Quote of the Day

From a comment on a post at Belmont Club:

…There is also the problem of the elite’s lack of humility. I’m a pretty smart guy, and I think I could do a decent job of re-ordering the world if given absolute power.
But … It wouldn’t be right. It is not up to me to tell my fellow humans how to live. I think bowling, for instance, is stupid, though many people enjoy it. What/who gives me the right to tell bowlers that they should be going to the symphony instead?
But nobody is forcing me to go bowling and nobody is using my tax dollars to subsidize bowling, so I don’t care. Not my business, and not a problem. This is the essence of liberty.
For a thought experiment, substitute guns, french fries, or abortion for bowling above and see how you feel. The realization that you do not have the Moral Authority to try to construct a perfect world that eliminates what you dislike is the essence of humility. Many very bright people lack humility.

26 thoughts on “Quote of the Day”

  1. And we are happier when we recognize our limits.

    This is going to be a long comment and you can delete it, Jonathan, if you wish. It is all from Edmund Morgan’s wonderfully written biography of Benjamin Franklin:

    He had told his mother that when his life was over, he would like to have it said that “he lived usefully.” Being useful to the public might mean persuading people to do what he considered good for them, but it did not mean placing what he considered good above what they did. Being useful meant doing what they wanted, not what he wanted.

    Franklin certainly had a private life, and the arts of it he allows us to see are full of fun, full of the personal magnetism that makes us long to sit down with him and talk about the exciting things he could always see in the world around him. His scientific discoveries were part of his private life. They might prove incidentally useful to mankind as in his work with electricity and with stoves and chimneys. But the usefulness that he deliberately placed above the experiments he enjoyed so much was a usefulness that suppressed private enjoyment in favor of public service. As private property was to give way before public need, so with private preference before public policy. We are reminded again of Jefferson’s view that Franklin’s genius as a scientist dictated an exemption from public service. Franklin rejected not only that entitlement but any priority for his own views over those of the people he served. (Morgan, 313)

    And probably the greatest lack of humility is to forget how wise the vision of those old guys was and how much it understood human nature – as it was then and as it continues to be now. We can build on what they taught us, but I think the greatest failing of today is to forget – to forget how much we tend to tyrannize, how prideful we are, how tribal we are, how much work civilization has had to do and how much it still does. Few of us have as much reason for pride as Franklin and few of us have the self-discipline to restrain it that he had.

    Morgan concludes:
    We can know what many of his contemporaries came to recognize, that he did as much as any man ever has to shape the world he and they lived in. We can also know what they must have known, that the world was not quite what he would have liked to make it . . . His special brand of self-respect required him to honor his fellow men and women no less than himself. His way of serving a superior God was to serve them. He did it with recognition of their human strengths and weaknesses as well as his own, in a spirit that another wise man in another century has called “the spirit which is not too sure it is right.” It is a spirit that weakens the weak but strengthens the strong. It gave Franklin the strength to do what he incredibly did, as a scientist, a statesman, and a man. (314)

  2. I was with you right up until you asked me to substitute “abortion”. How about if you substitute “murder” in your thought experiment? Would you still suggest that I should be indifferent to whether people murder each other so long as they don’t murder me, or take my money to buy the bullets to murder each other? I think there is an obvious societal interest in keeping murders to a minimum. No matter how you or I feel about abortion, those who see it as murder (as I do) will part company with your thought experiment at that point.

    What if I were to substitute “arson” or “armed robbery” for bowling in the thought experiment. At some point the line is drawn where criminal behavior must be regulated. Clearly bowling is not across that line, but what is the criteria for drawing the line? The crux of the issue, I believe, is over that question. Murder, armed robbery and arson are clearly on one side of the line, while bowling is just as clearly on the other side. But what about all the gray stuff – sexual beahviors that one person calls deviant and another sees as normal? The level of sex and violence allowable on television available for children? How much you can drink before your behavior is a public nuisance? Who gets to draw that line, and by what criteria should they draw it? Are you suggesting that it all boils down to nothing but money? Anything goes so long as it does not come out of my bank account?

