The morality and the lessons of Communism

Two thousand seventeen marked a centenary of the Russian Revolution. One of my bitterest realisations is that the countries that have been affected by the 1917 revolution most – the post-Soviet world – seem to be strikingly blasé to draw useful lessons. It is perhaps asking too much to assume that experience and reflections can reform individuals and nations, yet I strongly believe that our eyes should be open to the fact that actions have consequences in the moral domain. And if one wishes to preserve the strength of character, he’d better watch his thoughts and actions.

The lessons of the Russian Revolution and the Communism are many. They may not have been obvious some dozen years ago, but this is no longer the case. First, take morale of the civil service. The aftermath of the revolution predictably led to a further, very significant deterioration in integrity of public institutions. The reason for this, I claim, was a failure to grasp the impossibility of bridging benign aspirations with utterly unscrupulous means. Individual freedoms and property rights were brought to the altar in the name of distant, economically unworkable, and morally questionable Utopia. Few, except the privileged bureaucrats who cared to Marx anyway, actually believed it. This Utopia quickly turned into another ‘opium for the masses’, and far more pernicious at that (a comparison by no means stretched to anyone with cursory knowledge of the methods of the Soviet states and Catholic Church in the Middle Ages). This is remarkable. Adam Smith, who in the age of the Enlightenment was careful to avoid using religiously charged rhetoric (because of the many misfortunes that appeals to religious sentiments had brought in his age), could not resist waxing spiritual when referring to property rights. In The Wealth of Nations he wrote: “The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbour is a plain violation of this most sacred property. It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty both of the workman and of those who might be disposed to employ him. As it hinders the one from working at what he thinks proper, so it hinders the others from employing whom they think proper. To judge whether he is fit to be employed may surely be trusted to the discretion of the employers whose interest it so much concerns. The affected anxiety of the law-giver lest they should employ an improper person is evidently as impertinent as it is oppressive.” Adam Smith called sacred not a single other right or thing.

On the other side of the fence, Vassily Grossman, one of few authors who retained independent conscience under the “impertinent” and “oppressive” regime of the Soviet law-giver, famously wrote: “I used to think freedom was freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience. But freedom is the whole life of everyone. Here is what it amounts to: you have to have the right to sow what you wish to, to make shoes or coats, to bake into bread the flour ground from the grain you have sown, and to sell it or not sell it as you wish; for the lathe operator, the steelworker, and the artist it’s a matter of being able to live as you wish and work as you wish and not as they order you to. And in our country there is no freedom – not for those who write books nor for those who sow grain nor for those who make shoes.” Our knowledge and experience have taught us the truth of this, yet Russians and Ukrainians keep believing in state’s competency to run entire sectors of economy. They find it fit and proper when the state regulates economy in a way that excludes other participants and kills initiative. Hence many Ukrainians have no moral qualms about the state-imposed ban on sale of agricultural land. This is the first lesson that people failed to learn.

The experiment of bridging benign aspirations with reprehensive methods proved to be another refutation of the attractive idea that the ends can justify the means. In Vassily Grossman’s country, property rights were sacrificed for equality which was reduced to a mere mockery as the system of informal privileges abounded. Equality was just a useful rhetoric where petty and big lies had been routinely fabricated to disguise the genuine material condition of the ruling class (all were equal but some were more equal than others).

Where the rhetoric of equality and prosperity was an empty political tool, little doubt that morale in public institutions declined. Every evil committed in pursuit of an abstract good, close or distant, tarnishes character to the point where good aspirations turn into something of a nuisance. Any individual who corrupts his or her character in the name of a nice little thing will cease to be good enough to enjoy it (think of the story in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment). This outcome is as relentless as a natural law. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity, the Germans started off killing the Jews because they hated them, but soon enough they hated them because they had been killing them.

The same considerations apply to governments, only with this qualification that since governments’ powers far exceed those of any individual, so increased is the potential of committing evils, with its corroding outcomes. And this was the case with Communism. The government which started off by committing thefts and murders (the Russian Revolution and the aftermath), could not have pursued happiness of its subjects sincerely. This is the second lesson.

The Soviet regime made out the Marxian formula of achieving prosperity (nevermind cruelty along the way) to be a hard science, and the only accurate one at that. Its sheer misfortune lied in the fact that the policy of levelling material wealth and killing off business initiative was flawed from the start. It amounted to killing the geese that laid golden eggs. As many economists argue, the basic flaw of the policy of aiming at equality of outcome (all equally wealthy) rather than equality of opportunity (everyone is entitled to have a go) derives from attributing economic growth to all sorts of causes except improvements and innovations. (An economist D. MacCloskey called them ‘market-tested betterments’, such as improvements in production, transportation, quality of goods and services etc. Such market-tested betterments are best encouraged under the democratic conditions of markets, where business ideas are voted for by consumers, not bureaucrats. The opposite to this, of course, is state-planning with huge costs of inefficiencies).

The popular idea of radical wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor doesn’t deliver. Giving to the poor a one-off bounty, stolen from the rich, would not make them richer for any period longer than that which is strictly necessary to consume that bounty. On the other hand, letting the rich – provided that they got rich by application of skills – to mind their own business and produce wealth would benefit all, both the rich and the poor. This is the story of liberal economies. It is well-known that in the Soviet Union the idea assumed quite an extreme form of eradicating the bourgeoisie. The efforts, naturally, stamped out any business initiative and foreclosed the main driver of economic growth – market-tested betterment – for nearly a century (not that the culture of entrepreneurship was particularly developed in 19th century Russia or Ukraine. The famous theatre innovator Konstantin Stanislavski was always ashamed of his merchant background.)

As a result of killing off wealth-producing ideas (entrepreneurial initiative), Communist states could not pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. No amount of violence, soft or radical, could bring about the desired outcomes, since, without improvements, material wealth depreciates through diminishing returns. This is the third lesson.

