Tuesday, April 29, 2008


A few days ago, a psychiatrist friend of mine informed me that he had to arragne his schedule to accommodate an emergency; one of his female patient's car had broken down and she could not cope. This led to a discussion of how many elements of life, some of quite recent vintage began as conveniences and then became necessities (or at least came to be perceived as such). The list grows annually, and it is easy to image some people becoming virtually helpless without a cell phone, microwave oven or internet access. There is an entire segment of society that would be jobless were it not for a functioning fax machine. It is sobering to think that national security can be compromised by some miscreant hacking into a computer and causing a power outage.

This observation is not new, of course. Emerson remarked upon the general principle in his essay Self Reliance:
Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it advances on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. FOr everything that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts and loses old instincts.

Social progress is a journey for which the luggage capacity is limited, and this makes it frightening for some. For each liberty that we wish to assume, it seems there is some virtue that must remain behind. A certain amount of soul must be left behind to make room for each scientific discovery. The real question is whether what we leave behind is more valuable than what we take.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Competition is as necessary an element of progress as is risk. At the most fundamental level the product of competition is efficiency, and consequntly, exploitation. The former is obviously beneficial (though not universally desirable) and the latter is viewed as evil. One of the tasks essential to a functioning society is to manage competition in such a manner that reaps its benefits and avids its pitfalls.

People who decry capitalism as a great evil do so because the competition for capital, left unchecked results in exploitation. A fallacy arises however when one assumes that eliminating competition will eliminate exploitation. This is almost never the case, and goes a long way toward explaining the rise of and failures of totalitarianism.

Not everyone agrees that efficiency is a desirable thing. There is a school of thought that considers the relentless pursuit of effeciency dehumanizing. Efficiency is unavoidable to progress however, and is in fact the underlying principle of evolution in virtually all systems, biological, economic, political, etc. Efficiency is simpy a measure of how much of something that is desirable can be produced per unit of something that is useful. Competition identifies the objectively superior system, as opposed to "planning" which seeks to prescribe it from the outset.

The explicit encouragement of competition is one reason why Anglo-American technological progress has been so impressive, while more theoretically appealing alternatives have been found wanting. Capitalism is not perfect, and can lead to abuses, but it is responsible for far more "progress" than its utopian counterparts (which are responsible for plenty of abuses of their own.)

Sunday, April 13, 2008


There seems to be a paradox at the center of Progressive thought, and that is that Progressives appear to be opposed to progress. They support causes that impede progress and oppose those institutions that promote it. One need only consider the progressive position on the environment, government regulation of industry, education, social welfare programs, affirmative action, etc. to see evidence that this is the case.

The simple explanation of this apparent paradox is that progressives favor progress, not in the technological sense, but rather progress toward socialism as a desirable goal. This explanation does have some empirical appeal, but seems to skirt aorund the crux of the issue, and that is the fundamental aversion that progressives have regarding risk.

Socialism is not so much a method of distributing assets, as it is a method of reducing risk, in the most obvious case, the risk of abject poverty.
Much of the progressive agenda is directed toward things like universal healthcare, which spreads the financial risk of illness over the whole population; increasing minimum wages, which is perceived to reduce the risk of emplyed poverty (although at the unintended risk to job opportunity); and gun control, which seeks to implausibly reduce the risk of violence. Many of the undesirable consequences of socialism arise from the artificial and detrimental effects of eliminating exposure to risks in areas in which such exposure is beneficial. COnsider for example the effect on emplyee performance if substandard effort carries with it no risk of significant consequences.

One of the beneficial attributes of risk is that it provides incentive. Exposure to risk is also essential in the development of good judgment. Risk is a prelude to prudence. Furthermore, risk seems to be hard-wired into the psyche of a substatntial segment of the population. Risk can be addictive, as is evidenced by the conduct of cumpulsive gamblers, and recreational daredevils.

The fact is that risk is essential to progress and this is wherein lies the paradox. A society without risk of failure has no incentive to effort, a society without risk of privation has no incentive for effeciency or conservation. A society not subjected to risk of decay has no incentive to innovate or renew itself. A society that does not appreciate the role of risk in human life is a csociety that will cease to progress.