Philosophy and Ethics

On Appeasing Envy

Henry Hazlett “On Appeasing Envy.” The Freeman. March 1972. (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education).

Any attempt to equalize wealth or income by forced redistribution must only tend to destroy wealth and income. Historically the best would-be equalizers have ever succeeded in doing is to equalize downward. This has even been caustically described as their intention. “Your levellers,” said Samuel Johnson in the mid-eighteenth century, “wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.” And in our own day we find even an eminent liberal like the late Mr. Justice Holmes writing: “I have no respect for the passion for equality, which seems to me merely idealizing envy.”[17]

At least a handful of writers have begun to recognize explicitly the all-pervasive role played by envy or the fear of envy in life and in contemporary political thought. In 1966, Helmut Schoeck, professor of sociology at the University of Mainz, devoted a penetrating book to the subject.[18]

There can be little doubt that many egalitarians are motivated at least partly by envy, while still others are motivated, not so much by any envy of their own, as by the fear of it in others, and the wish to appease or satisfy it.

But the latter effort is bound to be futile. Almost no one is completely satisfied with his status in relation to his fellows. In the envious the thirst for social advancement is insatiable. As soon as they have risen one rung in the social or economic ladder, their eyes are fixed upon the next. They envy those who are higher up, no matter by how little. In fact, they are more likely to envy their immediate friends or neighbours, who are just a little bit better off, than celebrities or millionaires who are incomparably better off. The position of the latter seems unattainable, but of the neighbour who has just a minimal advantage they are tempted to think: “I might almost be in his place.”

The Urge to Deprive Others

Moreover, the envious are more likely to be mollified by seeing others deprived of some advantage than by gaining it for themselves. It is not what they lack that chiefly troubles them, but what others have. The envious are not satisfied with equality; they secretly yearn for superiority and revenge. In the French revolution of 1848, a woman coal-heaver is reported to have remarked to a richly dressed lady: “Yes, madam, everything’s going to be equal now; I shall go in silks and you’ll carry coal.”

Envy is implacable. Concessions merely whet its appetite for more concessions. As Schoeck writes: “Man’s envy is at its most intense where all are almost equal; his calls for redistribution are loudest when there is virtually nothing to redistribute.”[19]

(We should, of course, always distinguish that merely negative envy which begrudges others their advantage from the positive ambition that leads men to active emulation, competition, and creative effort of their own.)

But the accusation of envy, or even of the fear of others’ envy, as the dominant motive for any redistribution proposal, is a serious one to make and a difficult if not impossible one to prove. Moreover, the motives for making a proposal, even if ascertainable, are irrelevant to its inherent merits.

We can, nonetheless, apply certain objective tests. Sometimes the motive of appeasing other people’s envy is openly avowed. Socialists will often talk as if some form of superbly equalized destitution were preferable to “maldistributed” plenty. A national income that is rapidly growing in absolute terms for practically everyone will be deplored because it is making the rich richer. An implied and sometimes avowed principle of the British Labour Party leaders after World War II was that “Nobody should have what everybody can’t have.”

Equality, Yes; Abundance, No!

But the main objective test of a social proposal is not merely whether it emphasizes equality more than abundance, but whether it goes further and attempts to promote equality at the expense of abundance. Is the proposed measure intended primarily to help the poor, or to penalize the rich? And would it in fact punish the rich at the cost of also hurting everyone else?

This is the actual effect, as we saw earlier,[20] of steeply progressive income taxes and confiscatory inheritance taxes. These are not only counterproductive fiscally (bringing in less revenue from the higher brackets than lower rates would have brought), but they discourage or confiscate the capital accumulation and investment that would have increased national productivity and real wages.

Most of the confiscated funds are then dissipated by the government in current consumption expenditures. The long-run effect of such tax rates, of course, is to leave the working poor worse off than they would otherwise have been.

There are economists who will admit all this, but will answer that it is nonetheless politically necessary to impose such near confiscatory taxes, or to enact similar redistributive measures, in order to placate the dissatisfied and the envious—in order, even, to prevent actual revolution.

Appeasement Provokes Envy

This argument is the reverse of the truth. The effect of trying to appease envy is to provoke more of it. The most popular theory of the French Revolution is that it came about because the economic condition of the masses was becoming worse and worse, while the king and the aristocracy remained completely blind to it. But Tocqueville, one of the most penetrating social observers and historians of his or any time, put forward an exactly opposite explanation. Let me state it first as summarized by an eminent French commentator in 1899: Here is the theory invented by Tocqueville…. The lighter a yoke, the more it seems insupportable; what exasperates is not the crushing burden but the impediment; what inspires to revolt is not oppression but humiliation. The French of 1789 were incensed against the nobles because they were almost the equals of the nobles; it is the slight difference that can be appreciated, and what can be appreciated that counts. The eighteenth century middle class was rich, in a position to fill almost any employment, almost as powerful as the nobility. It was exasperated by this “almost” and stimulated by the proximity of its goal; impatience is always provoked by the final strides.[21]

I have quoted this passage because I do not find the theory stated in quite this condensed form by Tocqueville himself. Yet this is essentially the theme of his L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution, and he presented impressive factual documentation to support it.

As the prosperity which I have just described began to extend in France, the community nevertheless became more unsettled and uneasy; public discontent grew fierce; hatred against all established institutions increased. The nation was visibly advancing toward a revolution…. It might be said that the French found their position the more intolerable precisely where it had become better. Surprising as this fact is, history is full of such contradictions.

It is not always by going from bad to worse that a country falls into revolution. It happens most frequently that a people, which had supported the most crushing laws without complaint, and apparently as if they were unfelt, throws them off with violence as soon as the burden begins to be diminished. The state of things destroyed by a revolution is almost always somewhat better than that which immediately preceded it; and experience has shown that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is usually that when it enters upon the work of reform. Nothing short of great political genius can save a sovereign who undertakes to relieve his subjects after a long period of oppression.

The evils which were endured with patience so long as they were inevitable seem intolerable as soon as a hope can be entertained of escaping from them. The abuses which are removed seem to lay bare those which remain, and to render the sense of them more acute; the evil has decreased, it is true, but the perception of the evil is more keen….

No one any longer contended in 1780 that France was in a state of decline; there seemed, on the contrary, to be just then no bounds to her progress. Then it was that the theory of the continual and indefinite perfectibility of man took its origin. Twenty years before nothing was to be hoped of the future: then nothing was to be feared. The imagination, grasping at this near and unheard of felicity, caused men to overlook the advantages they already possessed, and hurried them forward to something new.[22]

Aggravated by Sympathy

The expressions of sympathy that came from the privileged class itself only aggravated the situation: The very men who had most to fear from the fury of the people declaimed loudly in their presence on the cruel injustice under which the people had always suffered. They pointed out to each other the monstrous vices of those institutions which had weighed most heavily upon the lower orders: they employed all their powers of rhetoric in depicting the miseries of the common people and their ill-paid labour; and thus they infuriated while they endeavoured to relieve them.[23]

Tocqueville went on to quote at length from the mutual recriminations of the king, the nobles, and the parliament in blaming each other for the wrongs of the people. To read them now is to get the uncanny feeling that they are plagiarizing the rhetoric of the limousine liberals of our own day. All this does not mean that we should refrain from taking any measure truly calculated to relieve hardship and reduce poverty. What it does mean is that we should never take governmental measures merely for the purpose of trying to assuage the envious or appease the agitators, or to buy off a revolution.

Such measures, betraying weakness and a guilty conscience, only lead to more far-reaching and even ruinous demands. A government that pays social blackmail will precipitate the very consequences that it fears.



[17] The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Harold J. Laski (ed. M. De Wolfe Howe, 2 vol. Cambridge, Mass., 1953). From Holmes to Laski, May 12, 1927, p. 942.

[18] Helmut Schoeck, Envy (English translation, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969).

[19] Ibid., p. 303.

[20] “Should we Divide the Wealth?” in The Freeman, February, 1972, p. 100.

[21] Emile Faguet, Politicians and Moralists of the Nineteenth Century (Boston: Little, Brown; 1928), p. 93.

[22] Alexis de Tocqueville, On the State of Society in France before the Revolution of 1789. (London: John Murray, 1856) pp. 321–324. Also available as The Old Regime and the French Revolution in a Doubleday paperback.

[23] Ibid., pp. 329–330.