Finally, it was equally unavoidable that the generally low morale in the government would trickle down to the wider masses, both in the working and the “managerial” classes. How could it be otherwise if the state forbade to earn honestly, i.e. by business initiative, while encouraging to earn dishonestly, i.e. by fawning and stealing. The side effects of lazy economic policies have been highlighted by Cicero as long as two millennia ago. In his On Duties he wrote thus:

“When politicians, enthusiastic to pose as the people’s friends, bring forward bills providing for the distribution of land, they intend that the existing owners shall be driven from their homes. Or they propose to excuse borrowers from paying back their debts.

Men with those views undermine the very foundations on which our commonwealth depends. In the first place, they are shattering the harmony between one element in the State and another, a relationship which cannot possibly survive if debtors are excused from paying their creditor back the sums of money he is entitled to. Furthermore, all politicians who harbor such intentions are aiming a fatal blow at the whole principle of justice; for once rights of property are infringed, this principle is totally undermined. It is, I repeat, the special function of every state and every city to guarantee that each of its citizens shall be allowed the free and unassailed enjoyment of his own property.

Besides, politicians who propose a measure of this kind, with all its disastrous national implications, do not even succeed in winning the popularity they had hoped for. For anyone who has been deprived of his property automatically becomes their enemy; and the person who has taken the land over pretends he never wanted any such thing. Or, if his debt has been cancelled, he takes elaborate steps to conceal his satisfaction, so that people will not realize he had been insolvent. The injured party, on the other hand, not only remembers the injury, but displays his resentment for all to see. So even if the beneficiaries of the iniquitous measure outnumber the victims, that does not mean that they will be more influential; for in such mattes numbers count less than determination. However, leaving all that aside, it is utterly unfair that estates which have been in a family’s possession for many years and indeed centuries should be handed over to someone who has never owned any property at all, and that the rightful owner should be deprived of them.”

We should have learnt that cheating honestly doesn’t work.  When the “proletariat” stole the produce on a daily basis (not so much as seeing their takings as theft) while at the same time dismissing commerial activity as “speculation”, something ought to have happened with businesses alertness, and it did. This is the fourth lesson.

Advertisements

The lessons of Communism and Cicero

Two thousand seventeen marked a centenary of the Russian Revolution. I am not a historian, let alone an expert on this particular event, but one of my bitterest realisations, after speaking with some Ukrainians and Russians, is that the countries that have been affected by the 1917 revolution most – the post-Soviet world – seem to be strikingly blasé to draw useful lessons. Yet the lessons were many. I wish one day I had the wisdom to deal with them squarely, and this time I would like to point to only few.

The aftermath of the revolution predictably led to a further, very significant deterioration in integrity of public institutions. During the 20th century, they became the by-word of corruption of an entirely different order. And the reason for this, I claim, was a failure to grasp the impossibility of bridging benign aspirations with utterly cruel means. In other words, the experiment proved to be another refutation of the old and attractive idea that the ends justify the means.

Individual freedoms and property rights were brought to the altar in the name of distant and economically ludicrous Utopia which few, except the privileged bureaucrats who never read Marx anyway, cared to believe in. This Utopia quickly turned into another ‘opium for the masses’, and far more pernicious at that (a comparison by no means stretched to any one who has even cursory knowledge of the methods of the Soviet states and Catholic Church in the Middle Ages). By the same token, property rights were sacrificed for equality which, in turn, was reduced to a mere mockery as the system of informal privileges abounded. Equality was just a useful rhetoric where petty and big lies had been routinely fabricated to disguise the genuine material condition of the ruling class (all were equal but some just more equal than others). Thus, aspirations to equality and material prosperity were nothing short of useful tools of inflicting sufferings in the name of the system that chased impossible goals.

Was this downfall in morals of public institutions inevitable? Absolutely. Every evil committed in pursuit of an abstract good, close or distant, tarnishes character to the point where good aspirations cease to be motivational and turn into something of a nuisance. Any individual who corrupts his or her character in the name of a nice little thing will cease to be good enough to enjoy it (think of the story in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment). This outcome is as relentless as any natural law. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity, the Germans started off killing the Jews because they hated them, but soon enough they hated them because they had been killing them.

The same considerations apply to governments, only with this qualification that since governments’ powers far exceed those of any individual, so increased is the potential of committing evils with its corroding outcomes. And so it was with Communism. The government which started off by committing thefts and murders, cannot sincerely have the pursuit happiness of its subjects as its aim by any stretch of rhetoric.

The sheer misfortune of Communism, among other things, lied in the fact that the whole policy of levelling material wealth and killing off business initiative while concentrating the state power was flawed from the start. As many economists argue, the basic misconception of some modern left-leaning policies derives from attributing economic growth to different causes excepting market-tested betterments. (I took the expression ‘market-tested betterments’ from the economic historian D. MacCloskey who meant by it different improvements, such as more efficient production and transportation methods, better quality of goods, etc. These market-tested betterments, or ‘creative destruction’ in the words of Schumpeter, are best encouraged under the democratic conditions of relatively open markets, where business ideas are rewarded by consumers, not bureaucrats. The opposite to this, of course, is state-planning with huge costs of inefficiencies). As a result of this misconception, Communist states could not pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and no amount of violence, soft or radical, could bring about good ends.

Let’s take one example, a popular economic idea of radical wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor. Thanks to the quaint ideologies of Marxism, in the Soviet Union the idea assumed quite an extreme form of eradicating the bourgeoisie. The efforts, naturally, stamped out any business initiative and foreclosed the main driver of economic growth – market-tested betterment – for nearly a century.

Going back to the Russian Revolution, the historical lesson that failed to be learnt was twofold. Firstly, the share of control in the economy of a government which has repeatedly compromised itself should be reduced to a minimum. And secondly, giving to the poor a one-off bounty, stolen from the rich, would not make them richer for any period longer than that which is strictly necessary to consume the bounty. On the other hand, letting the rich – provided that they got rich by application of skills – to mind their own business and produce wealth would benefit all, both the rich and the poor. This is the story of liberal economies. And, therefore, private entrepreneurship should be encouraged.