    There is also the matter of the unpleasant reality that the economy is already in our pockets for things perhaps it shouldn’t, such as the cost of health insurance. The premiums are not based on individual risk factors, but collective ones. In theory, my health insurance cost goes up because of your love of french fries. The very sound argument can be made that, since you are forcing me to pay for your unhealthy lifestyle (not you personally, Jonathon, in fact it is more probably the opposite since I have the eating habits of a goat), I have a very real right to either regulate your lifestyle, or demand compensation for the money you are taking from me. The same argument can be made for any behavior that falls under the purview of insurance claims. Your drunk driving or smoking in bed causes my premiums to be higher. By the very nature of pooled risk, I am on the hook for the behavior of others. Shouldn’t I have a right to control behavior that costs me money?

    You are absolutely correct in theory, but in reality it is a very messy and complicated matter.

  3. Bill, if you click on a link in Jonathan’s post, you’ll notice the comment he quotes was written by one JWarrior. I don’t think it’s Jonathan’s pseudonym, he has more style than that.

    I’m going to suggest an obvious criteria for your line: harm to another human being. Bowling: no harm; arson: quite a lot. It’s all has been amply formulated in criminal law already.
    This criteria helps even in your murky waters: if nobody got hrt, physically or psychologically, no crime was committed.
    Abortion up to 12 weeks: no crime. Partial birth abortion: crime.

    And if all of the above, including sexual deviants and bowling, is subsidized by my tax dollars – it’s all crimes: forced expropriation of my property.

  4. “…There is also the problem of the elite’s lack of humility…. nobody is using my tax dollars to subsidize bowling, …. This is the essence of liberty….. you do not have the Moral Authority to try to construct a perfect world that eliminates what you dislike is the essence of humility. Many very bright people lack humility. ”

    There is something rotten that relates to the lack of humility, the hubris, of the elite in the most recent attempts at control of vast areas of economic activity. The present administration, with the blessing and midwifery of the past administration, claims to believe that extra-legal economic bailouts were necessary because members of the economic community were “too big to fail”. This was/is a corruption of the system (no matter that overt direct bribes, etc. were not likely actually made). “Too big to fail” really means “too influential to fail”. Unsuccessful ideas that failed, unsuccessful institutions that failed, and unsuccessful individuals that failed were not allowed to retrench and adjust under existing regulations for healthy change or, alternatively, become extinct. Now further financial regulations are being proposed but one wonders if these regulations are necessary, given that existing regs are not applied, or even meaningful if the new extra legal methods will ignored if it is convenient for the influential.

    What are we to make of these efforts outside the existing legal arrangements? The common thread in recent legal and extra legal arrangements is the enhancement of governmental control of the free market and the free people.

  5. Abortion is a good example for this discussion, because people are strongly divided in their opinions and want incompatible rules. Maybe the best that we can do is recognize that opinions differ and treat other people with respect. In practice this means devolving political power to the local level to the extent possible, and avoiding the temptation to impose universal “solutions” when our own group is in power. (Of course we can always try to persuade people of the rightness of our views.) Ginny’s allusion to “the spirit which is not too sure it is right” captures these ideas well.

  6. OK, abortion is a good example.
    Jon, are you saying we have to delegate decisions about abortion (since it’s a good example) to the local authority? Who said the local authority’s opinion and knowledge on a subject is better than mine or Bill’s? Are they medical experts? Or – say, if they are – doe it mean the local authority in Ft. Lauderdale can declare all abortion, of all stages, criminal, and a local authority in Fair Lawn, NJ announce it is ALL legal, even 3 days before natural labor?

    This IS a good example, because actually it is an example of universal solution. Based on medical evidence, not on religious instruction or social advocates opinions. There are such things as “objective criteria”, and this is such case.

    The doubting spirit is all right and well – at the first stages of coming to decision. Then you develop a criteria that helps you eliminate doubt.

  7. I’m talking about political decisions, not personal ones. There aren’t many ways to handle such issues politically. Either you impose a rule on everyone or you let different regional governments set their own rules. The latter course of action has the advantage of providing feedback on how alternative policies fare over time, and gives a possibility of relief to individuals who find the rule where they live oppressive.

  8. There are issues which are so core to the values of the overall society–such as slavery–that they cannot be left to local or individual decision. We can argue about which issues fall into this category, but the number of them must be *small*. The current problem is that *almost everything*…including, for example, the amount of salt to be allowed in foods…is being placed into the centrally-controlled-binding-on-everyone category.

  9. Continuing the abortion example: it went beyond personal decision the minute laws and regulations were developed about it. The issue has been so blown out of proportion with magnitude of informed (and uninformed) opinion, that it is now political as well as personal.
    Feedback is meaningful only if it can be used as basis for correction of the initial decision or law. If a family has to move from one municipality to another, so as to preserve their right to put as much salt or fat into their food as they see fit – and not be subject to their local authority rule about it – this is not very practical.

