Shooting the alligator and other conversations

I feel last week’s essay, which was late anyway, is meaty enough for two weeks. So there.

There are a few comments from me on a new blog, Liberal Biorealism, e.g. here and here. The author is a credentialed philosopher attempting to reconcile the two halves of his title. Which ain’t easy, since biorealism (an elegant coinage) is what some call HBD and most call racism.

Teh Internets are a big place, though, surely with room for a good liberal racist. Naturally, LB’s goal is to convince liberals to be racist rather than racists to be liberal, and he is not always good about replying when served. But he can take off the gloves and hit a little. I charge him with contempt for history; he suggests that I should be burned as a witch. We could both be right.

A textbook example of how to handle one of these ambushes comes from a Columbia (or, well, Barnard) economics professor, Rajiv Sethi. (You can tell you’re a geek if you think “Sethi” should rhyme with “get high.”) Professor Sethi and I discuss maturity transformation and deposit insurance. Giving an excellent impression of genuine intellectual curiosity, handling his inadequate academic weapon ably while advancing in a retrograde direction, he disappears out the back door of the dojo with limbs, honor, and ego intact, to go ogle his coeds.

It is remarkable how resistant economists, Austrians of course excepted, are to anything like a monocausal explanation of the business cycle. Professor Sethi—and perhaps even President Dudley—can clearly follow the entire reasoning, even if his model isn’t quite done yet. He understands that malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes. Which leads him to conclude: malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes, miasmas, and evil spirits. Also, malaria can never be eradicated, because there are mosquitoes everywhere—not to mention the miasmas and evil spirits.

The problem, I think, is that the business cycle is the prime arcanum of 20th-century macroeconomics. From January 1, 1900 to December 31, 1999, 20th-century economists sold cures for this disease. Indeed they sold pretty much nothing else. Since they did not, in fact, cure it, it must be very deep and mysterious, and very hard to cure. Again, an intellectual pathology quite reminiscent of the medieval scholastics. Any data that does not fit this hypothesis goes in one ear and out the other—its implications, like those of Climategate, are simply too large to process.

Finally, I append brief indignant parting thoughts to yet another insufferable Bryan Caplan paean to Whig history. I thought I’d paste in the text of that Macaulay quote—appearing in the excellent Democracy and France, by the unjustly forgotten Edmond Scherer—one of many volumes that Professor Caplan will never be able to read, because it (a) anticipates his thesis by 125 years, and (b) associates it with all the wrong crowd.

Note that while I do believe that Macaulay actually both said and believed this, it is significant that he seldom if ever said and believed it publicly. (The quote, like Mill’s famous quip about “a good stout despotism,” is from a letter). The Whigs of then were more sensible, it seems, than the Whigs of now—but no less sly:

I am certain that I never wrote a line, and that I never, in parliament, in conversation, or even on the hustings,—a place where it is the fashion to court the populace,—uttered a word indicating an opinion that the supreme authority in a state ought to be entrusted to the majority of citizens told by the head; in other words, to the poorest and most ignorant part of society. I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty, or civilization, or both. But the time will come when New England will be as thickly peopled as Old England. Wages will be as low, and will fluctuate as much with you as with us. You will have your Manchesters and your Birminghams, and in those Manchesters and Birminghams hundreds of thousands of artizans will assuredly be sometimes out of work. Then your institutions will be fairly brought to the test.

Distress everywhere makes the labourer mutinous and discontented, and inclines him to listen with eagerness to agitators, who tell him that it is a monstrous iniquity that one man should have a million, while another cannot get a full meal. In bad years there is plenty of grumbling here, and sometimes a little rioting; but it matters little, for here the sufferers are not the rulers. The supreme power is in the hands of a class, numerous indeed, but select, of an educated class, of a class which is, and knows itself to be, deeply interested in the security of property and the maintenance of order.

Accordingly, the malcontents are firmly but gently restrained The bad time is got over without robbing the wealthy to relieve the indigent. The springs of national prosperity soon begin to flow again; work is plentiful, wages rise, and all is tranquillity and cheerfulness I have seen England pass three or four times through such critical seasons as I have described. Through such seasons the United States will have to pass in the course of the next century, if not of this. How will you pass through them?

I heartily wish you a good deliverance. But my reason and my wishes are at war, and I cannot help foreboding the worst. It is quite plain that your government will never be able to restrain a distressed and discontented majority, for with you the majority is the government, and has the rich, who are always a minority, absolutely at its mercy.

The day will come when in the state of New York, a multitude of people, not one of whom has had more than half a breakfast, or expects to have more than half a dinner, will choose a Legislature. Is it possible to doubt what sort of Legislature will be chosen? On one side is a statesman preaching patience, respect for vested rights, strict observance of public faith. On the other is a demagogue ranting about the tyranny of capitalists and usurers, and asking why anybody should be permitted to drink champagne and to ride in a carriage while thousands of honest folks are in want of necessaries. Which of the two candidates is likely to be preferred by a working man who hears his children crying for more bread?

I seriously apprehend that you will, in some such season of adversity as I have described, do things which will prevent prosperity from returning. Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand, or your Republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the twentieth century as the Roman empire was in the fifth, with this difference, that the Huns and Vandals who ravaged the Roman empire came from without, and that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your own institutions.

Scherer comments:

His reasoning is powerful, indeed it is always so. Macaulay had the merit of conveying a precise meaning in ordinary language. Democracy, according to him, tends to socialism, and socialism consists in taking from those who have and giving to those who have not; and, as is the case in democracy, those who have not are at the same time those who take, so the proceedings restore a state of things primitive in the history of society,—expropriation and conquest.

I.e.: it’s hard out there for a Whig.

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