It was equally unavoidable that the generally low morale in the government would trickle down to the wider masses, both in the working and the “managerial” classes. Again, how could it be otherwise if the state forbade to earn honestly, i.e. by business initiative, while encouraging to earn dishonestly, i.e. by fawning and stealing. Curiously, the dangers of extreme left-leaning policies were highlighted by Cicero as long as two millennia ago. In his On Duties he wrote thus:

“When politicians, enthusiastic to pose as the people’s friends, bring forward bills providing for the distribution of land, they intend that the existing owners shall be driven from their homes. Or they propose to excuse borrowers from paying back their debts.

Men with those views undermine the very foundations on which our commonwealth depends. In the first place, they are shattering the harmony between one element in the State and another, a relationship which cannot possibly survive if debtors are excused from paying their creditor back the sums of money he is entitled to. Furthermore, all politicians who harbor such intentions are aiming a fatal blow at the whole principle of justice; for once rights of property are infringed, this principle is totally undermined. It is, I repeat, the special function of every state and every city to guarantee that each of its citizens shall be allowed the free and unassailed enjoyment of his own property.

Besides, politicians who propose a measure of this kind, with all its disastrous national implications, do not even succeed in winning the popularity they had hoped for. For anyone who has been deprived of his property automatically becomes their enemy; and the person who has taken the land over pretends he never wanted any such thing. Or, if his debt has been cancelled, he takes elaborate steps to conceal his satisfaction, so that people will not realize he had been insolvent. The injured party, on the other hand, not only remembers the injury, but displays his resentment for all to see. So even if the beneficiaries of the iniquitous measure outnumber the victims, that does not mean that they will be more influential; for in such mattes numbers count less than determination. However, leaving all that aside, it is utterly unfair that estates which have been in a family’s possession for many years and indeed centuries should be handed over to someone who has never owned any property at all, and that the rightful owner should be deprived of them.”

“Brexit” (a dialogue between Timothy Snyder and Nigel Farage)

Recently I met up with a good friend and the conversation veered towards the topic of Brexit politics. As we chatted though the incongruities, paradoxes and misfortunes of the present predicament, I involuntarily caught myself at the idea of how strikingly Brixeteers reminded me of one character from the dialogue of an ancient philosopher. I know exactly how cheesy it sounds but, as it happened, I’d just read that dialogue few days earlier.

The dialogue is by all means an instructive read. I have only changed the names of the original interlocutors and, save for some cuts for the sake of brevity, the phrases are left virtually intact. In the millennia-old original text, one character is a philosopher, and another a rhetorician. To give the text a modern spin, I’ve substituted them for a historian and a politician. I will call the philosopher Timothy Snyder and the politician Nigel Farage. Timothy Snyder is a history professor at Yale and is extremely good at laying bare all sorts of populism, dangerous ideologies and generally opportunistic behavior. And Nigel Farage… well, everyone knows who he is.

Setting: a small university campus somewhere in the US where Mr FARAGE is delivering a series of lectures on public affairs.

SNYDER: What are we to call you, and what is the art which you profess?

FARAGE: Rhetoric, Timothy, is my art.

SNYDER: Then I am to call you a rhetorician?

FARAGE: Yes, Timothy, and a good one too.

SNYDER: And will you continue to ask and answer questions, Nigel, as we are at present doing, and reserve for another occasion the longer mode of speech? Will you keep your promise, and answer shortly the questions which are asked of you?

FARAGE: Some answers, Timothy, are of necessity longer; but I will do my best to make them as short as possible; for a part of my profession is that I can be as short as any one.

SNYDER: That is what is wanted, Nigel; exhibit the shorter method now, and the longer one at some other time.

Very good then; as you profess to be a rhetorician, and a maker of rhetoricians, let me ask you, with what is rhetoric concerned.

FARAGE: It is concerned with that good, Timothy, which is truly the greatest, being that which gives to men freedom in their own persons, and to individuals the power of ruling over others in their several states.

SNYDER: And what would you consider this to be?

FARAGE: What is there greater than the word which persuades the judges in the courts, or the senators in the council, or the citizens in the assembly, or at any other political meeting?—if you have the power of uttering this word, you will have the physician your slave, and the trainer your slave, and the money-maker of whom you talk will be found to gather treasures, not for himself, but for you who are able to speak and to persuade the multitude.

SNYDER: Now I think, Nigel, that you have very accurately explained what you conceive to be the art of rhetoric; and you mean to say, if I am not mistaken, that rhetoric is the artificer of persuasion, having this and no other business, and that this is her crown and end. Do you know any other effect of rhetoric over and above that of producing persuasion?

FARAGE: No: the definition seems to me very fair, Timothy; for persuasion is the chief end of rhetoric.

SNYDER: Then hear me, Nigel, for I am quite sure that if there ever was a man who entered on the discussion of a matter from a pure love of knowing the truth, I am such a one, and I should say the same of you.

FARAGE: What is coming, Timothy?

SNYDER: I will tell you: I am very well aware that I do not know what, according to you, is the exact nature, or what are the topics of that persuasion of which you speak, and which is given by rhetoric; although I have a suspicion about both the one and the other. And I am going to ask – what is this power of persuasion which is given by rhetoric, and about what? But why, if I have a suspicion, do I ask instead of telling you? Not for your sake, but in order that the argument may proceed in such a manner as is most likely to set forth the truth. Is rhetoric the only art which brings persuasion, or do other arts have the same effect? I mean to say—Does he who teaches anything persuade men of that which he teaches or not?

FARAGE: He persuades, Timothy,—there can be no mistake about that.

SNYDER: Again, if we take the arts of which we were just now speaking: — do not arithmetic and the arithmeticians teach us the properties of number?

FARAGE: Certainly.

SNYDER: And therefore persuade us of them?

FARAGE: Yes.

SNYDER: Then arithmetic as well as rhetoric is an artificer of persuasion?

FARAGE: Clearly.

SNYDER: And if any one asks us what sort of persuasion, and about what, – we shall answer, persuasion which teaches the quantity of odd and even; and we shall be able to show that all the other arts of which we were just now speaking are artificers of persuasion, and of what sort, and about what.

