Archive for July, 2005

Canary in the coal mine — Bruce Bartlett changes his mind

Posted by PrestoPundit on 07/26/2005

Bruce Bartlett was helping draft the supply side / tax cut revolution of the late 1970’s / early 1980’s before Ronald Reagan ever heard of phrase “supply side” economics. So its big news that Bartlett has abandoned the flip-side of the tax cut argument — the “starve the beast” thesis. Bartlett explains:

One upon a time, I believed [in] the “starve the beast” theory. The premise is that there is some level of the deficit that is “too big,” beyond which irresistible political pressure will be brought to bear on Congress to cut spending. Therefore, the “conservative” strategy is to cut taxes any way possible so long as federal revenues go down. The increase in the deficit will force down spending, thus leading to smaller government.

This is really the opposite of supply-side economics, which sees many tax rates as being too high to maximize revenue. For example, it is now generally accepted that a capital gains rate much above 15 percent will actually reduce revenue. If the rate is higher than that, then a cut in the rate will probably raise revenue. The idea was to analyze the tax system and find these “free lunches,” where tax rates could be cut at little, if any, loss in revenue.

But many people were skeptical that this was possible. They also believed that the size of government is measured by what it spends, not what it taxes. Therefore, it was necessary to convince them that tax cuts would aid this goal. From this was born the starve-the-beast theory. In that way, those who favored reduced spending could support tax cuts as a means to that end.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I think this theory worked to some extent. Big deficits did put downward pressure on spending — but not very much, because it also put on pressure to raise taxes. Virtually all of the deficit reduction from the dozen budget deals between 1982 and 1993 came from higher revenues. To the extent that spending was cut, it was simply reprogrammed into higher spending elsewhere.

Today, I see zero evidence that deficits are putting any downward pressure on spending. This fact is documented in research by economist William Niskanen, chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute. In his words, “Acceptance of the ‘starve the beast’ position has led too many conservatives and libertarians to be casual about the sustained political discipline necessary to control federal spending directly and to succumb to the fantasy that tax cuts will solve the problem.”

Today, Congress cuts taxes and raises spending, too, with complete indifference to the impact on the deficit. And President Bush refuses to veto anything, preferring rhetoric to action on the deficit. Shockingly, he is the first president since John Quincy Adams to serve a full term without a single veto.

The starve-the-beast theory now has effectively been turned on its head. Instead of tax cuts setting in motion forces that will lead to spending cuts, the tax cuts have become a substitute for spending cuts. Tax cuts are spending cuts in the minds of many Republicans these days.


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America’s Most Successful Export ..

Posted by PrestoPundit on 07/25/2005

is long-term debt to foreigners, outranking all other exports combined. I kid you not. Quotable:

the sectors in the US that are benefiting from exporting to China — see the Big Picture’s nice wrap on housing — don’t realize how much of their current prosperity is “made in Beijing.”

How many real estate brokers used their year-end bonuses to lobby Washington to press China to hold on to its peg, and to keep on buying up so much US debt?

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Economics, Sociology .. whatever

Posted by PrestoPundit on 07/25/2005

Virginia Postrel on the new subdiscipline of economic sociology. Quotable:

Economic sociology isn’t just the latest form of economist bashing, however. Its rapid growth represents a significant intellectual shift in the field, away from the idea that modern economic exchange is a sort of social pollution that destroys social relations, and toward a more neutral stance.

Sociologists have ”commonly portrayed the market … not as a created set of social relations but as a pervasive, corrosive, disembodied Presence, spreading like carbon monoxide,” wrote sociologist Charles Tilly of The New School for Social Research in a 1988 introduction to one of Zelizer’s articles.

And this

Uzzi finds that businesses do best when they find a ”bliss point,” combining just the right mix of arm’s-length and ”embedded” relationships. Strictly economic relations bring in new information, while more personal connections are better at solving specific problems. In looking for bank loans, small businesses find out about interest rates and new loan structures by shopping the market, but they get customized deals from the aptly named ”relationship managers” at their existing banks.