A Break with Prevailing Faith by Leonard Read,

Those who know me from these pages and others might be surprised that I share this Leonard Read essay with you; the three assumptions he declares towards the end of the essay are in my view very “new-age”-type hokum. Perhaps I have not emphasised enough another of my principles – I find partisan extremes distasteful. It’s as if we have no power of discrimination and will somehow be contaminated by exposure to the other side. There are conservatives who will not read a word written by a liberal, and atheists who spurn all that is written by believers, and vice versa. Partisans imagine that those who hold an opposing opinion thereby develop demonic horns and the devil’s tongue. This kind of blind fervour in the sanctity of one’s own opinions is what drove me to write Socks, and motivates me to put before you Read’s philosophical piece (below). Whilst I reject his assumptions, I nevertheless learn a great deal from what he says. I hope you can too.
A Break with Prevailing Faith
by Leonard Read, “A Break with Prevailing Faith.” In Anything That’s Peaceful, 1–9. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The
Foundation for Economic Education, 1998.
Galileo was called on the carpet, tried by the Inquisition, and put in prison because he affirmed the theory of Copernicus that the solar system does not revolve around our earth. The truth as he perceived it was a break with the prevailing faith; he committed the unpardonable sin of affronting the mores. This was his guilt.
Americans—enlightened as we suppose ourselves to be—are inclined to view with scorn that illiberal attitude of some three centuries ago which sought to keep the light of new evidence away from the fallacies of that time. Fie on such childish intolerance; we are not afraid of truth; let the light shine in!
Perhaps we should pause for a moment and carefully scrutinize what our own mirror reveals. A letter in the morning mail highlights my point: this woman had visited the librarian of the high school to which she had made a gift of The Freeman, a monthly journal that presents, dispassionately but consistently, the rationale of the free market, private property, limited government philosophy, along with its moral and spiritual antecedents. She discovered that the journal was not among the periodicals displayed for student perusal, that it had been discreetly relegated to the teachers’ reading room. What was the reason for this under-the-rug procedure? The librarian explained, “The Freeman is too conservative.” My correspondent, distraught by this illiberal attitude—by this attempt to keep students from knowing about the freedom philosophy—asked of me, “What can we do about this?”
The answer to this question is to be found in an old English proverb, “Truth will out!” As it did with Galileo’s theory, so it will do with the ideology of freedom! However, if we would conserve our energies and act in the best interests of the freedom philosophy, we will do well to reflect on the most effective way to lend a hand to the philosophy. Suppose, for instance, Galileo had exerted pressure on the Inquisitors to purvey that fragment of truth he had come upon. The folly of such a tactic is clear: His truth in the hands of his enemies; heaven forbid! Likewise, it is folly for us to exert influence on those of the collectivistic faith—be they librarians, teachers, book reviewers or bookstore owners, politicians, or whoever—to carry the message of individuality and its essential concomitant, freedom in exchange. If one wishes to win, never choose teammates who are intent on losing the contest. Indeed, such folks should be scrupulously avoided as partners.
The way to give truth a hand is to pursue a do-it-yourself policy. Each must do his own seeking and revealing. Such success as one experiences will uncover and attract all the useful, helpful, sympathetic teammates one’s pursuit deserves. This appears to be truth’s obstacle course—no shortcuts allowed.
A Dark Age is followed by an Enlightenment; devolution and evolution follow on each other’s heels; myth and truth have each their day, now as ever. These opposites—action and reaction—occur with the near regularity of a pendulum, here as elsewhere, the vaunted “common sense of the American people” notwithstanding.
The Faith in Collectivism
Our time, as did Galileo’s, witnesses an enormous intolerance toward ideas which challenge the prevailing faith, that faith today being collectivism—worldwide. Americans during the past three or four decades have swung overwhelmingly toward the myths implicit in statism; but, more than this, they have become actually antagonistic to, and afraid of identification with, free market, private property, limited government principles. Indeed, such is the impact of the collectivistic myth, they shy away from any idea or person or institution which the political welfarists and planners choose to label as “rightists.” I have laboured full time in this controversy for more than thirty years and, having a good memory, these shifts are as clear to me as if they had occurred in the last few moments, or I’d just viewed a time-lapse movie of these events. Were I unaware that such actions and reactions are inevitable in the scheme of things—particularly when observing such behaviour by businessmen as well as by teachers, clergymen, and labour officials—I would be unable to believe my eyes.
Yet, truth will out! While myth and truth contend in their never-ending fray, truth inches ahead over the millennia as might be expected from the evolutionary process. My faith says that this is ordained, if we be worthy, for what meaning can truth have except our individual perception of it?
This is to say that among the numerous imperatives of truth is that many individuals do their utmost in searching for it and reporting whatever their search reveals. Worthiness also requires of those who would don her mantle a quality of character which I shall call incorruptibility. The more individuals in whom this quality finds refinement the better, and the sooner more truth will out. This quality is too important to suffer neglect for brevity’s sake; so let me spell it out.
If my claim for incorruptibility is to hold water, the notion of corruption will have to be refined beyond its generally accepted identification with bribery, stealing, boldfaced lying, and the like. Deplorable as are these specimens, they wreak but minor havoc compared to the more subtle corruptions of the intellect and the soul which, unfortunately, are rarely thought of—or even felt—as corruption.
The level of corruption I wish to examine was suggested to me by a friend’s honest confession, “I am as much corrupted by my loves as by my hates.” Few of us have succeeded in rising above this weakness; indeed, it is difficult to find one who has. Where is the individual who has so freed himself from his affections for or prejudices against persons, parties, creeds that he can utterly disregard these passions and weigh each and every act or proposal or idea strictly on its own merits—as if he were unaware of its source? Where is the man who can say “yes” or “no” to friend or foe with equal detachment? So rare are such individuals that we run the risk of concluding that no such person exists.
However, we must not despair. Recently, I was presented with an idea by an unknown author—in these words: “There is no such thing as a broken commitment.” Observing on many occasions that people do actually go back on their bond, I thought this to be at odds with the facts of life. Later, its meaning was explained to me: An unbroken commitment in this context means something more than paying debts, keeping promises, observing contracts. A man has a commitment to his own conscience, that is, to truth as his highest conscience discerns truth, and every word and deed must be an accurate reflection thereof. No pressure of fame or fortune or love or hate can even tempt such a person to compromise his integrity. At this level of life there can be no broken commitment.
Incorruptibility in its intellectual and spiritual sense refers to a higher order of men than is generally known to exist. It relates to men whose moral nature is such that infidelity to conscience is as unthinkable to them as stealing pennies from a child’s bank is to us. Folks who would deviate from their own highest concept of righteousness simply are not of this order nor are they likely to be aware that there is such an order of men.
An interesting sidelight on the individual whose prime engagement is with his own conscience and who is not swerved by popular acclaim or the lack of it, is that he seldom knows who his incorruptible brothers are. They are, by their nature—all of them—a quiet lot; indeed, most of us are lucky if we ever spot one.
Signs of Corruption
At this moment in history, this order of men must be distressingly small. The reason for this opinion is the “respectability” which presently attends all but the basest forms of corruption. Almost no shame descends upon seekers after office who peddle pure hokum in exchange for votes; they sell their souls for political power and become the darlings of the very people on whom their wiles are practiced.
Business and professional men and women, farmers and workers, through their associations and lobbies, clergymen from their pulpits, and teachers before their students shamelessly advocate special privileges: the feathering of the nests of some at the expense of others—and by coercion! For so doing they receive far more pious acclaim than censure. Such are the signs of widespread corruption.
As further evidence of intellectual corruption, reflect on the growing extent to which excuses are advanced as if they were reasons. In the politico-economic realm, for example, we put an embargo on goods from China because they are, in fact, competitive. But professing to favour free, competitive enterprise, and hesitating to confess that we are against competition, we corrupt ourselves and offer the excuse that these goods are “red.” Caviar from Russia—noncompetitive—is imported by the ton but is just as “red” as a linen tablecloth from China. This type of corruption occurs on an enormous scale, but is shrugged off as “good business.” Things would be otherwise if incorruptibility were more common. If I am not mistaken, several rare, incorruptible oversouls have passed my way during these last three decades.
For one thing, they were different. But it cannot be said that they stood out from the rest of us for, to borrow a phrase from a Chinese sage, they all operated in “creative quietness.” While not standing out, they were outstanding—that is, their positions were always dictated by what they believed to be right. This was their integrity. They consistently, everlastingly sought for the right. This was their intelligence. Furthermore, their integrity and intelligence imparted to them a wisdom few ever attain: a sense of being men, not gods, and, as a consequence, an awareness of their inability to run the lives of others. This was their humility. Lastly, they never did to others that which they would not have others do to them. This was their justice.
Truth will out, with enough of these incorruptible souls!
The Truth about Freedom
Now, having staked out the ideal, it behoves me to approximate it as best I can, which is to say, to present the truth as I see it, in this instance, as it bears on the free market and related institutions. By my title, Anything That’s Peaceful, I mean let anyone do anything he pleases that’s peaceful or creative; let there be no organized restraint against anything but fraud, violence, misrepresentation, predation; let anyone deliver mail or educate or preach his religion or whatever, so long as it’s peaceful; limit society’s agency of organized force—government—to juridical and policing functions, tabulating the do-nots and prescribing the penalties against un-peaceful actions; let the government do this and leave all else to the free, unfettered market!
All of this, I concede, is an affront to the mores. So be it!
One more point: discussion of ideological questions is more or less idle unless there be an awareness of what the major premise is. At what is the writer aiming? Is he doing his reasoning with some purpose in mind? If so, what is it?
I do not wish to leave anyone in the dark concerning my basic point of reference. Realizing years ago that I couldn’t possibly be consistent in my positions unless I reasoned from a basic premise— fundamental point of reference—set about it by asking one of the most difficult of questions: What is man’s earthly purpose?
I could find no answer to that question without bumping, head on, into three of my basic assumptions. The first derives from the observation that man did not create himself, for there is evidence aplenty that man knows very little about himself, thus:
1. The primacy and supremacy of an Infinite Consciousness;
2. The expansibility of individual consciousness, this being demonstrably possible; and
3. The immortality of the individual spirit or consciousness, our earthly moments being not all there is to it—this being something I know but know not how to demonstrate.
With these assumptions, the answer to the question, “What is man’s earthly purpose?” comes clear: It is to expand one’s own consciousness into as near a harmony with Infinite Consciousness as is within the power of each, or, in more lay terms, to see how nearly one can come to a realization of those creative potentialities peculiar to one’s own person, each of us being different in this respect.
This is my major premise with which the reader may or may not agree but he can, at least, decide for himself whether or not the following chapters are reasoned logically from this basic point of reference.
The ideas offered here have been brewing for several years. Many of them, though slightly rephrased, have appeared elsewhere as separate essays. My aim now is to gather those fragments into an integrated, free market theme.

False Remedies for Poverty By Henry Hazlitt

By Henry Hazlitt The Freeman. February 1971. (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education). Edited by Hilton Ratcliffe.

From the beginning of history sincere reformers as well as demagogues have sought to abolish or at least to alleviate poverty through state action. In most cases their proposed remedies have only served to make the problem worse. The most frequent and popular of these proposed remedies has been the simple one of seizing from the rich to give to the poor. This remedy has taken a thousand different forms, but they all come down to this. The wealth is to be “shared,” to be “redistributed,” to be “equalized.” In fact, in the minds of many reformers it is not poverty that is the chief evil but inequality.

These direct redistribution schemes (including “land reform” and “the guaranteed income”) are so immediately relevant to the problem of poverty that they warrant separate treatment. Here I must content myself with reminding the reader that all schemes for redistributing or equalizing incomes or wealth must undermine or destroy incentives at both ends of the economic scale. They must reduce or abolish the incentives of the unskilled and shiftless to improve their condition by their own efforts, and even the able and industrious will see little point in earning anything beyond what they are allowed to keep. These redistribution schemes must inevitably reduce the size of the pie to be redistributed. They can only level down. Their long-run effect must be to reduce production and lead toward national impoverishment.

The problem we face here is that the false remedies for poverty are almost infinite in number. An attempt at a thorough refutation of any single one of them would run to disproportionate length. But some of these false remedies are so widely regarded as real cures or mitigations of poverty that if I do not refer to them, I may be accused of having undertaken a comprehensive analysis of the remedies for poverty while ignoring some of the most obvious. What I shall do, as a compromise, is to take up some of the more popular of the alleged remedies for poverty and indicate briefly in each case the nature of their shortcomings or the chief fallacies involved in them.[11]

Unions and Strikes

The most widely practiced “remedy” for low incomes in the last two centuries has been the formation of monopolistic labor unions and the use of the strike threat. In nearly every country today this has been made possible to its present extent by government policies that permit and encourage coercive union tactics and inhibit or restrict counteractions by employers. As a result of union exclusiveness, of deliberate inefficiency, of featherbedding, of disruptive strikes and strike-threats, the long-run effect of customary union policies has been to discourage capital investment and to make the average real wage of the whole body of workers lower, and not higher, than it would otherwise have been.

Nearly all of these customary union policies have been dishearteningly shortsighted. When unions insist on the employment of men that are not necessary to do a job (requiring unneeded firemen on Diesel locomotives; forbidding the gang size of dock workers to be reduced below, say, 20 men no matter what the size of the task; demanding that a newspaper’s own printers must duplicate advertising copy that comes in already set in type, etc.) the result may be to preserve or create a few more jobs for specific men in the short run, but only at the cost of making impossible the creation of an equivalent or greater number of more productive jobs for others.