FARAGE: Very true.

SNYDER: Then rhetoric is not the only artificer of persuasion?

FARAGE: True.

SNYDER: Seeing, then, that not only rhetoric works by persuasion, but that other arts do the same, as in the case of the painter, a question has arisen which is a very fair one: Of what persuasion is rhetoric the artificer, and about what?

FARAGE: Rhetoric is the art of persuasion in courts of law and other assemblies, as I was just now saying, and about the just and unjust.

SNYDER: Then let me raise another question; is there such a thing as ‘having learned’?

FARAGE: Yes.

SNYDER: And there is also ‘having believed’?

FARAGE: Yes.

SNYDER: And is the ‘having learned’ the same as ‘having believed,’ and are learning and belief the same things?

FARAGE: In my judgment, Timothy, they are not the same.

SNYDER: And your judgment is right, as you may ascertain in this way:—If a person were to say to you, ‘Is there, Timothy, a false belief as well as a true?’—you would reply, if I am not mistaken, that there is.

FARAGE: Yes.

SNYDER: Well, but is there a false knowledge as well as a true?

FARAGE: No.

SNYDER: No, indeed; and this again proves that knowledge and belief differ.

FARAGE: Very true.

SNYDER: And yet those who have learned as well as those who have believed are persuaded?

FARAGE: Just so.

SNYDER: Shall we then assume two sorts of persuasion, — one which is the source of belief without knowledge, as the other is of knowledge?

FARAGE: By all means.

SNYDER: And which sort of persuasion does rhetoric create in courts of law and other assemblies about the just and unjust, the sort of persuasion which gives belief without knowledge, or that which gives knowledge?

FARAGE: Clearly, Timothy, that which only gives belief.

SNYDER: Do you mean that you will teach him to gain the ears of the multitude on any subject, and this not by instruction but by persuasion?

FARAGE: Quite so.

SNYDER: You were saying, in fact, that the rhetorician will have greater powers of persuasion than the physician even in a matter of health?

FARAGE: Yes, with the multitude, — that is.

SNYDER: You mean to say, with the ignorant; for with those who know he cannot be supposed to have greater powers of persuasion.

FARAGE: Very true.

SNYDER: But if he is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

FARAGE: Certainly.

SNYDER: Although he is not a physician: — is he?

FARAGE: No.

SNYDER: And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

FARAGE: Clearly.

SNYDER: Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge? — is not that the inference?

FARAGE: In the case supposed: — yes.

SNYDER: And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

FARAGE: Yes, Timothy, and is not this a great comfort?—not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them? Occasionally I would positively gainsay them to get my point across. And do you answer me, Timothy, the same question: What is rhetoric?

SNYDER: Do you mean what sort of an art?

FARAGE: Yes.

SNYDER: To say the truth, Nigel, it is not an art at all, in my opinion.

FARAGE: Then what, in your opinion, is rhetoric?

SNYDER: A thing which, as I was lately reading in a book of yours, you say that you have made an art.

FARAGE: What thing?

SNYDER: I should say a sort of experience.

FARAGE: Does rhetoric seem to you to be an experience?

SNYDER: That is my view, but you may be of another mind.

FARAGE: An experience in what?

SNYDER: An experience in producing a sort of delight and gratification.

FARAGE: And if able to gratify others, must not rhetoric be a fine thing?

Few thoughts on immigration

Recently I was fortunate enough to be involved in a discussion with few Brits about the merits and demerits of immigration. The exchange helped me to clear my own thoughts and confirmed the apprehension that the reasoning surrounding this topic is largely based on emotions.

There is, in fact, nothing new in playing on this topic for political purposes in the US and the UK: the tradition boasts more than two hundred years. It is worth giving a flavour of the prevailing attitudes in the not too distant past. In 1896, Francis Walker, Commissioner General of the Immigration Service, argued that:

The question today is protecting the American rate of wages, the American standard of living, and the quality of American citizenship from degradation through the tumultuous access of vast throngs of ignorant and brutalized peasantry from the countries of Eastern and Southern Europe… The entrance into our political, social, and industrial life of such vast masses of peasantry, degraded below our utmost conceptions, is a matter which no intelligent patriot can look upon without the gravest apprehension and alarm.”

As usual, the clerisy was even more eloquent and radical. In 1920, sociologist E.A. Ross warned in the Atlantic Monthly of the social dangers of immigration to the American culture:

the immigrant seldom brings in his intellectual baggage anything of use to us – the admission into electorate of backward men – men whose mental, moral, and physical standards are lower than our own – must inevitably retard our social progress and thrust us behind the more uniformly civilized nations of the world.”

Across the pond the attitudes were no different, if only expressed more politely. For instance, Thatcher in the run-up to her election in 1979 notoriously pandered to fears of being “swamped by people of a different culture“.

To be crudely honest, not all of these ideas have entirely disappeared. But returning to my polite conversation with Brits, I would like to recount some of their arguments and use them as examples of the emotional reasoning that I have in mind.

Statement: The UK lacks sufficient housing. Residential property prices have already soared beyond the reach of many and if we keep accepting immigrants, this would only exacerbate the problem.

Reply: This position unduly emphasises the problem of demand and fails to address that of supply. According to many economists, construction in the UK is overregulated. With the existing rules of planning permissions and ‘green belts’, it is no wonder that residential housing is currently understocked. For it is much easier to treat this situation as an example of the state’s intervention leading to inefficiencies (examples of which abound in various countries) than to accept that supply is so remarkably rigid. As usual, look for the vested interests, which in this case are those of property-owners.

Thus, to me at least the root of the problem lies not so much in excessive demand, but in a (deliberately) inflexible response on the supply side. Give or take few hundred thousands or even a million of immigrants, the problem would still remain.

Statement: We should educate and bring up our own specialists, not only in the NHS, but elsewhere.

