Thursday, January 12, 2006

Is Anthropomorphism the Key to Socialism?

Let's start with a given. Let's assume that to all intents and purposes, Misesian Austrianism is closer to the truth than all other ways of thinking, and that if the whole of human society started living an Austrian life, according to the tenets of the libertarian non-aggression principle and the principle of secession, then all would be well in the world, aside from a little crime squashed by the private law-abiding security men of the insurance corporations. Yes, it's a big given. But please let me ride with it for a few moments.

If this is the case, if the Mises Institute really is the last best hope for civilization, and if Austrianism really is the best way for human beings to conduct themselves, then why are there so many who disagree with it? If Austrianism is so good, why is it not blindingly obvious that it is so good? Surely evolution would not waste 4.5 billion years creating a rational acting species incapable of spotting the clear benefits of such a wondrous system! We got this far. Why can't we just take another easy step into a brighter Austrian future, away from wars, poverty, injustice, and all the other plagues with which we are continually inflicted?

In particular, why are so many of the most intelligent amongst us, the self-styled intellectuals, perhaps a 99.99% majority, believers in socialism? With our given above, socialism is the most evil, most degenerate, and most short-sighted way of thinking of all. Even a religious theocracy or a straightforward monarchy would be better than the hapless caretaker of socialism, and yet many intellectuals hold the diametrically opposed view that Austrianism is evil and that socialism is still the wave of the future, despite all the deaths, all the famines, and all the Gulags, including the ones currently being constructed by the American government in Iraq. We haven't worked it out yet, they say, how best to implement socialism, but if we keep trying, eventually we will get there. Maybe what we needed all along was a one world social democratic government. Yes, that must be the ticket!

Even the neoconservative thought of that makes me want to screaming into the foothills. So what is it that prevents humanity seeing the obvious truth before it, that Austrianism is the way to go?

Yes, it's a long answer. It combines genetics, time preferences, reciprocal altruism, and much more. The best book on the subject, in my opinion, is Hayek's masterly The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. I must re-read it again, and I thoroughly recommend that you read it yourself, if you are also puzzled by my questions above. Alas, I have recently discovered there is some doubt as to its final form, because it was published near to the close of Hayek's life, but the clarity of his ideas still shine through.

Essentially, in the stone age we lived in closely related tribes and to be altruistic to our tribe and hostile to all other tribes was to be genetically successful. It was only through the trial and error of tens of thousands of years that the short-term gain of killing rival tribes and taking their produce was outpaced by the long-term gain of trading with these rival tribes. Those that lived their lives according to hateful individualist rules, such as those codified by Moses in the Ten Commandments, found themselves more successful than those who stayed with the older stone age collectivist way of thinking. Eventually the individualist way of life became predominant, particularly through the division of labor, but had to exist in a substrate of humans whose genetics continuously told them to resent these new rules:

Taking the materialist commandments from Moses, the ancient socialist spirit within us still wants to smash them:

"You shall not murder"
"You shall not steal"
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house..."
The modern social democratic welfare-warfare state, of course, continually challenges these traditional rules, particularly the last shameful one on envy, the most powerful demon of them all. But all three are routinely ignored by the state:

"You shall send cruise missiles against your enemies, and if you cause any 'collateral damage', well don't worry, because we don't do enemy body counts"
"Redistribution is plainly correct, and the rich have more than they need anyway"
"Let's tax the rich till the pips squeak, let's end health-queue jumping, let's end unfair educational advantages, let's..."
You could even say that the whole of socialist politics is a construct to avoid the shame of admitting envious urges. Socialism provides a fabulous excuse to be as envious as you like; the more envious the better.

The other book to read is Ludwig von Mises' The Anti-capitalistic Mentality. This short work provides a powerful insight into the nature of envy and it is a brutal demolition of the socialist intellectual platform. Essentially, the intellectual usually has a far higher opinion of himself than the free market will give him.

The free market generally pays producers of physical wealth. It is loathe to take on consumers of physical wealth. As most intellectuals aspire to be consumers of physical wealth, sitting in ivory towers writing poetry while the masses toil outside paying tithes to pay for the ink and paper, they feel rejected by the free market and become bitterly envious of wealth producers. In revenge, they then help the state wrap these wealth producers up in chains. In return, the state provides its pet intellectuals with compensatory tithes. The deal is simple. The intellectuals continue to receive their rent money, taken by the state from producers of physical wealth, and in return the intellectuals continually persuade these producers of physical wealth that the state and its taxes are necessary; give unto Caesar what is Caesar's. Unfortunately, the whole book is a masterpiece beyond mere commentary, but hopefully you've got the gist.