The same criticism applies to the age-old union policy of opposing the use of labor-saving machinery. Labour-saving machinery is only installed when it promises to reduce production costs. When it does that, it either reduces prices and leads to increased production and sales of the commodity being produced, or it makes more profits available for increased reinvestment in other production. In either case its long-run effect is to substitute more productive jobs for the less productive jobs it eliminates. Yet as late as 1970, a book appeared by a writer who enjoys an exalted reputation as an economist in some quarters, opposing the introduction of labour-saving machines in the underdeveloped countries on the ground that they “decrease the demand for labour”![12]

The natural conclusion from this would be that the way to maximize jobs is to make all labour as inefficient and unproductive as possible.

Overtime Rates

A similar judgment must be passed on all “spread-the-work” schemes. The existing Federal Wage-Hour Law has been on the books for many years. It provides that the employer must pay a 50 per cent penalty overtime rate for all hours that an employee works in excess of 40 a week, no matter how high the employee’s regular hourly rate of pay.

This provision was inserted at the insistence of the unions. Its purpose was to make it so costly for the employer to work men overtime that he would be obliged to take on additional workers. Experience shows that the provision has in fact had the effect of narrowly restricting the length of the working week. In the ten-year period, 1960 to 1969 inclusive, the average annual workweek in manufacturing varied only between a low of 39.7 hours in 1960 and a high of 41.3 hours in 1966.

Even monthly changes do not show much variation. The lowest average working week in manufacturing in the fourteen months from June, 1969 to July, 1970 was 39.7 hours and the highest was 41 hours. But it does not follow that the hour-restriction either created more long-term jobs or yielded higher total payrolls than would have existed without the compulsory 50 per cent overtime rate. No doubt in isolated cases more men have been employed than would otherwise have been. But the chief effect of the overtime law has been to raise production costs. Firms already working full standard time often have to refuse new orders because they cannot afford to pay the penalty overtime necessary to fill those orders. They cannot afford to take on new employees to meet what may be only a temporarily higher demand because they may also have to install an equivalent number of additional machines.

Higher production costs mean higher prices. They must therefore mean narrowed markets and smaller sales. They mean that fewer goods and services are produced. In the long run the interests of the whole body of workers must be adversely affected by compulsory overtime penalties. All this is not to argue that there ought to be a longer workweek, but rather that the length of the work week, and the scale of overtime rates, ought to be left to voluntary agreement between individual workers or unions and their employers. In any case, legal restrictions on the length of the working week cannot in the long run increase the number of jobs. To the extent that they can do that in the short run, it must necessarily be at the expense of production and of the real income of the whole body of workers.

Minimum Wage Laws


This brings us to the subject of minimum-wage laws. It is profoundly discouraging that in the second half of the twentieth century, in what is supposed to be an age of great economic sophistication, the United States should have such laws on its books, and that it should still be necessary to protest against a nostrum so futile and mischievous. It hurts most the very marginal workers it is designed to help.

I can only repeat what I have written in another place.[13] When a law exists that no one is to be paid less than $64 for a 40-hour week, then no one whose services are not worth $64 a week to an employer will be employed at all. We cannot make a man worth a given amount by making it illegal for anyone to offer him less. We merely deprive him of the right to earn the amount that his abilities and opportunities would permit him to earn, while we deprive the community of the moderate services he is capable of rendering. In brief, for a low wage we substitute unemployment.

But I cannot devote more space to this subject here. I refer the reader to the careful reasoning and statistical studies of such eminent economists as Professors Yale Brozen, Arthur Burns, Milton Friedman, Gottfried Haberler, and James Tobin, who have emphasized, for example, how much our continually rising legal minimum wage requirements have increased unemployment in recent years, especially among teen-aged Negroes.

The Mounting Burden of Welfare Plans and Taxes


In the last generation there has been enacted in almost every major country of the world a whole sackful of “social” measures, most of them having the ostensible purpose of “helping the poor” in one respect or another. These include not only direct relief, but unemployment benefits, old-age benefits, sickness benefits, food subsidies, rent subsidies, farm subsidies, veterans’ subsidies—in seemingly endless profusion. Many people receive not only one but many of these subsidies. The programs often overlap and duplicate each other.

What is their net effect? All of them must be paid for by that chronically forgotten man, the taxpayer. In perhaps half the cases, Paul is in effect taxed to pay for his own benefits, and gains nothing on net balance (except that he is forced to spend his earned money in other directions than he himself would have chosen). In the remaining cases, Peter is forced to pay for Paul’s benefits. When any one of these schemes, or a further expansion of it, is being proposed, its political sponsors always dwell on what a generous and compassionate government should pay to Paul; they neglect to mention that this additional money must be seized from Peter. In order that Paul may receive the equivalent of more than he earns, Peter must be allowed to keep less than he earns.

The mounting burden of taxation not only undermines individual incentives to increased work and earnings, but in a score of ways discourages capital accumulation and distorts, un-balances, and shrinks production. Total real wealth and income is made smaller than it would otherwise be. On net balance there is more poverty rather than less.

But increased taxation is so unpopular that most of these “social” handout schemes are originally enacted without enough increased taxation to pay for them. The result is chronic government deficits, paid for by the issuance of additional paper money. And this has led in the last quarter-century to the constant depreciation of the purchasing power of practically every currency in the world. All creditors, including the buyers of government bonds, insurance policy holders, and the depositors in savings banks, are systematically cheated. Once more the chief victims are the working and saving families with moderate incomes. Yet everywhere this monetary inflation, eventually so disruptive and ruinous to orderly balanced production, is rationalized by politicians and even by putative economists as necessary for “full employment” and “economic growth.” The truth is that if this monetary inflation is persisted in, it can only lead to economic disaster.

Price and Wage Controls


Many of the very people who originally advocate inflation (or the policies which inevitably lead to it), when they see its consequences of raising prices and money wages, propose to cure the situation, not by halting the inflation, but by having the government impose price and wage controls. But all such attempts to suppress the symptoms enormously increase the harm done. Price and wage controls, to precisely the extent that they can be made temporarily effective, only distort, disrupt, and reduce production—again leading toward impoverishment.

Yet here again, as with the other false remedies for poverty, it would be an unjustifiable digression to spell out in detail all the fallacies and evil consequences of special subsidies, improvident government spending, deficit financing, monetary inflation, and price-and-wage controls. I have myself dealt with these subjects in two previous books: The Failure of the New Economics[14] and What You Should Know About Inflation;[15] and there is, of course, an extensive literature on the subject. The chief point to be reiterated here is that these policies do not help to cure poverty.

Another false remedy for poverty is the progressive income tax, as well as a very heavy burden of capital-gains taxes, inheritance taxes, and corporate income taxes. All of these have the effect of discouraging production, investment, and capital accumulation. To that extent they must prolong rather than cure poverty.

Outright Socialism


We come now to the final false remedy for poverty to be considered in this article—outright socialism. Now the word “socialism” is loosely used to refer to at least two distinct proposals, usually but not necessarily tied together in the minds of the proposers. One of these is the redistribution of wealth or income—if not to make incomes equal, at least to make them much more nearly equal than they are in a market economy. But the majority of those who propose this objective today think that it can be achieved by retaining the mechanisms of private enterprise and then taxing the bigger incomes to subsidize the smaller incomes.

By “outright socialism” I refer to the Marxist proposal for “the public ownership and control of the means of production.”

Now one of the most striking differences between the 1970’s and the 1950’s, or even the 1920’s, is the rise in the political popularity of Socialism Two—the redistribution of income—and the decline in the political popularity of Socialism One—government ownership and management. The reason is that the latter, in the last half-century, has been so widely tried. Particularly in Europe there is now a long history of government ownership and management of such “public utilities” as the railroads, the electric light and power industries, the telegraph and telephone. And everywhere the history has been much the same—deficits practically always, and in the main poor service compared with what private enterprise supplied. The mail service, a government monopoly nearly everywhere, is also nearly everywhere notorious for its deficits, inefficiency, and inertia. (The contrast with the performance of “private” industry is often blurred, however, in the United States, for example, by the slow strangulation of the railroads, telephone, and power companies by government regulation and harassment.)

As a result of this history, most of the socialist parties in Europe find that they can no longer attract votes by promising to nationalize even more industries. But what is still not recognized by the socialists, by the public, or even by more than a small minority of economists, is that present government ownership and management of industries, not only in “capitalist” Europe but even in Soviet Russia, works only as well as it does because it is parasitic for accounting on the world market prices established by private enterprise.

Too Much Taken for Granted


We are so accustomed to the miracle of private enterprise that we habitually take it for granted. But how does private industry solve the incredibly complex problem of turning out tens of thousands of different goods and services in the proportions in which they are wanted by the public? How does it decide how many loaves of bread to produce and how many overcoats, how many hammers and how many houses, how many pins and how many Pontiacs, how many teaspoons and how many telephones? And how does it decide the no less difficult problem of which are the most economical and efficient methods of producing these goods? It solves these problems through the institutions of private property, the free market, and the existence of money—through the interrelations of supply and demand, costs and prices, profits and losses. When shoes are in deficient supply compared with the marginal cost of producing them, their price, and therefore the margin of profit in producing them, will increase in relation to the price and margin of profit in producing other things. Therefore, the existing producers will turn out more shoes, and perhaps new producers will order machinery to make them. When the new supply catches up with existing demand, the price of shoes, and the profit of making them, will fall; the supply will no longer be increased. When hats go out of fashion and fewer are worn, the price will decline, and some may remain unsalable. Fewer hats will be made. Some producers will go out of business, and the previous labor and salvageable capital devoted to producing hats will be forced into other lines. Thus, there will be a constant tendency toward equalization of profit margins (comparative risks considered) in all lines. These yearly, seasonal, or daily changes in supply and demand, cost and price, and comparative profit margins, will tend to maintain a delicate but constantly changing balance in the production of the tens of thousands of different services and commodities in the proportions in which consumers demand them.

The Competitive Role


The same guide of comparative money prices and profits will also decide the kinds and proportions of capital goods that are turned out, as well as which one of hundreds of different possible methods of production is adopted in each case.

In addition, within each industry as well as between industries, competition will be taking place. Each producer will not only be trying to turn out a better product than his competitors, a product more likely to appeal to buyers, but he will also be trying to reduce his cost of production as low as he possibly can in order to increase his margin of profit—or perhaps even, if his costs are already higher than average, to meet his competition and stay in business. This means that competition always tends to bring about the least-cost method of production—in other words, the most economical and efficient method of production.

Those who are most successful in this competition will acquire more capital to increase their production still further; those who are least successful will be forced out of the field. So capitalist production tends constantly to be drawn into the hands of the most efficient.

But how can this appallingly complex problem of supplying goods in the proportions in which consumers want them, and with the most economical production methods, be solved if the institutions of capitalism—private ownership, competition, free markets, money, prices, profits and losses—do not exist?

