without the generous framework, the “bare minimum” days would feel instead like “failure” days, and no one likes to feel like a failure.

There are only so many times a habit can be failed before a person gives up on it. Psychologically, that just seems to be the reality, at least for most of us. But having a low bar means it is easy to avoid failure, which in the long run will pay dividends.

Back to the Academy

In the past few months, I’ve been seriously considering making an effort to go back in the direction of aiming for some sort of an academic career.

It’s a future I’d dreamed of for quite a while, but there was a point in my life when I experienced some real hesitation. That hesitation began because a professor I knew, for whom I had some respect, was outspoken in his opinion that PhDs were a bad choice. It’s really hard work, and at the end of it all you probably won’t have very good job prospects, so if you’re really smart you’ll just do something else with your life. Because of how strongly he seemed to believe this, it left a deep impression on me.

There were several other factors that contributed as well. I’d heard, for instance, how much of a toll doctoral studies could take on a person’s mental health, and I’d seen signs of that. I was also, in a way, frustrated by how constricted a program of studies could feel. I wanted to read the complete works of Plato, to tackle the great books and authors and thoughts of the past, and instead I was forced to spend immense time and energy reading and writing on the comparatively short and unimportant texts assigned by professors with the narrowest focus. Getting out of the academy felt like a liberation, and I did take advantage of it to read many of the things I never had time for as a student.

What felt central to me, though, was my burgeoning conviction that the most urgent, most important thing was to grow in virtue, to be a good person. I turned away from an academic future because I felt sure it would be an obstacle to virtue. The further I went, the more I noticed qualities in my fellow students, in the students who were ahead of me, and in my professors, that I didn’t think I wanted any part of. It was becoming clear to me that for our academic system to accentuate a person’s virtues rather than vices was not impossible, but at least exceptional. And it seemed highly likely that there was a causal connection — that these were vices not simply displayed in an academic style, but caused by the pressures of an academic life. I saw in my own personal development how my studies fostered intemperance, irritability, insecurity, arrogance, envy, sloth.

And then the longer I was away, the more life just seemed to get in the way of getting back to it.

So then having said all that, what could change my mind?

One extremely important point is that I’ve had a chance to read much of the great thought and writing that I wanted to get around to reading. I’ve read enough of it to feel okay with slowing down. There’s still so much more that I’m hungry to read, but I’ve reached a point where I’m happy to slow down and focus on one smaller (even less important) collection of texts under others’ supervision for a time.

Probably the pivotal moment for me was the realization that I just do desire to be part of the scholarly community, and that in our day it is very very difficult to do so without a PhD. I found myself already spending as much as possible of my spare time studying languages and history and reading journal articles and great books, and I realized that I could be doing all these things and getting paid for it, rather than doing all these things without compensation and while losing opportunities to spend that time doing other important things.

And that sort of leads me back around to the topics of mental health and progress in virtue. In the past several years, I’ve developed several good habits that relate to studiousness, habits that will remain in place (to one extent or another) whether or not I am in the orbit of academia. This gives me the hope that rather than being driven by my program of studies, which is how things have always gone in the past, I might be able to stay more in the driver’s seat, using my good habits to spend my time responsibly. I’m taking a class this semester and I can already see how the stresses of timelines and deadlines can cause some problems for my habits that weren’t there before, but on the other side, I can also see how the habits are preserving me somewhat from the unhealthy tendencies that would otherwise be afflicting me, and enabling me to do a far better job than I would have been capable of in my former way of doing things.

I’m open to what the future holds! I don’t know what will come up, or whether an academic future is realistic for me to contemplate. It’s back on the radar, however, and for the moment that’s feeling pretty exciting.

Leo Strauss’s Core Books

It occurred to me recently that there are half a dozen books by Leo Strauss that I think of as a sort of canon within the canon.

Only one of those books is (what I think of as) a commentary book, as opposed to a book of essays. The Hobbes and Spinoza books, important as they are, seem not quite to represent his mature and most powerful thinking, and the later books like the ones on Xenophon are just so tedious and obscure, not nearly as thrilling as some from earlier in his career. Thoughts on Machiavelli though, for all that it focuses on a single thinker, has certainly made a place for itself among his greatest books.

Out of the other books, the books of essays, there are five that I think of as having a particular coherence and importance over the others. I’m judging this not only based on my own experience but also on how I’ve heard others speak of them.

Some are his most famous writings. Natural Right and History. Persecution and the Art of Writing. On Tyranny. These seem to deserve their remarkable reputation.

It might be slightly less famous and slightly more obscure, but I believe that City and Man demands to be seen on the same level as the last few I mentioned.

Probably the most controversial book on my list is Philosophy and Law. Not as famous, not as mature, perhaps not quite as moving. But I can’t bring myself to leave it off the list.

I’m by no means saying that his other books are unimportant or uninteresting. For some reason, and it might be entirely irrational, these six books strike me as most authoritative, and somehow also most exciting. Maybe my list will change in the coming years! But I think I’ve been seeing Strauss’s corpus this way for a while, and it was interesting to notice it and articulate it for myself, even if I can’t fully defend or explain why I hold to this list in the form that it has.