  10. “If a family has to move from one municipality to another, so as to preserve their right to put as much salt or fat into their food as they see fit – and not be subject to their local authority rule about it – this is not very practical”

    More practical than having to move to another country. Less practical than simply being able to change preferred restaurant or grocery brand.

  11. It is the purpose of government to limit the liberty of its subjects. Traditionally, government leaders and their friends have no limits on their liberty. Although laws, custom, constitution and religion all place limits on the power of government, the only durable limits are imposed by the lack of technology and by rival governments.

    People who want unlimited freedom usually live in hard-to-reach places as hermits. There are very few hard-to-reach places left that are beyond the reach of the law.

    When liberties are severely limited, many people get drunk and stay drunk. Others commit suicide. Abortions become common.

  12. I like to call this the Kantian mistake: act is if my preferences, principles, and prejudices were the law of all mankind. Kant for the politician. Compare to ‘Kant for the little man,’ which got Germany inn so much trouble.

  13. On a side note: I know it’s the fashion in some quarters (not around here!) to say that the whole internet is awash with nonsense – okay, a lot of it is – but I am always delighted by the little comment gems I find. And I find them everywhere. Even YouTube. Yes, even YouTube.

    Okay, back on topic! Certain elites ought to be named and shamed for what they really are: BUSYBODIES.

    Hectoring, pedantic, face-in-your-business, unhappy, controlling, harpy-shrew-like, busybodies.

    Except, it’s even worse that that.

    – Madhu

  14. From William Langewiesche’s new book “Fly by Wire,” which is about the USAir flight that landed safely in the Hudson:

    “Intelligence is not a prerequisite for safe flying, but an acceptance of human fallibility is, and the two are generally linked. Ziegler mentioned it on the banks of the Garonne. He has seen such variations over the years. He said that the mark of the great pilots he has known is that they admitted in advance to their capacity for error, and they addressed their mistakes vigorously after making them. He said, ‘Vous savez, monsieur. L’Erreur est humaine.’ Actually the Latin original, in full, goes ‘Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum.’ To err is human, but to persist is diabolical. Maybe it should be posted in polling stations. Certainly it should be posted in cockpits.”

  15. Time and again, history shows that central planning of a society doesn’t work after it reaches a certain small size. Even if the harm caused by such meddling is kept low, it certainly retards progress of all sorts.

    So, considering how many examples there is of this, how come a claim that they could do a better job by a bright person doesn’t prove that they aren’t all that bright?

  16. Some of our problems are caused by the elites’ sense they have transcended human nature – that in situations where anyone else would see nepotism they can be perfectly objective; that in situations where anyone else would turf build and lust for more power, they will need no consraints because they won’t; in situations where anyone else might be tempted by money or sex, they will remain unspoiled (think of the elites relationships with lobbyists for instance). Of course, this very lack of knowledge means that they are more likely to fall than the person who recognizes fallibility – much like the pilots who don’t admit their human weaknesses are more likely to do poorly in flight. Certain professions have attracted and reinforce this sense of themselves (politicians, pundits & professors are seldom held accountable and have a certain power over others). What restrained someone like Franklin was the obsession that period had with fallibility, with human nature, with proportionality. I’ve really come to love that period – they gave us so much wisdom we’ve squandered. Perhaps it needed the balance of Emerson & Thoreau, but once we set ourselves on that path, we needed to retain some of that old self-doubt. We didn’t. And it has not always been a happy path.

  17. There is also the problem of the elite’s lack of humility. I’m a pretty smart guy, and I think I could do a decent job of re-ordering the world if given absolute power.

    Actually, that is wrong and not just for him but for everyone. The most intelligent, most experienced, most widely read etc human being understands only at best 1% of 1% of all the knowledge it takes to make the world work. In the grand scheme things we’re all retarded. Asking the smartest human being alive to make wide sweeping decisions about the actions of millions of human beings is like asking the world’s smartest ant to fly an airplane.

    Looking back at intellectual history proves this. Pick any randomly selected year or decade in the past and examine the totality of elite opinion. The vast majority of information possessed by history’s greatest minds was in fact utter gibberish.