The Baffling Problem of Economic Calculation


Suppose that all property—at least in the means of production—is taken over by the state, and that banks and money and credit are abolished as vicious capitalist institutions; how is the government to solve the problem of what goods and services to produce, of what qualities, in what proportions, in what localities, and by what technological methods?

There cannot, let us keep in mind, be a hundred or a thousand different decisions by as many different bureaucrats, with each allowed to decide independently how much of one given product must be made. The available amount of land, capital, and labor is always limited. The factors of production needed to make A are therefore not available for B or C; and so on. So there must be a single unified overall decision, with the relative amounts and proportions to be made of each commodity all planned in advance in relation to all the others, and with the factors of production all allocated in the corresponding proportions.

So there must be only one Master Production Plan. This could conceivably be adopted by a series of majority votes in a parliament, but in practice, to stop interminable debate and to get anything done, the broad decisions would be made by a small handful of men, and the detailed execution would probably be turned over to one Master Director who had the final word. How would he go about solving his problem?

We must keep in mind that without free competitive markets, money, and money-prices, he would be helpless. He would know, of course (if the seizure of the means of production has only recently occurred), that people under a capitalist system lived in a certain number of houses of various qualities, wore a certain amount of clothing consisting of such and such items and qualities, ate a certain amount of food consisting of such and such meats, dairy products, grains, vegetables, nuts, fruits, and beverages. The director could simply try to continue this pre-existing mix indefinitely. But then his decisions would be completely parasitic on the previous capitalism, and he would produce and perpetuate a completely stationary or stagnant economy. If such an imitative socialism had been put into effect in, say, the France of 1870, or even of 1770, or 1670, and France had been cut off from foreign contacts, the economy of France would still be producing the same type and per capita quantity of goods and services, and by the same antiquated methods, as those that had existed in 1870, or even in 1770, or 1670, or whatever the initial year of socialization. It is altogether probable that even if such a slavishly imitative production schedule were deliberately adopted it would overlook thousands of miscellaneous small items, many of them essential, because some bureaucrat had neglected to put them into the schedule. This has happened time and again in Soviet Russia.

What Shall Be Produced?


But let us assume that all these problems are somehow solved. How would the socialist Planners go about trying to improve on capitalist production? Suppose they decided to increase the quantity and quality of family housing. As total production is necessarily limited by existing technological knowledge and capital equipment, they could transfer land, capital, and labor to the production of more such housing only at the cost of producing less food, or less clothing, or fewer hospitals, or schools, or cars, or roads, or less of something else. How could they decide what was to be sacrificed? How would they fix the new commodity proportions?

But putting aside even this formidable problem, how would the Planners decide what machines to design, what capital goods to make, what technological methods to use, and at what localities, to produce the consumers’ goods they wanted and in the proportions they wanted them?

This is not primarily a technological question, but an economic one. The purpose of economic life, the purpose of producing anything, is to increase human satisfactions, to increase human wellbeing. In a capitalist system, if people are not willing to pay at least as much for the consumer goods that have been produced as was paid for the labour, land, capital equipment, and raw materials that were used to produce them, it is a sign that production has been misdirected and that some of these productive factors have been wasted. There has been a net decrease in economic well-being instead of an increase.

There are many feasible methods—crucible, Bessemer, open hearth, electric furnace, basic oxygen process—of making steel from iron. In fact, there are today a thousand technically feasible ways of making almost anything out of almost anything. In a private enterprise system, what decides which method will be used at a given place and time is a comparison of prospective costs.

And this necessarily means costs in terms of money. In order to compare the economic efficiency of one productive method with another the methods must be reduced to some common denominator. Otherwise numerical comparison and calculation are impossible. In a market system this common denominator is achieved by comparisons in terms of money and of prices stated in money. It is only by this means that society can determine whether a given commodity is being produced at a profit or a loss, or at what comparative profits or losses any number of different commodities are being produced.

“Playing” Capitalism


In recent years even the most doctrinaire communist countries have become aware of this. They are going to be guided hereafter, they say, by profit and loss. An industry must be profitable to justify itself. So they fix money-prices for everything and measure profit and loss in monetary terms. But this is merely “playing” free markets. This is “playing” capitalism. This imitation is the unintended flattery that the communists now pay to the system they still ostensibly reject and denounce.

But the reason why this mock-market system has so far proved so disappointing is that the communist governments do not know how to fix prices. They have achieved whatever success they have had when they have simply used the quotations they found already existing for international commodities in the speculative markets—i.e., in the capitalist markets—in the Western world. But there are a limited number of such grains and raw materials with international markets. In any case, their prices change daily, and are always for specific grades at specific locations.

In trying to fix prices for commodities and the multitudinous objects not quoted on these international markets the communist countries are at sea. The Marxist labor theory of value is false and therefore useless to them. We cannot measure the value of anything by the number of hours of “labour-time” put into it. There are enormous differences in the skill, quality, and productivity of different people’s labour. Nor can we, as suggested by some Soviet economists, base prices on “actual costs of production.” Costs of production are themselves prices—the prices of raw materials, of factories and machinery, rent, interest, the wages of labour, and so on.

Our Differences Guide Us


And nowhere, in a free market, are prices for long exactly equal to costs of production. It is precisely the differences between prices and costs of production that are constantly, in a free market economy, redirecting and changing the balance of production as among thousands of different commodities and services. In industries where prices are well above marginal costs of production, there will be a great incentive to increase output, as well as increased means to do it. In industries where prices fall below marginal costs of production, output must shrink. Everywhere supply will keep adjusting itself to demand.

Where prices have been set arbitrarily, real profits and losses cannot be determined. If I am a commissar in charge of an automobile factory, and do not own the money I pay out, and you are a commissar in charge of a steel plant, and do not own the steel you sell or retain the money you sell it for, and we are each ordered to show a profit, the first thing each of us will do is to appeal to the Central Planning Board to set an advantageous price (to him) for steel and for automobiles. As an automobile commissar, I will want the price of the cars I sell to be set as high as possible, and the price of the steel I buy to be set as low as possible, so that my own “profit” record will look good or my bonus will be fixed high. But as a steel commissar, you will want the selling price of your steel to be fixed as high as possible, and your own cost prices to be fixed low, for the same reason. But when prices are thus fixed blindly, politically, and arbitrarily, who will know what any industry’s real profits or losses (as distinguished from its nominal bookkeeping profits or losses) have been?

Decentralized Chaos


The problems of centralized direction of an economy are so insuperable that in socialist countries there are periodically experiments in decentralization. But in an economy only half free—that is, in an economy in which every factory is free to decide how much to produce of what, but in which the basic prices, wages, rents, and interest rates are blindly fixed or guessed at by the sole ultimate owner of the means of production, the state—a decentralized system could quickly become even more chaotic than a centralized one. If finished products m, n, o, p, and so on are made from raw materials a, b, c, d, and so on in various combinations and proportions, how can the individual producers of the raw materials know how much of each to produce, and at what rate, unless they know how much the producers of the finished products plan to produce of the latter, how much raw materials they are going to need, and just when they are going to need them? And how can the individual producer of raw material a or of finished product m know how much of it to produce unless he knows how much of that raw material or finished product others in his line are planning to produce, as well as relatively how much ultimate consumers are going to want or demand?

An economic system without private property and free-market price guides must be chaotic. In a communistic system, centralized or decentralized, there will always be unbalanced and unmatched production, shortages of this and unusable surpluses of that, duplications, bottlenecks, time lags, inefficiency, and appalling waste.

In brief, socialism is incapable of solving the incredibly complicated problem of economic calculation. That problem can be solved only by capitalism.[16]


[11] I have examined most of these schemes in more detail elsewhere (chiefly in my Economics in One Lesson and in Man vs. the Welfare State) and must refer the interested reader to these and other sources for more extended discussion.

[12] Gunnar Myrdal, The Challenge of World Poverty (Pantheon Books, 1970), pp. 400–401 and passim.

[13] Man vs. the Welfare State (Arlington House, 1969), pp. 23–25.

[14] (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1959.)

[15] (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1960, 1965.)

[16] For a fuller discussion of the problem of economic calculation, see my novel, Time Will Run Back (originally published by Appleton-Century-Crofts in 1951 as The Great Idea, and republished under the new title by Arlington House in 1966). And see especially the discussion by the great seminal thinker who has done more than any other to make other economists aware of the existence, nature, and extent of the problem, Ludwig von Mises, in his Socialism: An Analysis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936, 1951, 1953, 1969), and in his Human Action (Chicago: Henry Regnery, third revised edition, 1963), pp. 200–231 and 698–715. See also Collectivist Economic Planning, edited by F. A. Hayek (London: George Routledge, 1935), and Economic Calculation in the Socialist Society, by T. J. B. Hoff (London: William Hodge, 1949).


The Problem of Poverty

by Henry Hazlitt, The Freeman. June 1971. (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for
Economic Education). Edited by Hilton Ratcliffe
The history of poverty is almost the history of mankind. The ancient writers have left us few specific accounts of it. They took it for granted. Poverty was the normal lot. The ancient world of Greece and Rome, as modern historians reconstruct it, was a world where houses had no chimneys, and houses heated in cold weather by a fire on a hearth or a fire-pan in the center of the room, were filled with smoke whenever a fire was started, and where consequently the walls, ceiling, and furniture were blackened and more or less covered by soot at all times; where light was supplied by smoky oil lamps which, like the houses in which they were used, had no chimneys, and where eye-trouble as a result of all this smoke was general. Greek dwellings had no heat in winter, no adequate sanitary arrangements, and no washing facilities.[1]
Above all there was hunger and famine, so chronic that only the worst examples were recorded. We learn from the Bible how Joseph advised the pharaohs on famine relief measures in ancient Egypt. In a famine in Rome in 436 B.C., thousands of starving people threw themselves into the Tiber. Conditions in the Middle Ages were no better: “The dwellings of medieval laborers were hovels—the walls made of a few boards cemented with mud and leaves. Rushes and reeds or heather made the thatch for the roof. Inside the houses there was a single room, or in some cases two rooms, not plastered and without floor, ceiling, chimney, fireplace, or bed, and here the owner, his family, and his animals lived and died. There was no sewage for the houses, no drainage, except surface drainage for the streets, no water supply beyond that provided by the town pump, and no knowledge of the simplest forms of sanitation. Tye and oats furnished the bread and drink of the great body of the people of Europe…. Precariousness of livelihood, alternations between feasting and starvation, droughts, scarcities, famines, crime, violence, murrains, scurvy, leprosy, typhoid diseases, wars, pestilences and plagues’—made part of medieval life to a degree with which we are wholly unacquainted in the western world of the present day.”[2]

Frequent Famines

And, ever-recurring, there was famine: “In the eleventh and twelfth centuries famine [in England] is recorded every fourteen years, on an average, and the people suffered twenty years of famine in two hundred years. In the thirteenth century the list exhibits the same proportion of famine; the addition of high prices made the proportion greater. Upon the whole, scarcities decreased during the three following centuries; but the average from 1201 to 1600 is the same, namely, seven famines and ten years of famine in a century.”[3]
One writer has compiled a detailed summary of twenty-two famines in the thirteenth century in the British Isles, with such typical entries as: “1235: Famine and plague in England; 20,000 persons die in London; people eat horseflesh, bark of trees, grass, etc.”[4]
But recurrent starvation runs through the whole of human history. The Encyclopaedia Britannica lists thirty-one major famines from ancient times down to 1960. Let us look first at those from the Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth century: 1005: famine in England. 1016: famine throughout Europe. 1064–72: seven years’ famine in Egypt. 1148–59: eleven years’ famine in India. 1344–45: great famine in India. 1396–1407: the Durga Devi famine in India, lasting twelve years. 1586: famine in England giving rise to the Poor Law system. 1661: famine in India; no rain fell for two years. 1769–70: great famine in Bengal; a third of the population—10 million persons—perished. 1783: the Chalisa famine in India. 1790–92: the Deji Bara, or skull famine in India, so called because the dead were too numerous to be buried.[5]
This list is very incomplete—as probably any list would be. In the winter of 1709, for example, in France, more than a million persons, according to the figures of the time, died out of a population of 20 millions.[6]
In the eighteenth century, in fact, France suffered eight famines, culminating in the short crops of 1788, which were one of the causes of the Revolution. I am sorry to be dwelling in such detail on so much human misery. I do so only because mass starvation is the most obvious and intense form of poverty, and this chronicle is needed to remind us of the appalling dimensions and persistence of the evil.