Reply: This line of arguments leads to the centuries-old theories of self-sufficiency and protectionism. Economic theory and history have proved them wrong, demonstrating on the contrary the beauty and benefits of specialisation. As Adam Smith put it in The Wealth of Nations,

“It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy…What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.”

Specialisation leads to dynamism, innovation and breakthroughs. None of that is possible without an exchange of ideas and skills – and, consequently, liberal immigration rules.

Statement: Poles were just brought up to be quick and therefore they often outdo Brits in uptake and productivity. (I’m not making it up, by the way.)

Reply: Probably the easiest one. A country should hardly protect less skilled workers or subsidize zombie companies, particularly if it wants to remain globally competitive (which is the only way of maintaining high living standards) and has a rich history of global trade.

Inequality, or politico-economic mishmash

Inequality seems to be one of the most popular political slogans these days.  Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, revolving partly around the same topic, became in 2014 The New York Times Best Seller in non-fiction – a rare feat for a book on economics. One of the reasons could be the enduring appeal – particularly among the French – of the concept of ‘inequality’.

As most overpoliticised topics, the debate concerning economic inequality in the West employs emotive if misleading words. One of them is ‘stagnation’. Distinguished and amiable economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman claim that real wages of US low skilled workers have not budged since 1970s. The claim is scandalous and, therefore, memorable. How come the benefits of growth have not been distributed fairly despite the astounding growth in productivity? Because, they claim, the benefits go to a small minority of asset holders.

There must be more than one reason to be critical about the claims and underlying measurements. I’ll point one:  an apparent disregard for improvements in the affordable goods’ quality. In 1960s, only a millionaire could enjoy instant photographs.  Better still, in 1970s and 1980s there was no Internet and, correspondingly, no emails. The list can go on. In those happy days, no matter how rich you were, you could only go so far. And therefore, ‘stagnation’ has never been absolute, but only relative at best. But – I agree – the claim sounds impressive.

The Wind and the Trees (from “Tremendous Trifles” by G.K. Chesterton)

I am sitting under tall trees, with a great wind boiling like surf about the tops of them, so that their living load of leaves rocks and roars in something that is at once exultation and agony. I feel, in fact, as if I were actually sitting at the bottom of the sea among mere anchors and ropes, while over my head and over the green twilight of water sounded the everlasting rush of waves and the toil and crash and shipwreck of tremendous ships. The wind tugs at the trees as if it might pluck them root and all out of the earth like tufts of grass. Or, to try yet another desperate figure of speech for this unspeakable energy, the trees are straining and tearing and lashing as if they were a tribe of dragons each tied by the tail.

As I look at these top-heavy giants tortured by an invisible and violent witchcraft, a phrase comes back into my mind. I remember a little boy of my acquaintance who was once walking in Battersea Park under just such torn skies and tossing trees. He did not like the wind at all; it blew in his face too much; it made him shut his eyes; and it blew off his hat, of which he was very proud. He was, as far as I remember, about four. After complaining repeatedly of the atmospheric unrest, he said at last to his mother, “Well, why don’t you take away the trees, and then it wouldn’t wind.”

Nothing could be more intelligent or natural than this mistake. Any one looking for the first time at the trees might fancy that they were indeed vast and titanic fans, which by their mere waving agitated the air around them for miles. Nothing, I say, could be more human and excusable than the belief that it is the trees which make the wind. Indeed, the belief is so human and excusable that it is, as a matter of fact, the belief of about ninety-nine out of a hundred of the philosophers, reformers, sociologists, and politicians of the great age in which we live. My small friend was, in fact, very like the principal modern thinkers; only much nicer.

…..

In the little apologue or parable which he has thus the honour of inventing, the trees stand for all visible things and the wind for the invisible. The wind is the spirit which bloweth where it listeth; the trees are the material things of the world which are blown where the spirit lists. The wind is philosophy, religion, revolution; the trees are cities and civilisations. We only know that there is a wind because the trees on some distant hill suddenly go mad. We only know that there is a real revolution because all the chimney-pots go mad on the whole skyline of the city.

Just as the ragged outline of a tree grows suddenly more ragged and rises into fantastic crests or tattered tails, so the human city rises under the wind of the spirit into toppling temples or sudden spires. No man has ever seen a revolution. Mobs pouring through the palaces, blood pouring down the gutters, the guillotine lifted higher than the throne, a prison in ruins, a people in arms—these things are not revolution, but the results of revolution.

You cannot see a wind; you can only see that there is a wind. So, also, you cannot see a revolution; you can only see that there is a revolution. And there never has been in the history of the world a real revolution, brutally active and decisive, which was not preceded by unrest and new dogma in the reign of invisible things. All revolutions began by being abstract. Most revolutions began by being quite pedantically abstract.

The wind is up above the world before a twig on the tree has moved. So there must always be a battle in the sky before there is a battle on the earth. Since it is lawful to pray for the coming of the kingdom, it is lawful also to pray for the coming of the revolution that shall restore the kingdom. It is lawful to hope to hear the wind of Heaven in the trees. It is lawful to pray “Thine anger come on earth as it is in Heaven.”

…..

The great human dogma, then, is that the wind moves the trees. The great human heresy is that the trees move the wind. When people begin to say that the material circumstances have alone created the moral circumstances, then they have prevented all possibility of serious change. For if my circumstances have made me wholly stupid, how can I be certain even that I am right in altering those circumstances?

The man who represents all thought as an accident of environment is simply smashing and discrediting all his own thoughts—including that one. To treat the human mind as having an ultimate authority is necessary to any kind of thinking, even free thinking. And nothing will ever be reformed in this age or country unless we realise that the moral fact comes first.

For example, most of us, I suppose, have seen in print and heard in debating clubs an endless discussion that goes on between Socialists and total abstainers. The latter say that drink leads to poverty; the former say that poverty leads to drink. I can only wonder at their either of them being content with such simple physical explanations. Surely it is obvious that the thing which among the English proletariat leads to poverty is the same as the thing which leads to drink; the absence of strong civic dignity, the absence of an instinct that resists degradation.