”What my work showed was that really neither approach, in its purest form really works best,” says Uzzi ”If people are purely rational and atomistic, they underproduce. If people care entirely about community and ignore what market signals are giving out, they don’t do well. Those that do best are those that find a balance.”

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The Carnival of the Capitalists

Posted by PrestoPundit on 07/25/2005

Here’s the new one.

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The Real World — OC executives on business in California

Posted by PrestoPundit on 07/25/2005

Production out of California, jobs to India .. it’s what’s happening in Orange County, California. Quotable:

(We make) loans to expand business activities, construction of production facilities and production equipment to go into those facilities. But since 9/11 we’ve seen a decided curtailment in the willingness of our clients to commit capital to new buildings. What they’ve done is they’ve spent quite a bit of money making themselves more efficient.

And this:

Something most of you probably don’t hear much about is the other side of the Sarbanes-Oxley (accounting reform law) – a little tiny paragraph calling for “404 audits.” It is perhaps the most damaging legislation passed in at least the last 50 years in the United States. It has the chance to really permanently disrupt the capital market for entrepreneurial companies in the U.S. We’re small and it’s raised our audit costs 500 percent …

And finally, this:

We (used to) talk about a three-legged retirement stool – Social Security provided a guaranteed income, your pension provided a guaranteed income, and then you had your savings. Now when I see my clients, I’m hesitant to talk about Social Security. I’m hesitant to talk about pensions because they are going away. So what that leaves us is personal savings.

It’s the real world, folks.

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Economist Jeffrey Sachs — Mainstream Maroon

Posted by PrestoPundit on 07/24/2005

David Frum make hash of economist Jeffrey Sachs. Quotable:

In reviewing Jeffrey Sachs’s new book for a monthly magazine, one feels rather like the last bomber pilot over Yokohama. By the time one has arrived on the scene, the target has been so badly burned up that there is little left to aim at.

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It Ain’t Hayek

Posted by PrestoPundit on 07/24/2005

It’s Lee Harris’s version of Hayek:

In the 20th century, the Austrian philosopher Friedrich Hayek attempted to defend the rationality of tradition by means of what he called the empiricist evolutionary model. Hayek wanted to provide a reason for respecting traditions that went beyond acceptance of them merely on account of their Burkean venerability. A tradition’s very oldness–its survival through the vicissitudes of centuries and adaptability to so many social and historical “environments”–was for him prima facie evidence that it was “fit” to survive, just as a species that has survived a variety of environmental challenges may be said to be “fit” in terms of the evolutionary struggle.

Of course, Hayek was not arguing that a traditional belief is true simply because it has been believed for a long time–that would render the empiricist part of his model nonsense. But he was saying that the tradition is “suitable” for those who have practiced in it for a long time. Or, to use his exact words from “The Constitution of Liberty”: “Our habits and skills, our emotional attitudes, our tools, and our institutions–all are in this sense adaptations to past experience which have grown up by selective elimination of less suitable conduct” (emphasis added).

The analogy here to Darwin’s theory of evolution is obvious in the words “adaptations,” “selective elimination” and “suitable.” In particular, this last term would appear to be the equivalent of the Darwinian notion of “the fittest”–or perhaps, considering Hayek’s careful phrasing, “the least unfit.” This interpretation of “suitable” is also supported by Hayek’s statement, again from “The Constitution of Liberty”: “Not all these non-rational factors [i.e., habits, skills, emotional attitudes, etc.] underlying our action are always conducive to success. Some may be retained long after they have outlived their usefulness” (emphasis added).

It might appear that we have here found a way of justifying rationally certain traditions–those that are still “conducive to success” and maintain their “usefulness.” Furthermore, it is a solution that also seems to offer a rational criterion for the removal of those traditions that are neither. In short, it would appear to provide us with a procedure for picking and choosing between inherited traditions.