Thomas R. Malthus

In 1798, a young English country parson, Thomas R. Malthus, delving into this sad history, anonymously published an Essay on the Principles of Population as it affects the Future Improvement of Society. His central doctrine was that there is a constant tendency for population to outgrow food supply and production. Unless checked by self-restraint, population will always expand to the limit of subsistence, and will be held there by disease, war, and ultimately famine. Malthus was an economic pessimist, viewing poverty as man’s inescapable lot. He influenced Ricardo and the other classical economists of his time, and it was the general tone of their writings that led Carlyle to denounce political economy as “the Dismal Science.”
Malthus had in fact uncovered a truth of epoch-making importance. His work first set Charles Darwin on the chain of reasoning which led to the promulgation of the theory of evolution by natural selection. But Malthus greatly overstated his case, and neglected to make essential qualifications. He failed to see that, once men in any place (it happened to be his own England) succeeded in earning and saving a little surplus, made even a moderate capital accumulation, and lived in an era of political freedom and protection for property, their liberated industry, thought, and invention could at last make it possible for them enormously and acceleratively to multiply per capita production beyond anything achieved or dreamed of in the past. Malthus announced his pessimistic conclusions just in the era when they were about to be falsified.
The Industrial Revolution had begun, but nobody had yet recognized or named it. One of the consequences of the increased production it led to was to make possible an unparalleled increase in population. The population of England and Wales in 1700 is estimated to have been about 5,500,000; by 1750 it had reached some 6,500,000. When the first census was taken in 1801 it was 9,000,000; by 1831 it had reached 14,000,000. In the second half of the eighteenth century population had thus increased by 40 per cent, and in the first three decades of the nineteenth century by more than 50 per cent. This was not the result of any marked change in the birth rate, but of an almost continuous fall in the death rate.[7]
People were now producing the food supply and other means to support a greater number of them. This accelerating growth in population continued. The enormous forward spurt of the world’s population in the nineteenth century was unprecedented in human experience. “In one century, humanity added much more to its total volume than it had been able to add during the previous million years.”[8]

Starvation in Recent Times

But we are getting ahead of our story. We are here concerned with the long history of human poverty and starvation, rather than with the short history of how mankind began to emerge from it. Let us come back to the chronicle of famines, this time from the beginning of the nineteenth century:
1838: intense famine in North-Western Provinces (Uttar Pradesh), India; 800,000 perished. 1846–47: famine in Ireland, resulting from the failure of the potato crop. 1861: famine in northwest India. 1866: famine in Bengal and Orissa; 1,000,000 perished. 1869: intense famine in Rajputana; 1,500,000 perished. 1874: famine in Bihar, India. 1876–78: famine in Bombay, Madras, and Mysore; 5,000,000 perished. 1877–78: famine in north China; 9,500,000 said to have perished. 1887–89: famine in China. 1891–92: famine in Russia. 1897: famine in India; 1,000,000 perished. 1905: famine in Russia. 1916: famine in China. 1921: famine in the U.S.S.R., brought on by communist economic policies; at least 10,000,000 persons seemed doomed to die, until the American Relief Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover, came in and reduced direct deaths to about 500,000. 1932–33: famine again in the U.S.S.R., brought on by Stalin’s farm collectivization policies; “millions of deaths.” 1943: famine in Bengal; about 1,500,000 perished. 1960–61: famine in the Congo.[9]

Industrialization Prevents Famine in Western World

We can bring this dismal history down to date by mentioning the famines in recent years in Communist China and the war-created famine of 1968–70 in Biafra. The record of famines since the end of the eighteenth century does, however, reveal one striking difference from the record up to that point. Mass starvation did not fall on a single country in the now industrialized Western world. (The sole exception is the potato famine in Ireland; and even that is a doubtful exception because the Industrial Revolution had barely touched mid-nineteenth century Ireland—still a one-crop agricultural country.)
It is not that there have ceased to be droughts, pests, plant diseases, and crop failures in the modern Western world, but that when they occur there is no famine, because the stricken countries are quickly able to import foodstuffs from abroad, not only because the modern means of transport exist, but because, out of their industrial production, these countries have the means to pay for such foodstuffs.
In the Western world today, in other words, poverty and hunger—until the mid-eighteenth century the normal condition of mankind—have been reduced to a residual problem affecting only a minority; and that minority is being steadily reduced.
But the poverty and hunger still prevailing in the rest of the world, in most of Asia, of Central and South America, and of Africa—in short, even now afflicting the great majority of mankind—show the appalling dimensions of the problems still to be solved.
And what has happened and is still happening in many countries today serves to warn us how fatally easy it is to destroy all the economic progress that has already been achieved. Foolish governmental interferences led the Argentine, once the world’s principal producer and exporter of beef, to forbid in 1971 even domestic sale of beef on alternate weeks. Soviet Russia, one of whose chief economic problems before it was communized was to find an export market for its huge surplus of grains, has been forced to import grains from the capitalist countries. One could go on to cite scores of other examples, with ruinous consequences, all brought on by short-sighted governmental policies.[10]
More than thirty years ago, E. Parmalee Prentice was pointing out that mankind has been rescued from a world of want so quickly that the sons do not know how their fathers lived:
“Here, indeed, is an explanation of the dissatisfaction with conditions of life so often expressed, since men who never knew want such as that in which the world lived during many by-gone centuries, are unable to value at its true worth such abundance as now exists, and are unhappy because it is not greater.”[11]
How prophetic of the attitude of rebellious youth in the 1970’s! The great present danger is that impatience and ignorance may combine to destroy in a single generation the progress that it took untold generations of mankind to achieve.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
[1] E. Parmalee Prentice, Hunger and History (Harper & Bros., 1939), pp. 39–40.
[2] Ibid., pp. 15–16.
[3] William Farr, “The Influence of Scarcities and of the High Prices of Wheat on the Mortality of the
People of England,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Feb. 16, 1846, Vol. IX, p. 158.
[4] Cornelius Walford, “The Famines of the World,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, March
19, 1878, Vol. 41, p. 433.
[5] Article “Famine,” 1965 edition.
[6] Gaston Bouthoul, La population dans la monde, pp. 142–43.
[7] T. S. Ashton. The Industrial Revolution (1760–1830) (Oxford University Press, 1948.), pp. 3–4
[8] Henry Pratt Fairchild, “When Population Levels Off,” Harper’s Magazine, May, 1938, Vol. 176,
p. 596.
[9] From articles “Famine” and “Russia,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1965 edition.
[10] Note by HR: A vivid example is the interference by Robert Mugabe in the economic structures of Zimbabwe. The results are grim.
[11] Hunger and History (Harper & Bros., 1939), p. 236.


(from chapter 12 of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt)


In the book Moral, Believing Animals, the sociologist Christian Smith writes about moral matrices within which human life takes place. He agrees with Durkheim that every social order has at its core something sacred, and he shows how stories, particularly “grand narratives,” identify and reinforce the sacred core of each matrix.  Smith is a master at extracting these grand narratives, condensing them into single paragraphs. Each narrative, he says, identifies a beginning (“once upon a time”), a middle (in which a threat or challenge arises), and an end (in which a resolution is achieved). Each narrative is designed to orient listeners morally—to draw their attention to a set of virtues and vices, or good and evil forces—and to impart lessons about what can be done now to protect, recover, or attain the sacred core of the vision.

One such narrative, which Smith calls the “liberal progress narrative,” organises much of the moral matrix of the American academic left. It goes like this:

“Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism… But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximise the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This narrative’s general plotline should be recognisable to leftists everywhere. It’s a heroic liberation narrative. Authority, hierarchy, power, and tradition must be broken to free the “noble aspirations” of the victims.

Smith wrote this narrative before Moral Foundations Theory existed, but you can see that the narrative derives its moral force primarily from the Care/Harm foundation (concern for the suffering of victims), and the Liberty/Oppression foundation (a celebration of liberty as freedom from oppression as well as freedom to pursue self-defined happiness). In this narrative, Fairness is political equality (which is part of opposing oppression); there are only oblique hints of Fairness as proportionality. Authority is mentioned only as an evil, and there is no mention of Loyalty or Sanctity.

Contrast that narrative to one for modern conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen is another master of narrative analysis, and in his book The Political Brain he extracts the master narrative that was implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the major speeches of Ronald Reagan.

Reagan defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980, a time when Americans were being held hostage in Iran, the inflation rate was over 10%, and America’s cities, industries, and self-confidence were declining. The Reagan narrative goes like this:

“Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way… Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens. Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to ‘understand’ them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crime, they worried about the rights of criminals… Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity, and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex, and the gay lifestyle… and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles… Instead of projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag, and chose negotiation and multilateralism… Then Americans decided to take their country back from those sought to undermine it.”

This narrative’s general plotline should be recognisable to conservatives everywhere. This too is a heroic narrative, but it’s heroism of defence. It’s less suited to being turned into a major motion picture. Rather than the visually striking image of crowds storming the Bastille and freeing prisoners, this narrative looks more like a family reclaiming its home from termites and then repairing the joists.

The Reagan narrative is also visibly conservative in that it relies for its moral force on at least five of the six moral foundations. There’s only a hint of Care (for the victims of crime), but there are very clear references to liberty (as freedom from government restraint), Fairness (as proportionality), Loyalty (soldiers and the flag), Authority (family and traditions), and Sanctity (God versus celebration of promiscuity).