When you have discovered why enormous English estates were not long ago cut up into small holdings like the land of France, you will have discovered why the Englishman is more drunken than the Frenchman. The Englishman, among his million delightful virtues, really has this quality, which may strictly be called “hand to mouth,” because under its influence a man’s hand automatically seeks his own mouth, instead of seeking (as it sometimes should do) his oppressor’s nose. And a man who says that the English inequality in land is due only to economic causes, or that the drunkenness of England is due only to economic causes, is saying something so absurd that he cannot really have thought what he was saying.

Yet things quite as preposterous as this are said and written under the influence of that great spectacle of babyish helplessness, the economic theory of history. We have people who represent that all great historic motives were economic, and then have to howl at the top of their voices in order to induce the modern democracy to act on economic motives. The extreme Marxian politicians in England exhibit themselves as a small, heroic minority, trying vainly to induce the world to do what, according to their theory, the world always does. The truth is, of course, that there will be a social revolution the moment the thing has ceased to be purely economic. You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.

…..

I get up from under the trees, for the wind and the slight rain have ceased. The trees stand up like golden pillars in a clear sunlight. The tossing of the trees and the blowing of the wind have ceased simultaneously. So I suppose there are still modern philosophers who will maintain that the trees make the wind.

Дж. К. Честертон “Вітер і дерева” (із збірки есе “Великі дрібниці”) (1909)

Я сиджу під високими деревами, над верхівками яких ширяє вітер так сильно, що здається, ніби живі листя гойдаються і кричать в радості і агонії одночасно. Здається,  ніби я сиджу на дні моря просто посеред якорів і шнурів, у той час як над моєю головою і над зеленими сутінками звучить вічний шум хвиль і рух великих кораблів. Вітер хапає дерева так, ніби хоче вирвати їх із корінням, як пучки трави. Пробуючи іще одну алегорію для висловлення цієї невимовної енергії, дерева напружуються, розтягуються і ляскають так, ніби належать до племені драконів, перев’язаних між собою хвостами.

В той час, як я спостерігаю, як жорстокі відьомські сили мордують ці величезні гіганти, мені спала на думку одна фраза.  Я пригадую, як знайомий хлопчисько гуляв парком Баттерсі під таким же рваним небом і танцюючими деревами.  Вітер йому не подобався зовсім : він дув в обличчя, змушував заплющувати очі і, власне, здував шапку, якою малий дуже пишався. Йому було чотири, наскільки пригадую. Поскаржившись кілька разів на негоду, він врешті промовив до мами: «Чому ти не забереш дерева, щоб цей вітер нарешті втих, ?»

Нічого не могло бути розумнішим і природнішим за цю помилку. Кожен, хто вперше дивився на дерева, міг подумати, що вони дійсно були величезними і титанічними фенами, які своїм вилянням роздмухували повітря милями навколо. Нічого не могло бути більш людським і зрозумілим, аніж віра в те, що дерева давали вітер. Ця віра настільки людська і зрозуміла, що її притримуються дев’яносто дев’ять відсотків філософів, реформістів, соціологів та політиків нашого великого часу. Мій маленький товариш був дуже схожим на наших сучасних мислителів – тільки значно гарнішим.

***

У цій алегорії або притчі, яку йому випала честь придумати, дерева представляють видимі речі, а вітер – невидимі. Вітер – це дух, який дує, куди забажає; дерева – це матеріальні речі цього світу, яких  дує вітер, куди він забажає. Вітер – це філософія, релігія, революція; дерева – це міста і цивілізації. Ми дізнаємось про вітер лише тоді, коли дерева на віддаленій горі раптом поводяться, ніби божевільні. Ми дізнаємось про справжню революцію, коли усі димарі божеволіють уздовж панорами міста.

Вітер не можна побачити; можна лише побачити те, що він є. Так само, не можна побачити революцію; можна лише побачити, що революція є. І в історії світу не було жодної справжньої революції по-брутальному бурхливої і вирішальної, якій би не передувала нова догма в царині невидимих речей. Усі революції спочатку абстрактні. Більшість революцій спочатку були дуже педантично абстрактні.

Вітер ширяє високо в небі перед тим, як він рухає верхівки дерев. І так само завжди перед боротьбою на землі передує боротьба на небі. Оскільки можна молитись за пришестя царства, так само можна молитись за пришестя революції, яка відновить царство. Можна надіятись почути Небесний вітер в деревах. Можна молитись: «Хай гнів Твій прийде на землю, яким він є і на Небі».

***

Отже, велике людське вчення полягає в тому, що вітер рухає деревами. Великий людський обман полягає в тому, що дерева рухають вітер. Якщо люди починають казати, що лише матеріальні обставини призвели до моральних обставин, вони виключають можливості серйозних змін. Адже якщо мої зовнішні обставини зробили мене повністю дурним, як же я можу бути впевненим навіть у правильності свого бажання змінити обставини?

Той, хто представляє усі думки як наслідок середовища, просто розбиває і дискредитує усі свої думки – включно із цією. Сприйняття розуму як найвищого авторитету є необхідним для будь-якого мислення, включаючи незалежне мислення. І нічого не буде реформовано у наш вік або в нашій країні до тих пір, поки моральні факти не ставляться на перше місце.

Наприклад, більшість із нас, я гадаю, читали або чули незкінченні дискусії між соціалістам і тими, хто стримується від алкоголю. Останні кажуть, що пиятика веде до бідності; перші кажуть, що бідність веде до пиятики. Я можу тільки дивуватись, як кожен із них може задовольнятись таким простим фізичним поясненням. Очевидно, що той самий фактор, що веде до бідності багатьох із нашого трудового класу, веде і до алкоголю: відсутність сильної громадської гідності, відсутність інстинкту опору деградації.

Після того, як ви зрозумієте, чому величезні англійські угіддя не були давним-давно розділені на маленькі частки, як земля у Франції, ви зрозумієте, чому англійці п’ють більше, аніж французи. Англієць, серед мільйона чеснот, дійсно має таку рису, яку строго можна назвати «hand to mouth», адже під її впливом, рука чоловіка автоматично шукає власний рот, замість того, щоб шукати – як часом треба – носа свого гнобителя. І людина, яка стверджує, що англійська нерівність володіння землею, так само як і п’янство, походить виключно від економічних факторів, говорить такий абсурд, який навраяд чи мався на увазі.