But does it?

Karl Popper once invoked an imaginary village in India where everyone believed that tigers were harmless; this belief soon died out, according to Popper, because those who acted on it were eventually eaten up by tigers.

The beauty of Popper’s fable is that it permits Darwin’s theory of natural selection, at one swift stroke, to eliminate unfit individuals as well as to demonstrate the irrationality of the unsuitable tradition that led to their biological extinction in the first place. And this would appear to provide us with exactly the kind of decision-making procedure we are looking for: If an inherited tradition leads to the extinction of those who live by it, the tradition in question should be eliminated–before those who follow it are.

The tradition that tigers are harmless would certainly prove less “conducive to success” than other competing traditions about tigers, such as the one that says they are dangerous. Thus, it would seem we have finally solved the problem of tradition–some can be shown to be rational, others irrational. In short, any tradition that leads to the biological elimination of the community that embodies it will obviously be judged irrational.

Yet, although this gives a clear criterion by which to decide whether a community has fallen short of Hayek’s standard of suitability, success and usefulness–namely, its biological extinction–there is a catch. Clearly there are many imaginary cultural practices–killing all newborn children, or forbidding any sexual act that might issue in procreation, or ritual mass suicide–that if carried out consistently would yield communal extinction; but, for rather obvious reasons, one needs to seek far and wide to find historical communities that insisted on a policy of short-term autogenocide.

This is the problem with trying to push the Darwinian evolutionary model too far: Its exclusive mechanism for “successful” adaptation is the sentence of death and extinction it passes on the animals and species that come before its Draconian bar of judgment. But only rarely, and then in trivial cases, can this same ruthlessly objective standard be applied to cultural evolution. The Easter Islanders developed habits and skills, and perhaps even institutions, that led to the total deforestation of their small island; but while most of us would agree that this was a piece of folly, and not too far from the folly of Popper’s Indian villagers, in fact this practice did not result in the biological elimination of Easter Islanders.

To take the most extreme case, consider the American Shakers, whose community rejects any sex that might result in procreation. If ever there was a recipe for biological self-extermination, this is it; and yet a handful of Shakers still exist, by virtue of their ability to recruit new Shakers in each rising generation. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to imagine a future ecomania in which men and women pledge themselves not to pollute the planet with any more human beings, with the ultimate purpose of returning the Earth to its pristine, pre-Adamite stage; and it is also perfectly possible to imagine the same ecomania continuing for centuries without ever running out of new converts.

If the empiricist evolutionary approach permits us to condemn only those traditions and institutions that end in biological elimination, it turns out to be far less useful than it first appeared. For if these alone are irrational, then all traditions that fail to end in biological elimination must be deemed rational. If complete communal extinction provides a decision-making procedure for distinguishing good traditions from bad, then virtually all known traditions would have to qualify as good.

Nor can this dilemma be avoided by redefining the terms “useful” and “suitable” as employed by Hayek. Originally they appeared to hold out hope of an objective solution precisely because they could be defined entirely in terms of a culturally neutral value–namely, the survival of the community. To notice that a community had wiped itself out by honoring its customs is not a value judgment. But this is no longer true if we change these terms to mean “useful” or “suitable” for us, or “useful” or “suitable” to the culture under consideration, for then we are once more dealing with subjective value judgments, either ours or the culture’s, and are plunged right back into the quandary of ethical relativism.