The two narratives are as opposed as could be. Can partisans even understand the story told by the other side? The obstacles to empathy are not symmetrical. If the left builds moral matrices on a smaller number of moral foundations, then there is no foundation used by the left that is not also used by the right. Even though conservatives score slightly lower on measures of empathy, and may therefore be less moved by by a story about suffering and oppression, they can still recognise that it is awful to be kept in chains. And even though many conservatives opposed some of the great liberations of the twentieth century—of women, sweatshop workers, African Americans, and gay people—they have applauded others, such as the liberation of Eastern Europe from communist oppression.

But when liberals try to understand the Reagan narrative, they have a harder time. When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations—Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity—I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.

If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing  Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in Care and Fairness. You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theatre critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:

“Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destry the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster, and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.”
One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theatre critic—who skilfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living—to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own.

Morality binds and blinds.

Competing models

COMPETING MODELS from Capitalism: The Deregulation of Pressure


“…it is easy and satisfying…to fall for tales of an oppressive and greedy ‘1 per cent’ of wealthy capitalists—the Occupy Wall Street Effect—rather than coming to grips with the counterintuitive fact that it is only in the process of the 1 per cent becoming rich that much of the economic good for the 99 per cent is generated.”  — Peter Foster, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand.

The left is back, and it’s the only path we have to get out of the spot to which the right has sunken us. Socialism builds and capitalism destroys. – Hugo Chavez

They talk about the failure of socialism but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America? — Fidel Castro


The recent change in wealth creation in China is remarkable and eye-opening. Up to twenty years ago, high net-worth individuals became rich by political connection, mostly in real estate; by buying up land at below market values and re-selling it at artificially inflated profit, friends of the state had the privilege of unnatural personal riches.  The economic miracle of the last decade or so has been made possible only by permitting entrepreneurs to play the market with capital. The “communist” state has managed to create an environment where individual flair flourishes, resulting in more than a million Chinese with net worth exceeding $10 million, and well over a thousand dollar billionaires. The principle of human equality upon which communism rests has been abandoned.

This was achieved in short order by liberating the populace from restrictive socialist constraints on ownership of property and the means of production, and allowing those with initiative to participate in a competitive marketplace for their own benefit. The Ali Baba explosion rewrote the rule book. It is a classic, textbook case study in the effectiveness of free market capitalism in liberating people from prior economic drudgery so that they can prosper by their own hand and energy.

The euphoria of liberation carries its own particular dangers, though, and we need to heed them. The inherent work ethic, creativeness, and competitive spirit of the population that had been cowed by the yoke of socialism apply commensurate pressure on the champagne cork as it pops. The result has been described, here and elsewhere, as a miracle. There is no such thing of course, but the changes wrought by market access in societies for whom it had previously been politically denied are certainly startling and comprehensive. The liberation of East Germany is a prime example. I predict that we’ll see the same sort of “miracle” in Cuba in due course, and also in Venezuela if they can overcome militarily enforced socialism.

The “yoke of capitalism” and “economic slavery” are buzz words of a socially oppressive system that has no moral defence, no rational argument against the success of market capitalism in invigorating depressed economies, and no workable means of giving the broad mass of people what they really want. The data from competing models in the real world give socialism no quarter. They show that the real beneficiaries of socialism are the rulers; the people they are supposed to serve are worse off than they might otherwise have been, and given the choice, would no doubt quickly opt out. It’s there on the news every day: Economic refugees don’t head for socialist states. They make a bee line for countries where they are free to use their initiative to make a living. Do the maths…

The human influence on the biosphere is a bipartisan battleground. We could characterise it as competition between free-market capitalism and big-government socialism. Those, like me, who have come here via the University of Socks would generalise it even further–it is the old fight between instinct and free will.

Trade involves the voluntary exchange of ownership of goods or services from one party to another, based upon perceived relative values. It consequently includes barter and haggling so that the transaction is mutually beneficial. An environment that facilitates trade is called a market.  Trading originally comprised the direct exchange of goods and services for other goods and services. The market evolved in time so one side of the barter started to involve precious metals, which gained symbolic as well as practical importance. Essentially, this was the origin of money as a convenient medium of exchange, and as a result, buying could be separated from selling, or earning. The invention of money greatly simplified and encouraged trade.

It derives directly from the specialisation of labour, where specific tasks in a production process are performed by workers who have acquired the particular discrete skills required to manufacture complex goods. Trade allows widely dispersed people and regions to co-operate in a mutually beneficial way, although the parties may not be related or even know each other. In fact, commerce can be traced to the very beginning of communication in prehistoric times.

It is a global phenomenon, known in economics as the “extended order.” Peaceful cooperation beyond the bounds of clan and kinship is the socio-political backbone of our planet. It allows individuals and nations unequal in resources and resourcefulness to maintain their independence. Despite the laws and military might dominating geopolitics, people, in their own right, can find common ground and personal satisfaction in the marketplace, no matter with whom they bargain. Opinions and ideologies are put aside when the wellbeing of one’s family is at stake. We’ll strike a bargain with black, blue, or green to let Johnnie and Jilly go to school with a full stomach and shoes on their feet. The free market is egalitarian to a degree that even the most liberal of us could only dream of, yet it is a prime manifestation of the virtue of selfishness.

Excerpt from my book, Capitalism: The Deregulation of Pressure –

Excerpt from my book, Capitalism: The Deregulation of Pressure –

The primary weakness of democracy in practice is the absence of upward control. There appears therefore to be a pressing need for a democratic structure wherein the rank and file of citizenry can express themselves without fear or inhibition. In our view, such a system already exists. It is the option to purchase–and the freer the market, the freer the choice. People tell us directly and with negligible political nuance what they want from life when they give over their hard earned cash. The ballot is cast at the point of payment, and the government has practically no influence. Where the market is not free, the ballot is still cast, but it is a choice constrained by regulations from the top down. It is generally with astonishment that we discover just how comprehensive the market ballot actually is. It’s not just an indication of the purchaser’s material desires, it can and does reflect that person’s morality too.
Here is a real world example of what I mean. Free range eggs are more expensive than battery produced eggs, and sell in far lower quantities than the mass-produced equivalent. Immediately, we are shown a clear ballot on the morality of chicken batteries. Most customers simply don’t care, or don’t care enough to pay more to contribute to the happiness and wellbeing of chickens. A small minority does show compassion however, and is prepared to make financial sacrifices for its ethics. That is the power, integrity, and depth of the marketplace ballot. If enough of the market population adopts the morality of those few, it will effectively change the whole way that we farm with chickens. If no one buys battery eggs, no one will produce them. The problem would be solved by supply and demand, and voting with our wallets.
In my local grocery supermarket, free range eggs and battery produced eggs are offered side by side on the shelf. The will of the people is expressed by how much of each are sold. The ethical, moral decision is to purchase free range and boycott battery. That’s what you and I would do, but the broad mass of people doesn’t agree. They shop on price rather than ethics. The split between battery and free range is roughly 90 – 10 as a percentage.
The people have spoken. That’s the purity of supply and demand in reflecting the true will of the people. It has nothing, or nearly nothing, to do with what we can afford (the difference in price is cents rather than dollars) but what we really care about. The poorest of these customers could purchase a dollar less air time, or a dollar less vanity hair products, and spend that instead on upgrading to free range eggs. When more people vote for free range by exercising the ballot of purchase, two things will happen–one, the chicken batteries will go out of business (YAY!), and two, the price of free range eggs will drop. It is a beautiful model, because it’s natural. It’s not manufactured by some cunning individual to rip people off; it’s simply a consequence of production being in the hands of people whose wellbeing depends on satisfying their customers.
The vitally important conclusion to be drawn from the ballot-by-purchase model is that it can exist only in a market driven economy. It is entirely absent in economies where production is planned and controlled by the state, because there is no competition to keep production honest. Free competition is a moral watchdog that doesn’t charge for its services. In fact, it saves us money. Socialism removes free competition and encourages lower productivity, and thereby runs counter to human nature, with the net result that wherever it has been tried, it has by any objective measure failed to meet human aspirations. Ballot by purchase, if only the voters would fully realise it, is the way that common folk can properly express their will and their ethics, and it has the power to change the world.
Extrapolate that very real example to the four corners of the globe, and to any aspect of our economic lives. If no one bought rhino horns, we wouldn’t have rhino poaching; if there were no addicts, we would have no drug dealers; if farmers didn’t preferentially use GMO seed, Monsanto wouldn’t bother producing it; when people like you and me desist from asking for credit so that we can get things before we can afford them, banks will stop putting us into debt. The consumers are masters of their own destinies in all these matters; the suppliers are just their obedient servants.
Free markets evolved naturally as humans matured as a species. They do not have to be enforced from the top down as regulated markets do. The free market is as natural a part of Homo sapiens’ evolution as trade, barter, and the division of labour. The great problem we face now is how much we ought to interfere with what is intrinsically natural to people, and in any case, why we would want to do that. If it is just to impose our own personal morality upon broader society, it’s time we paused to think again.
But we are used to this sort of dilemma; it’s called soul searching.

I have long maintained that the liberal left’s conception of what the needs of poor people should be is based on unforgivable intellectual arrogance. The entire Green movement is based, I believe, on this type of socialist fantasy, and is not a little bit hypocritical. Top-down socialism rests on the premise that some or other elite (and implicitly moral, incorruptible) leadership bureau can best decide what’s good for you and me, and if we object, we ought to be ideologically restructured so that we see that the state and its government is the sole arbiter of what our needs are and how many of them should be ignored because they are simply manifestations of materialist greed. Co-founder of Greenpeace and now green sceptic, Canadian environmentalist Patrick Moore, is worth reading on the subject. He saw the direct Marxist transformation of proper environmental organisations like Greenpeace from the inside. The sequential demise of Soviet-led communism and rise of green socialism is not a freakish coincidence. It’s a case of the devil finding work for idle hands.

From Peter Foster’s Why We Bite The Invisible Hand, chapter 15: Global Salvationism –

“Sustainability had profound conceptual and practical problems quite beyond its implicit denial of any ‘natural order’ that might both create wealth and protect the environment. How could anybody possibly know the ‘needs of the present’, let alone the needs of the future? Indeed, how could anybody gauge the ‘needs’ of even a single individual, or compare those of any two? Moreover, although there is no way of measuring needs, we could be sure that not all present needs were being met, so why should those of the future? In fact, the sustainable developers believed that assessing needs wasn’t a problem; they would tell humanity what its needs should be.
“The word ‘sustainable’ was an Orwellian term designed not to clarify thinking but to block it. After all, who could support unsustainability? Friedrich Hayek had once identified ‘social’ as the ultimate ‘weasel word’ that sucked the life from nouns to which it was attached, often reversing their meaning. Hence ‘social democracy’ was a cover for a non-democratic agenda, ‘social justice’ a code for forced redistribution and ‘social market economy’ a term for an economy with crippled markets. Similarly, sustainable development essentially meant stopping – or severely constraining – development, at least in the advanced countries, while pursuing socialist-style, top-down programs in poor nations.”