Разом з цим, таку ж нісенітницю говорять і пишуть під впливом спектаклю дитячої безпорадності під назвою економічна теорія історії. У нас є люди, які стверджують, що усі великі історичні мотиви були економічними, а потім горланять, що демократію треба заохочувати діяти за економічними мотивами. Наші англійські крайні політики-марксисти уявляють себе героїчною меншістю, яка марно намагається схилити світ робити те, що, відповідно до їх теорії, він завжди робив. Правда ж, звісно, полягає в тому, що соціальна революція відбудеться у той момент, коли речі припинять бути виключно економічними. Ви ніколи не будете мати революцію, щоб встановити демократію. Щоби мати революцію, потрібна демократія.

***

Я встаю з-під дерев, адже вітер і легкий дощ припинились. Дерева стоять під ясним сонцем, наче золоті стовпи. Танці дерев і сильний вітер зупинились одночасно. Отже, гадаю, і досі є філософи, які стверджуватимуть, що дерева породжують вітер.

The rights and wrongs of globalisation

It is understandable that a modern reader usually learns about industrial casualties in developing countries with a large frown. News about coal mining in India would, in all probability, evoke indignation not dissimilar to the one felt by Marx when he described the maiming of children in the British coal mines. Condemnation of globalisation has lately become something of a mainstream as causes for squeamishness abound.

This should come as no surprise since during the second half of the 20th century rich Western countries have, for absolutely sound reasons, outsourced much of their labour-intensive manufacturing to the developing nations. The outsourced production has greatly contributed to the modern success of South-East Asia, a fact acknowledged by the admirers and critics of globalization alike. Thus, Stiglitz in his “Globalisation and its Discontents” (2003) wrote that “[o]pening up to international trade has helped many countries grow far more quickly than they would otherwise have done. International trade helps economic development when a country’s exports drive its economic growth. Export-led growth was the centerpiece of the industrial policy that enriched much of Asia and left millions of people there far better off. Because of globalization many people in the world now live longer than before and their standard of living is far better. People in the West may regard low-paying jobs at Nike as exploitation, but for many people in the developing world, working in a factory is a far better option than staying down on the farm and growing rice”.

Many of the hardline leftists would disagree with the last sentence. Unfortunately, they see affording Asian or Eastern European workers anything short of Western pay and work conditions as cruel, opportunistic, and, in short, exploitative. I think such criticism is unwarranted. Workers in developing countries line up by thousands to get hired in factories. It stands to reason that an imperfect job is better than no job; or, alternatively, a stable job in an air-conditioned factory is better than a precarious, worse paid job under the scorching heat.

Yet, for all that, one should not be overly apologetic, since the dangers and abuses in the developing countries are very real. While it is true that poor workers may be given extra opportunities to choose between a few evils rather than sticking to just one (a good thing on its own), such added opportunities shouldn’t come at a disproportionate price. Think of deaths of miners in Ukraine or ubiquitous environmental pollution that harms indigenous farmers.

I reckon that outsourcing production to developing countries warrants neither wholesale approval nor criticism and it must all depend on the specific country and factory. Labour-intensive and low-skilled production moves from the developed to developing countries almost following the law of nature, namely that of absolute and relative advantage (even though the law is often thwarted by tariffs, subsidies and other forms of regulatory protection, most notably in agriculture). Desperate to attract investments, poorer countries would be happy to freeze minimum wages and afford lax social, health or environmental protections. If, however, the likes of Walmart, whose global turnovers well exceed national gross product of many African and Asian countries, use their superior bargaining power to demand even weaker health protection or still lower wages, such conduct is clearly reprehensible (unfortunately, it is not infrequent).

On the other hand, if industrial accidents result from the host country’s corruption and lax enforcement of safety standards, investors are hardly to blame. At worst, they are taking advantage of the circumstances that they had not created. There’s no fault whatsoever of foreign companies in fires in the Pakistan factories, even if some of them may have placed orders there. Outsourcing to third countries inevitably entails subjecting safety standards to local vicissitudes. In China, for example, industrial accidents occur routinely, despite the government’s vigilance, state ownership, and country’s superior engineering and mechanical skills.

To conclude, I’m afraid that what passes for condemnation of globalization must quite often be just an emotionally driven bias.

The morality of a morality pill

Suppose you could take a pill that makes you a more benevolent person, is it worthwhile to do so? Or would you recommend taking such pill to a criminal with a record of violent behavior? With the modern advance of neurology, these questions are not merely speculative: a growing number of scientists attribute the causes of our actions to genetic factors.  They believe that our predispositions are to a substantial degree shaped by the constitution of our brains. This would have been a trite observation had not they taken the point a bit further to argue that tweaks in the brain could make a person a bit better. Or, at least, reduce his or her exposure to psychological experiences that lead to unsavory actions.

Some argue that if what we call free will operates within pre-set latitude, why not change its scope if the results would benefit both the person concerned and the public in general? This begs a question if moral character can be changed by external factors. One of the most eminent philosophers of our age and an advocate of utilitarian ethics, Peter Singer, wrote an essay titled “Are We Ready for a ‘Morality Pill’ where he argued that: “[i]f continuing brain research does in fact show biochemical differences between the brains of those who help others and the brains of those who do not, could this lead to a “morality pill” — a drug that makes us more likely to help? Given the many other studies linking biochemical conditions to mood and behavior, and the proliferation of drugs to modify them that have followed, the idea is not far-fetched. If so, would people choose to take it? Could criminals be given the option, as an alternative to prison, of a drug-releasing implant that would make them less likely to harm others? Might governments begin screening people to discover those most likely to commit crimes?” He concluded thus: “[u]ndoubtedly, situational factors can make a huge difference, and perhaps moral beliefs do as well, but if humans are just different in their predispositions to act morally, we also need to know more about these differences. Only then will we gain a proper understanding of our moral behavior, including why it varies to much from person to person and whether there is anything we can do about it”.