This is obviously true if we take “useful” to mean “useful to us,” because in that case utterly insane traditions that weaken our enemies would be judged rational because they serve our own purposes. On the other hand, if we mean useful to the society with the tradition, then we lose completely what little gain we thought we had made. Suppose Popper’s Indians had not been deluded about the nature of tigers. Suppose they all said, “Yes, of course tigers are dangerous. Any fool could tell you that. But, you see, we don’t care. Our tradition says, ‘Resist not the tiger when he comes. It is our highest duty, and we calmly accept the consequences of fulfilling it.’ ”

In this scenario, the villagers are not dupes of a false declarative sentence: “Tigers are not dangerous.” Rather, they are noble heroes sacrificing themselves to the imperative, “Resist not the tiger.” When a person dies because he believed in an empirical falsehood, it makes sense to say that his holding of this empirical belief was not useful or conducive to Darwinian success, and hence not rational. But when he dies in obedience to an imperative that he holds to be his sacred duty, you can say nothing at all. When someone says to you, “Resist not the tiger,” he is not offering you a scientific proposition to be refuted by empirical evidence and logical argument; he is commanding you to behave in a certain way, and in this case, all you can do is refuse. Otherwise you would have to argue that Christian martyrs died simply because they did not clearly understand the physical effects of raging fires on the human anatomy.

What all the theories of tradition we have examined have in common is that each looks upon a tradition as a set of declarative sentences passing on information that may be evaluated as true or false, and that a tradition is rationally justifiable only to the degree that it is the means of conveying such a truth. Thus, when Maimonides examined the dietary code in Leviticus and asked himself, “What true pieces of dietary information is this tradition passing on?,” his own particular answer was quite favorable to tradition, as he argued that the code contained much that was of genuine medical value; but suppose he had not found any true pieces of dietary information in Leviticus?

By one of those paradoxes normal to the dialectical twists and turns of human thought, the defense of tradition offered by Maimonides would turn out to be the undoing of tradition. If tradition did badly what science did better, then those who were themselves capable of scientific knowledge no longer had any use for it. True, the ignorant masses might still require it, but not the intellectual elite–and thus, out of the logic of Maimonides’ defense came the Enlightenment, and the culture war that the West has been fighting ever since.

But what if tradition is not reducible to a set of declarative sentences? What if all tradition took the form of “Resist not the tiger” rather than “Tigers are harmless”? The declarative-sentence paradigm suggests a tradition can be reduced to a set of formal beliefs that can be stated, catechism-like, as a proposition, such as “Tigers are not dangerous” or “Celibacy is better than procreation.” But once we have freed ourselves from the declarative illusion we can see that a tradition always emerges first in the form of commands, prohibitions and instructions, and that the formalization of this tradition into a set of declarative propositions comes at a secondary stage–the stage of reflection and thought. In the beginning, as Goethe’s Faust declares, was not the Word, but the Act. Or, to adopt the framework of Goethe’s contemporary, Hegel, phenomenologically, tradition emerges originally as an imperative behavioral code wired into our visceral systems long before it is reflected as an idea in our minds.

The intellectualist interpretation of a tradition as a corpus of formal propositions whose truth or falsity may be argued lies at the heart of all efforts to find an objective or neutral way to judge among competing traditions. This is evident in the Enlightenment’s attack on tradition as outmoded superstition–an argument Hayek brilliantly demolishes. A tradition, he realizes, may well be justified by a community on nonsensical or irrational grounds; but this by itself need not make the tradition less useful to those who follow it. If a primitive tribe justifies its incest taboo with a myth about divine siblings whose sexual liaison produced a monstrously deformed cockroach, this does not make the tradition a bit less useful to the community.

Hayek’s observation comes as an afterthought to his empiricist evolutionary model, and it is a great pity that he did not pursue it, and turned instead to the false promise of the evolutionary model. For implicit in this observation is the insight that every inherited tradition has come down to us at two distinct levels — first, as a behavioral phenomenon, as an embodied value hardwired into our neural circuitry and into our sweat glands; and second, as an articulated value that can be analyzed and discussed, attacked and defended, in words.

In the case of the tradition against incest, at the primary level it exists in the form of the commandments, injunctions, prohibition and so on, to keep brothers and sisters, or parents and children, from having sexual intercourse. They work by programming the members of the community to automatically and instinctively avoid committing incest. They constitute the visceral code of the community that commands us to act in certain ways and forbids us to act in other ways.