Confluence 2017

It’s ironical that as I become decrepit, I experience also the most exciting intellectual era of my life. Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks is published, my mindset declared, and now I’m exposed to powerful streams of thought that marry with the Socks thesis and move it forward. New ways of thinking about human behaviour and the relationships between science and belief, and economics and morality build a tide of understanding that I could never have foreseen.

Once it had become clear that we are only marginally more civilised than chimps (Robert Ardrey); that we have genetically imprinted human nature, including morals (Stephen Pinker); that our rational minds are spin doctors for the genome, and that our beliefs are expressions of an innately righteous morality (Jonathan Haidt); and finally and more specifically, that the market of exchanged values enables an extended social order far wider than kinship (FA Hayek), I had the novel task of pulling it all together into a confluence of principles that might reveal a workable social model. The rather startling discovery for me was the fact that one of the fibres that makes up human nature is economics. It’s as important to our species as territory and grouping.

The only way I could achieve that sort of inclusive vision is by stepping back several layers and using a wide angle lens. Now, what I have come to realise is that stepping backwards moves one towards objectivity and in turn, that means departing, albeit momentarily, from my own genetic purpose as an animal. I would from time to time be compelled to challenge my own beliefs and moral bias, without necessarily losing them.

To illustrate the journey I have embarked upon, let me go back to the start of this phase of my journey, which had to deal with the frustration that science had become a political creature quite devoid of the guidelines laid out by Newton, Kuhn, and Popper. All my books, on reflection, are actually not about physics or space science per se, but rather, if I may label them briefly, about the unseemly haste with which scientists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries adopt and canonise hypotheses. We are in the age of Standard Models, with vast implications for empirical science. If we are to understand this phenomenon, we are just going to have to become sociologists, ethologists, evolutionists, and moral psychologists. It makes doing physics properly inordinately difficult, but we have no choice, I’m afraid.

In Socks, I laid out the following propositions for review by my peers:

·        Human behaviour is the outcome of three influences: Instinct, belief, and free will.

·        Belief and instinct are two sides of the same coin; belief is instinctual.

·        Instinct matures as we evolve as organisms.

·        Free will, such as it may be, including rational thought, plays a very small part in what we ultimately do, both individually and socially.

·        Our whole social construct and tribalism are produced by evolution to enhance the survival of our species, and are written into a genetic template in our cells.

·        Homo sapiens is a highly socialised, territorial species, and inter-tribal conflict and warfare are natural consequences of this.

·        The more natural our social model, that is, the more closely aligned to our instinctual character, the more successful it will be, and vice versa.

·        Beliefs are promulgated from a self-perceived moral high ground.

·        Beliefs always precede our articulated reasons for believing; justification and rationalisation of our point of view are invariably post hoc.

·        Models are hypo-stacks (hierarchical stacks of hypotheses).

·        Reality and truth are independent of any observer.

·        Truth is obtained by matching pure reason to physical reality.

After completing Socks, my thinking turned to social organisation, and the crucial role played by economics in our evolution. In the process of attempted a dialogue on economics with my good friend and advisor Ian Campbell-Gillies, he pointed out that economics, or any other social system for that matter, without morality makes no meaningful contribution to the improvement of our species. Instinctively, I felt he was right, but that led me forthwith to the whole notion of morality and how it affects us. I was disturbed to discover that I knew very little about morality; I didn’t really understand what it was, where it came from, and how it affects us.

It was economics that pointed me in the right direction. Economic systems are in fact sets of morals. The father of capitalism, Adam Smith, was an 18th century moralist whose first book was entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Only after that did he write his magnum opus, On the Wealth of Nations. Suddenly I had a glimmer of understanding. I knew I was looking in the right place, but it was a moral psychologist who let it all click into place, and illustrated to me where the glaring deficiencies of Socks lay.

Free-market capitalism bought further clarification to the table of arguments, and added support to the following principles put forward rather too timidly in Socks:


·        The populants of any animal species are never equal. Inequality is a natural and inviolable property of natural procreation and evolution.

·        The direct consequence of inequality is intra-special competition and, in humans, specialisation of labour.

·        Free market commerce and the investment of capital evolved naturally from pre-historic trade and barter; socialism, by contrast, is an intellectually derived, artificial model. Free market capitalism aligns with human nature, warts and all; socialism is diametrically opposed to human nature.

·        Competition naturally determines rewards, sets values, and punishes misfits. It also balances varying individual abilities by trade (the exchanging of units of value).

·        Human beings are not primarily rational animals. Irrationally-derived motivations drive us and determine our behaviour.

·        Human beings are uniquely able to create and sustain an “extended order”, that is, to form groups of common purpose beyond that defined by primitive kinship, and this has been achieved without weakening competition, groups, or territoriality.

·        The uninhibited market place is the most embracing and relevant expression of democracy, and consequently, of moralities. It is the backbone of the extended order.

Peter Foster, in his at-times over-zealous book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand, quotes quite liberally from Jonathan Haidt, and although Haidt is too “progressive” for him, the cited passages did enough to prompt me to buy Haidt’s masterpiece, The Righteous Mind. The missing piece in the Ardrey/Climate/Friedmann/Marx/Mohammed jigsaw puzzle suddenly fell into place. Morals are a primary evolutionary instinct, and contain, define, and sustain beliefs. Beliefs are simply expressions of moral precepts. Morals, beliefs, and indeed instincts, are as much outcomes of evolutionary maturations as the mind itself. To be honest, it’s so clear in hindsight but I would not in a million years have realised it on my own. I owe Dr Haidt a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Moral psychology and evolutionary psychology, both empirical fields of study with an extensive and rigorous experimental base, added these vital illuminations to ideas put rather clumsily in Socks, or in some cases, corrected conceptual errors in Socks. Most of the following passages are quoted verbatim from Jonathan Haidt, without express permission; I cite them in terms of fair usage to promote the readership of his works.


·        Intuition first, strategic reasoning second.

·        Beliefs, points-of-view, and convictions are held in righteousness; we preach always from a moral high ground.

·        Morals bind and blind; when a group of people makes something sacred, the members of the cult lose their ability to think clearly about it. Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice.

·        The evolutionary purpose of morality is to cement our membership of social groups; the extended order is our higher goal.

·        Morality differs around the world, even within societies; it is the first step toward understanding your righteous mind.

·        Human social behaviour is analogous to an elephant and a rider, where the rider is our mind and the elephant our intuitive, instinctive self. The purpose of the rider is to serve the elephant.

·        The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.

·        Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason; you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.

·        Groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.

·        The very ritual practices that atheists tend to dismiss as costly, inefficient and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.

·        People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything.

·        Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices. This makes it very difficult for people to consider the possibility that there might really be more than one form of moral truth, or more than one valid framework for judging people or running a society.

·        Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality —people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

·        We are obsessively concerned about what others think of us, although much of that concern is unconscious and invisible to us.

·        Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president.

·        In moral and political matters we are often groupish, rather than selfish. We deploy our reasoning skills to support our team, and to demonstrate commitment to our team.

·        Can, want and must: When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Then we search for supporting evidence, and even if we find a single piece of supporting pseudo-evidence, we have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.

·        Intuitively, we behave more like politicians seeking votes than scientists seeking truth. Scientists tend to behave this way too, despite their claim of objectivity.

·        The most important principle for designing an ethical society is to make sure everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behaviour will bring bad consequences all the time.

There is really much more to say, and the list of unpublished thoughts grows longer in bursts and then dies with my fading memory. But try I must. We are exposed to a wide array of clever thinkers, and some, I’m afraid, are too clever for their own good. How do we choose which path to follow so that we can build something meaningful and coherent in all this chaos? It occurs to me that my journey brought me to the current intersection with Jonathan Haidt in a very important way. Haidt refers to moral receptors as “tasting” the idea before we reject it or rationalise it. We encourage certain concepts more than others, and in that way build up a buttress of biases.

I was strongly influenced recently by Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand, and the references contained therein. It was Foster who led me to Adam Smith and Milton Friedman on the plus side of economic theory, as well as to John Maynard Keynes on the negative. And along with Adam Smith, he brought me to the other unsung genius of centuries past, 18th century moral philosopher David Hume. But something unusual happened; I was going along with Foster quite nicely when he brought up the name of Jonathan Haidt, but in a condescending, somewhat critical way. That would normally cause an acolyte to reject the cited person too. But it didn’t. Quite the contrary.

I looked at the Haidt quotes with some puzzlement; what was Foster actually grumbling about? I called Haidt up on the Internet and found some critiques of his books, including the four-year-old The Righteous Mind. Despite a title that stuck in my craw, I bought the book and began to read it at the same time as the other two latest additions to my library, Ayaan Ali’s powerful work on Islam, Heretic, and Robert Spencer’s well-worked socio-political biography called simply The Truth About Muhammad. You can imagine what a bucketload of spicy ideas was being spooned into my head!

Before long, I was focussing on Haidt’s book to the exclusion of the others, which now lay at my bedside with forlorn book-markers pointing accusing fingers at me. It took me right up until chapter seven in The Righteous Mind to finally get what upset Peter Foster. Of that, more later. I am deeply impressed with Jonathan Haidt’s approach to the mysteries of human behaviour, and I’ll tell you why. Firstly, he is an empiricist who has conducted rigorous experiments to illuminate each point he makes in the book. He has done the hard yards himself, sometimes alone but more often in collaboration with other leading researchers in the field. He is not the least bit woo woo! Secondly, the book contains hundreds of footnotes and detailed references that the reader can check at his leisure. He lays it all out for us to look at. That’s the mark of a great scientist and a truly remarkable book.

Now, let’s get back to the irritation (it was no more than that) in which Peter Foster wrapped the Haidt quotes. Like me, Peter Foster is convinced of the virtues of free market capitalism as the socio-economic system best suited to human aspirations, such as they may be. Foster displays a clear grasp of Adam Smith’s invisible hand directing the flow of human endeavour, and to be quite frank, he’s one of the few human beings I’ve come across who does. Foster also understands the role of personal greed and selfishness in spreading the greatest good to the largest slice of humanity; but, in my opinion, he doesn’t totally get it. The reason, I think, is because he canonises the idea, and that blinds him to the more catholic view of Jonathan Haidt.

From The Righteous Mind, chapter seven – The Moral Foundations of Politics:

“Behind every act of altruism, hedonism, and human decency, you’ll find either selfishness or stupidity. That, at least, is the view long held by many social scientists who accepted the idea that Homo sapiens is really Homo economicus. ‘Economic man’ is a simple creature who makes all of life’s choices like a shopper in a supermarket with plenty of time to compare jars of apple sauce. If that’s your view of human nature, then it’s easy to create mathematical models of behaviour because there’s really just one principle at work: self-interest. People do whatever gets them the most benefit for the lowest cost.”