    We remember intellectuals giants as great because they got one or two things right that became foundations of future work but history tends to forget the vast majority of things they got wrong. You can see this clearly in the sciences. Newton got a several big things correct (or usefully proximately correct) but his political ideas where often bizarre and he was shockingly economically naive. Even his insight that light was a wave phenomena turned out to be seriously incomplete. Ditto for Priestly or Darwin.

    Don’t forget the entire eugenics episode when for 50 years virtually every major secular thinker in the developed world believed we should base public policy on a completely flawed model of evolution and genetics.

    True humility requires not just an understanding of the limits of our personal knowledge but of the limits of the knowledge of the entire human species.

    After all, the most dangerous idea of the 20th century was that there existed technocratic experts whose knowledge exceeded that of the individuals who supported the rule of the technocrats. Arguably, the belief that someone knows everything is a more dangerous belief in the long run than the belief that we personally know everything.

    Worse, our total ability to understand and predict the world never really improves no matter how much we learn. Every time we increase our knowledge, we automatically increase the complexity of the world and automatically reduce our ability to predict the world’s behavior. The internet provides unprecedented ability to communicate and analyze but at the same time it makes the world more fast moving and detailed. We may know way more about the how the world worked in the time of our ancestors did but we simultaneously make the world more and more complex and fast changing in the here and now. We can never catch up.

    I think we all individual;y understand less of percentage of our world than did our forebears. We often lament the lack of “renaissance men” like Ben Franklin but in reality it would impossible for anyone today to be a world class scientist, a world class business person, a world class politician and a world class writer. Franklyn could do all that because each field back then had only a tiny percentage of the information that each field does know. We still have the same mental hardware that humans have had for 50,000 years but we have to process way, way more information. So, we specialize and in doing so we lose any broad perspective.

    As the world grows more and more complicated, the arguments for centralized decision making grows more and more absurd. In the end, the surest case against such central planning isn’t moral but practical. Systems that simply don’t work at all can’t be moral. You can argue about the morality of how a society distributes its food but the food has to exist in the first place so it can be distributed. A system which cannot grow enough food is automatically less moral than one that grows abundant food but distributes it “unfairly”.

  18. To boil Shannon’s comment down to the very essentials – we have to know and accept that we don’t know, outside of our own little special realm of expertise. We have to be easy with that acceptance. A person has to know their own limitations.
    And there are some things that just aren’t known. Is it relevant at this point to quote the Great Sage Rumsfeld?
    “There are known knowns.
    These are things we know that we know.
    There are known unknowns.
    That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know.
    But there are also unknown unknowns.
    There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

    And the things that we don’t know we don’t know will eventually make themselves known by biting is on the hinder regions.

  19. “There is also the problem of the elite’s lack of humility”

    Why was this commentor picking on the elite, whoever they may be? Plenty of ignorant, uneducated, unread people will happily tell you how wrong you are in how you live your life. I think this commentor is displaying his own lack of humility.

  20. Because the elites have the power – they certainly right now don’t seem to have any historical memory which one would think would come with minimal intelligence. But isn’t the key to assume everyone will want more power than they have, so whoever gets some will leverage it to get more? Checks and balances, a system that discourages linking governmental power with money, a transparent justice system are important.

    Fom the woman who wanted to be known as a farmeress and competent capitalist, but whose husband said she was a wise statesman:
    “I am more and more convinced that Man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in many or a few is ever grasping, and like the grave cries give, give. The great fish swallow up the small, and he who is most strenuous for the Rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of Government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which Humane Nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.” (letter, 1775)

  21. Shannon’s concern about the explosion of knowledge and the ability of the human mind to cope with it is a major issue in medical education. Medical students know much more about molecular biology than I did (or anybody did in 1961, for that matter) as a student but medical school cannot be 12 years long. What has happened is the selection of what is *important* for students to learn and that selection has a lot of influence on cost of health care when that generation of physicians is turned loose on the world.

    A medical education journal reported a study a few years ago in which it was found that one-third of cardiology fellows could not detect a systolic heart murmur. That is the easiest murmur to hear. These were not medical students but graduates who had chosen cardiology for a career.

    I saw this trend ten years ago when I used to attend the UCI surgical grand rounds. Every case of acute appendicitis had a spiral CT scan. The diagnostic accuracy of spiral CT in the diagnosis of appendicitis is approximately that of the hands of a skilled surgeon examining the patient.

  22. That’s part of why government-dominated health care is so important to them—once the govt is paying for it, almost anything you do can be argued to affect public finance, including french fries and your choice of hobbies

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