The perspective raises two distinct issues. The first one is technical: whether scientific data lends itself to the conclusions about the nexus between the brain’s constitution and behavior. The second one is philosophical: whether it is mature to entertain hopes of making people better through no efforts of their own, i.e. by means of external intervention. In this post, I am only concerned with the latter point, i.e. the ethical dimension, and proceed on the assumption that it is indeed possible to interfere in the humans’ brains in order to produce certain outcomes – although, as I will later argue, such outcomes would be less than satisfactory. I think that the idea of meddling with someone’s brains to change a moral character rests on few fundamental misconceptions.

To begin with, interference with a man’s natural constitution must inevitably lead to side effects. If one attempted to make a person more benevolent – and, unlike an anti-depressant, this would affect the brain’s whole constitution – such meddling would tilt the balance which Mother Nature has implanted with unforseeable outcomes, since a person cannot gain in one sphere without proportionately losing in others. As immortal Emerson put it in his brilliant essay “Compensation”, “[e]vry excess causes a defect; every defect an excess; every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good. Every faculty which is a receiver of pleasure has an equal penalty put on its abuse. It is to answer for its moderation with its life. For every grain of wit there is a grain of folly. For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something. If riches increase, they are increased that use them. If the gatherer gathers too much, nature takes out of the man what she puts into his chest; swells the estate, but kills the owner.

It should also be made clear that not actions in and of themselves, but intentions and free will make a virtuous character. Virtuous behavior is a manifestation of a rationalised, not merely reflexive, disposition.

Every single emotion with which Mother Nature has endowed us serves a useful purpose; the trick is just to keep them within their legitimate bounds. Even the Stoics, the lovers of peace of mind and self-control, admitted that it is impossible to eliminate emotions and disregarding them is futile. Resistance to unsavory emotions can be a good way of forming a character. Try not bearing grudges against your enemies and you may witness changes. As Montaigne nicely observed, “he who, by a natural sweetness and facility, should despise injuries received, would doubtless do a very fine and laudable thing; but he who, provoked and nettled to the quick by an offence, should fortify himself with the arms of reason against the furious appetite of revenge, and after a great conflict, master his own passion, would certainly do a great deal more. The first would do well; the latter virtuously: one action might be called goodness, and the other virtue; for methinks, the very name of virtue presupposes difficulty and contention, and cannot be exercised without an opponent.” Thus, an action performed easily and, as it were, effortlessly can be called good but not necessarily virtuous. “[P]hilosophers say that it is not enough to have the soul seated in a good place, of a good temper, and well disposed to virtue; it is not enough to have our resolutions and our reasoning fixed above all the power of fortune, but that we are, moreover, to seek occasions wherein to put them to the proof; they would seek pain, necessity, and contempt to contend with them and to keep the soul in breath…”

Good actions achieved at a cheap price count nothing towards attaining virtue – nay, they would render the achievement virtually impossible. I grant that it is difficult to fathom the reasoning of a person who, owing to constitutional changes, behaves differently but I very much doubt that remorse would ever come in. A person who assesses his past behavior with a different mindset cannot possibly repent (regret – perhaps). In case of a criminal, he will more likely experience an animal joy for being off the hook and – although this is just a speculation – pride, a snug sensation that he or she is so much better than previously. This is so much at odds with the ancient wisdom that spiritual development can only come with efforts.  “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7).

Overall, it seems to me that the idea of the ‘morality pill’ rests on considertations of social utility, not forming virtuous citizens. Alas, Kant would have frowned heavily, since this is a patent violation of the second imperative: act in such a way that you treat others never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

Emotions are not the ultimate origin of our actions; even Peter Singer admits that other factors play a role – I would argue a important one than he allows. Even where emotions seem to have the upper hand, they usually depend on primary factors, such as health, culture, social environment etc. From a utilitarian (or indeed, any other) standpoint, it would make much more sense to focus on fixing the causes which produce anger rather than fixate on anger itself, with dubious consequences. Mexico, for instance, has one of the highest murder rates in the world. I doubt that it would be helpful to dole out morality pills to each gangster instead of tackling economic,  social and political causes that give rise to rampant crimes on the first place.

And if this was just not enough, the courts and governments entrusted with implementation of this noble idea would most surely botch the whole thing up, as they have been doing in areas less complex and sensitive. Just to give one recent example, the US Supreme Court has confirmed the execution of a man who, due to his gradual mental ailing, could not possibly recall his crime (read some good comments here). What is the purpose of capital punishment if the person does not even know what he is punished for? So much for the finesse of handling of moral issues by the judiciary.

To sum it up, morality pill seems to me to be a pretty naïve idea.

 

Of advertising

I believe that odiousness of modern advertising is what most of us perceive but few explicitly admit. It is safe to say that some popular forms of advertising are the instances of merely pandering to human weaknesses.  I’m speaking of the ubiquitous cases of endorsements by celebrities. Despite these practices being irrational and even morally objectionable, they continue just because they work, i.e. induce gullible consumers to buy the required products.

Let us begin with irrationality: behind any given celebrity’s endorsement, persuasion is devoid of rational basis. Desirability of a product is boosted not by the weight of celebrities’ recommendation based on their reputation or sphere of expertise, but through recognisability of their image and accompanying idiosyncratic pleasant associations (quite often express recommendations are not even there). In other words, promotion is based on popularity and not authority. This must be pretty obvious since the products endorsed most often have very little in common with the celebrity’s reputation – think of actors advertising watches, airline companies or mobile operators.

And lastly, such advertising is obviously questionable since celebrities are used merely as means to achieve companies’ financial ends. It’s like selling one’s body – a practice which would hopefully attract very few advocates. Unlike in prostitution, however, in the advertising business the paying party is much less to blame because the status of celebrity virtually excludes the possibility of being needy – although curious exceptions do exist, of course.