Neither Foster nor Haidt is wrong on this issue. It’s a matter of emphasis. In my view, Haidt has the better of it, because he takes a wider stance. Self-interest is certainly a fundamental motivator, as we would expect from success-based evolution, but it is not alone. Haidt goes on to illustrate just how wrong the total self-interest model is by showing us a ten question list he used in his research, where the answers can be materially manipulated by the inclusion of tweaks that introduce moral “flavours”. My own reaction as a reader confirms the results he got in the field: People are motivated by six prime moral precepts that very nearly dictate what our reactions will be. We get an intuitive flash from each of these six triggers that sets the agenda for the post hoc mental discussion we have with ourselves afterwards.

Arguably the most shocking realisation brought to me by these elite authors—Darwin, Ardrey, Haidt, Pinker, Foster, et al—is that there is no such thing as universal human rights. In fact, put to scale, there is no such thing as universal anything about Homo sapiens, certainly not amongst our rational concepts at any rate. No actual human rights! That rocked me back on my heels like I’d just been swatted by Mike Tyson. Now, in hindsight, it’s perfectly clear—of course there aren’t universal human rights, but it’s staggering how deeply etched into my psyche the notion was. Our intuitions, coming as they do from a swarm of double helixes manufacturing proteins in our cells, can and do fool us utterly. It felt as if the last vestige of liberal moral posture had been snatched from my soul and tossed into the furnace of natural contrition.

But, at the same time, it was immensely liberating. At last, I was free to grasp the nuances of the human moral matrix—the tribes, the conflicts, the superstitions, the kindness and the cruelty, all operate in equilibriums as definite and as beautiful as the ordering of galaxies. I must add that part of the relief I felt was the understanding that I’m as human as anyone else, and my elephant leans whither it will; there is no need me for to apologise for having opinions.

The danger I’m all too aware of in quoting passages selected from the Haidt thesis is that they lack the proper context. Haidt’s rigorous approach to citing and evaluating evidence is exemplary, and I must urge you to read the book before you decide how you’re going to judge human behaviour.

In summary then, we realise that morality is relative, not absolute. If we take a moral position in any political effort, we exert our own personal morality. This may conflict with the morals of those we seek to influence. What is required to solve this dilemma is a social system that seamlessly incorporates and expresses all individual morality, and allows the moral matrix most favoured by the social group to percolate to the top. Any attempt to force a particular moral standpoint at the expense of general consensus will ultimately fail.

Now what is left is for someone younger than I to pick up these disparate threads and weave them together into a coherent model of human behaviour, one that we can learn from to ultimately protect our species from suicide, or, if that’s not a good thing, at least to improve our behaviour to some significant degree.

Over to you.

Pascal Bruckner: The Fanaticism Of The Eco-Apocalypse

Financial Review, 20 October 2012
Pascal Bruckner Photo Miguel Medina
“The planet is sick. Man is guilty of having destroyed it. He must pay,” is how Bruckner caustically portrays the received wisdom on environmental “sin” and damnation in his latest book Le fanatisme de l’Apocalypse (The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse).
“Consider . . . the famous carbon footprint that we all leave behind us,” he writes in his introduction. “What is it, after all, if not the gaseous equivalent of original sin, of the stain that we inflict on our Mother Gaia by the simple fact of being present and breathing?”
Subtitled Sauver la Terre, punir l’Homme (Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings) the book rails against a peculiar Western malady. Yes, concerns about the environment are legitimate, Bruckner asserts, but catastrophisme is transforming us all into children “put in a panic in order to be better controlled”.
It is a feistier-than-usual polemic for Bruckner, a leading member of France’s “new philosophers” who emerged from the 1970s left with searing critiques of Marxism. Later this year, it will be published in English as Fanaticism of the Apocalypse by Polity, Cambridge, translated by Steven Rendall.
As the Jesuit-educated philosopher sees it, extreme climate change alarmism, with its warning bells chiming “The end of the world is nigh, repent ye”, represents a worrying new doctrine of ideological purity that even has totalitarian overtones.
Worst of all, Bruckner argues, these “political commissars of carbon” have “betrayed the best of causes” and turned the discourse of ecological terror into the “dominant ideology of Western society”.
Dividing his argument into three sections, provocatively titled “The Seduction of Disaster”; “The Anti-progress Progressives”; and “The Great Ascetic Regression”, Bruckner scorns the peddlers of the “propaganda of fear”.
It is a muscular thesis delivered in typical elegant Bruckner style, citing philosophers, playwrights, novelists, political theorists and green activists from Martin Heidegger to Goethe, Moliere, Gustave Flaubert, Hannah Arendt, and France’s Yves Cocher.
However since the book appeared in French late last year, Bruckner has been pilloried in certain quarters as a reactionary turncoat aiding the worst climate change deniers. He has seen some publications that traditionally laud his work decry Fanaticism of the Apocalypse as hedonistic, deluded and dangerous.
Le Monde devoted four pages to say to what extent my book was bad, false and full of lies, which is rather curious,” Bruckner says, with a slight edge to his voice, as we are ushered into an upper room in his local cafe, Le Progres, in the Marais neighbourhood of Paris. When his last book, The Paradox of Love, a reflection on the vicissitudes of the modern God of “Amour”, was released in 2009, it was critically acclaimed and became a bestseller.
“But I took a risk,” he explains of his latest controversial work. “It was [written in] a fit of anger. I went against today’s dominant ideas. There is widespread ‘greenwashing’ including in our thinking. The dominant passion of our time is fear.”
One blistering assessment, in Liberation newspaper, was headed “The Fanaticism of Denial”. The article accused Bruckner of being a pleasure-addled baby boomer stuck in pre-global warming nostalgia for the insouciant Trente Glorieuses, the 30 years of postwar French prosperity before the 1970s petrol shock.
The philosopher insists he cannot be classified as a climate change negationist – in fact the opposite, because he decries the virulent strain of denial among US Tea Party radicals and even mainstream Republicans.
“I do not attack ecology per se,” Bruckner says of his book. “I attack that degraded religion which emerges from it and turns into a culture of fear, hatred of progress and well-being.
“Why must we renounce all the joys of life under the pretext of global warming?”
While Bruckner fights off multiple critical assaults, he is still held in high regard by French critics and the reading public for his multidisciplinary dissertations on the dilemmas of modern Western life.
He is well known in the English-speaking world for his philosophical explorations of notions of happiness: Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to be Happy, and The Utopia of Love (an English translation of his 2010 essay Has Marriage for Love Failed?) is expected to be published soon.
His award-winning novel Bitter Moon was translated into 20 languages and turned into an acclaimed film by Roman Polanski, with Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas.
The author’s special “passion” is, he says, Western guilt. Tears of the White Man, published in 1983, explored culpability regarding our colonial past, and in The Tyranny of Guilt, published in 2006, Bruckner examined the burdens of contemporary “penitence” about Western power and influence.
But as Bruckner judges it, a panic is now gripping Western elites, as they rapidly lose power amid the rise of countries like China, India and Brazil.
“Since we no longer dominate the world, we live in a permanent terror film and every day they [ecologists] explain to us that it is a miracle that we are still alive.
“The absurdity of this propaganda of fear – which recalls that of [former US president] George W. Bush regarding terrorism – is that we have never lived so long.
“We are living in a post-technological Middle Ages. Our mentality is that of the medieval peasant serf who sees maleficent forces in nature.
“Everything is dangerous. Simply to live has become an impossible task.
“We are afraid of everything – of mobile phones, of food, of dummies, of nappies, of antennas. We are living in a society which has a horror of risk and therefore is afraid of its own shadow.”
Intelligent responses to environmental degradation are therefore required rather than radical “belt-tightening” and “privation” in the form of a retreat from nuclear power and even domestic heating.
“There is this famous notion defended by the ecologists of ‘negawatts’: the best energy is that which we don’t expend,” the philosopher almost sneers.
“Yes, we need to make some savings. But wealth reproduces itself and life cannot simply be a subtraction. It is like saying ‘the best life is the life we don’t lead’. This is a kind of neo-Malthusianism.”
The love affair between Bruckner and the French intelligentsia stretches back to his electrifying arrival on the Paris ideological scene in the mid-1970s.
Alongside Bernard-Henri Levy, Andre Glucksmann and Alain Finkielkraut, he was a member of the nouveaux philosophes, a bunch of dashing, idealistic young thinkers who urged a break with the Maoist and Marxist left.
In a nation that reveres philosophers sometimes as much as its film stars, the prolific and eloquent Bruckner soon became a bona fide celebrity.
He even played himself on film this year, taking a cheeky cameo role alongside Finkielkraut in the romantic comedy L’Amour dure trois ans (Love Lasts Three Years).
During last year’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, he flattered the French with his notorious evisceration of puritanical Americans.
Laughingly categorising himself an “old new philosophe” (he is 63) Bruckner is a self-described optimist who believes in progress, enterprise and the market. This makes him a rare breed of intellectual in gloomy France, and sometimes gets him into difficulties with his home-town audience.
“I think I touched . . . a faith and a belief in the goodness of nature, in the noxiousness of progress and in the just case of ecologists,” he says of the outrage generated by Le fanatisme de l’Apocalypse.
“I put into question a certain number of dogmas and they do not forgive me.
“But they [political ecologists] are crazy. They propose nothing and are opposed to everything – the car, the TGV [French high-speed train], the atom, i.e. nuclear power, petrol, coal, natural gas. At the end there is nothing left!”
Bruckner enthusiastically describes himself as a “left-leaning liberal” with a proud attachment to the “Anglo-Saxon” outlook.
Until now, such affiliations rarely posed problems for his compatriots.
“The problem with people on the left is that as soon as you start to reflect a little on the impasses of the left, you are labelled a reactionary,” he says.
He speaks warmly of his annual trips to teach in American and occasionally British universities, confessing he has always appreciated “this sort of confidence in man which we have lost in France”.
“In France there is a scepticism with regards to progress in general that we do not find in either the US or England,” he says. “So I am a mix of the two [French and Anglo-Saxon].”
Still, Bruckner detects suspicion about the merits of industrial progress not only in France but across the Western world, wherever extremist environmental politics has taken hold of public debate and even language.
The credo consists of saying to developing countries “stay poor because we became rich, we did evil to the planet and therefore everyone must impoverish themselves”.
“This discourse is a smokescreen to hide the anxiety of Westerners who have lost their supremacy in the world,” Bruckner retorts.
“Ecology is a means for us to say to these emerging countries ‘stay in the mud, remain broke, and moreover do not try to equal us because the industrial adventure is a failure’. In this sense the discourse is perfectly scandalous.”
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French writer Pascal Bruckner poses during the "Monde des livres" (World of books) meeting, on October 3, 2009, at the Le Monde hall in Paris. This event, gathering various writers, is aimed to "promote an attractive view of texts and authors and to contribute to the reinforcement of the intellectual debate." AFP PHOTO MIGUEL MEDINA

French writer Pascal Bruckner poses during the “Monde des livres” (World of books) meeting, on October 3, 2009, at the Le Monde hall in Paris. This event, gathering various writers, is aimed to “promote an attractive view of texts and authors and to contribute to the reinforcement of the intellectual debate.” AFP PHOTO MIGUEL MEDINA