But I think there's more to it than envy. Why has evolution provided us with so many of these feckless intellectuals? They must have a purpose. What is it? I'm guessing a small percentage of them pay for their evolutionary keep by innovating new ideas and generating new more efficient ways of doing things. Fire, wheels, alphabets, computers, are all generated through such innovations, and physical wealth is generated from the ramifications of these innovations. Also, many intellectuals do make plenty of money on the free market. You only have to look at the salaries of Physics PhD students working in financial markets or Hollywood Producers to realize this. These champagne socialists are quite capable of surviving on the open market, and rational enough to overcome stone age instincts, so what is it that is driving them on?

I was thinking about this the other day when I came across the following article:

Seeing things as people: anthropomorphism and theory of mind in mixed societies

Is it anthropomorphism that is driving them them on? I am guilty of anthropomorphism on a daily basis. I talk to my car, I talk to animals, and I even talk to my television. I ascribe to all these things a human personality. It is natural that we do this, because we are creatures that evolved in the natural world, and for a few million years, give or take, any thing which possessed the following features was probably a sentient creature, another person, or a tiger, or a Wildebeest, which I would have to take into immediate rational account for survival purposes:

  • Similarity: How similar am I to this thing, physically and behaviorally?
  • Familiarity: How familiar am I with this thing?
  • Animation: To what extent is this thing an animate object?
  • Structure: Does this thing have a structure?
The more conditions satisfied, the more likely a person is to ascribe a definite personality to the thing and an existence as a physical entity with a life of its own; all of the animistic Gods of the ancient world began in such a way. In some ways you could even say that the anthropomorphism of the entire known Universe is the origin of monotheism.

Let's take a train, for example. It scores definite marks for familiarity, animation, and structure. We therefore assume, in some way, that it is alive and that it has personality. And if we take old-fashioned steam trains, those that hiss and spit, huff and puff, they also start scoring on the similarity front. Therefore they have more character, and become more alive to us than modern diesel trains, which score less well on similarity; hence in Harry Potter novels, a red-painted Hogwarts Express steam train is used by J.K.Rowling, rather than a non-descript diesel train. The Hogwarts Express is far more alive.

But if you see the parts for a steam train lined up on its assembly work station at the train factory, it is not alive. It's the same metallic parts, but unassembled into a final anthropomorphic form. The train only comes alive, when we see it steaming into a railway station, huffing and puffing like an old gentleman smoking a pipe.

There is also some evidence that reciprocal altruism, one of the stone age precursors of socialism, is particularly affected by anthropomorphic similarity. The more similar someone is to you, the more likely you are to help them, because the genetic reality is that you are more likely to be helping yourself, or at least helping your genes.

And so we come to the point of this piece. When an intellectual examines a modern city, the anthropomorphic module in his brain may see the following:
  • Similarity: This city has a boundary line forming a skin; it has an arterial supply of roads; it has a police force immunity system; it has a city hall brain (or what passes for one); it has a health system repair structure; it has factories for muscles; it has schools for stem cell units, and it has CCTV cameras for sensory organs.
  • Familiarity: I live here, I work here, and I play here. I know every one of this city's streets like the back of my hand.
  • Animation: The city moves, it heaves, the roads churn, the pavements throb, the shops gorge and disgorge customers. Cranes rotate in the skyline, fire engines rush to repair the fabric of the city, planes land every minute, and ambulances sprint to hospitals.
  • Structure: There are skyscrapers, hospitals, schools, roads, railways, airports, buildings and structures of every kind, in every direction. There are planners in city hall carefully arranging this structure down to the last curbside drainage grating.

According to the rules of anthropomorphism, a city is alive in the same way that the Hogwarts Express is alive and that Captain Kirk's Enterprise is alive. The city possesses similarity, familiarity, animation, and structure. From there, it is not too great a leap to imagine that Society is the soul of the city. The city keeps us alive, therefore we must at all costs protect the city. Society is the soul of the city, so we must then protect Society, even at the cost of a few small individuals. Does the body care when a few white corpuscles die to protect the body from viroid invaders? Should we care when a few soldiers die in Iraq to protect us from viroid insurgents.

It is at the unconscious level, I grant you. But it takes someone with an intellectual mind to see all of these connections between a city and its elements, and between a society and the individuals which compose it. The anthropomorphic module in the brain does the rest. This may be why socialist intellectuals take such a lofty view of the rest of us mere physical wealth producers. We are merely the arms and the legs feeding the needs of Society. They are the brain cells directing us to best effect. To the best effect of whom? To Society. And if they should make a few scheckels on the side doing it, doesn't the body itself reserve its best glucose supplies for the brain? When they live off our tax tithes, they are only taking their due and proper reward. We should be blessed unto God for our luck in having them.

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