At the secondary level, there is what might be called (to use Marxist terminology) the ideological superstructure, i.e., the system of myths and statements and arguments that are used by the community to justify obedience to the commandments, injunctions and prohibitions. In the case of our islander, this secondary level is represented by the myth of the gigantic cockroach spawned by incest. This ideological superstructure may be used polemically and apologetically as well and is often most fully developed and exploited for this purpose, frequently ending up in immense intellectual constructions that are Summa contra Gentiles: everything that can be argued against those who challenge the truth of the ideological superstructure.

In evaluating whether a “tradition” is useful or not, we must keep this distinction in mind. For when confronted with any particular tradition, we now have two different criteria to evaluate its usefulness–first, the usefulness of the tradition’s base, the visceral code out of which the social structure of the community is created; and second, the usefulness of the tradition’s ideological superstructure.

But once we grasp this distinction, it immediately becomes apparent that there can be a conflict, perhaps violent, between the two manifestations of one tradition: the embodied and visceral version versus the articulated and ideal version. In our primitive island’s traditional taboo against incest, for example, the visceral form of the tradition might succeed in preventing inbreeding among the islanders by producing visceral aversion; yet its articulated form, namely the myth of the monstrously deformed cockroach, may work quite differently. Indeed, as the islanders become more sophisticated, the continued use of this myth may actually tend to make people more likely to violate the visceral code and to commit incest on the basis of the quite correct empirical belief that incestuous unions do not produce gigantic deformed cockroaches.

This means that as a population becomes more “enlightened,” it is more likely to challenge the tradition on the basis of its transparently mythic or fabulous origin; this in turn threatens to undermine the population’s willingness to instill the visceral code into its children. If “everyone” knows that incestuous lovers do not spawn enormous insect children, then what is the point of teaching one’s children not to commit incest?

But a tradition that has lost its ethical obviousness has thereby become vulnerable to challenge, and the question soon arises: Why this tradition rather than the tradition of foreigners? Indeed, that was the theme of the first cultural warriors, the Greek Sophists, who, wandering as homeless strangers, went from polis to polis undermining the traditional ethos everywhere they stopped–not by willful subversion, but merely by calling the traditional ethos into question. To cause people to have even the first shadow of a doubt about the rightness of their inherited tradition is to exercise a staggering power over them, and it explains the often violent reaction of the Greek city-states against those who were perceived, fairly or unfairly, to be subverting the traditional order through the mere use of words.

Reason, logic, the endless quest for knowledge–these are all noble things. But no sensible person will agree to have them used against him to undermine his happiness and tranquility. Imagine your response if someone forced you to consider that your spouse might be cheating on you without your knowledge, or harangued you about how much you really know about what your teenage children do when you are not looking. Yes, we are willing to admit that there is much we cannot know about the people we love, and much that we have to take on blind faith, and much indeed about which a skeptic can raise questions–but must we hear it all?

We grasp this at once when dealing with individuals but fail to see it when dealing with whole communities. Yet isn’t it permissible for a community to wish to guard its own cherished habits of the heart against the same endless skeptical interrogation, especially when the intent of the interrogators is to subvert the visceral code that embodies these habits of the heart? The visceral code is like the DNA of the community: It tells us what behavior must be passed on through the social emotions of shame, honor and pride. It demands that we behave; it molds us and makes us, just as our parents do, for their doing is always its doing. It is Hegel’s objective spirit, the collective mind, but understood in terms of automatic reactions hardwired into us, operating through adrenaline and rushes of blood to the face. It is what makes us feel who we are and react as we do–in short, it constitutes our being. We cannot ask whether the visceral code is useful to the community when it is in fact constitutive of the community: It is the foundation on which the community is built. It is a necessary precondition of achieving community at all, and hence it is improper to evaluate it in terms of its mere utility.

It is not merely that it is useful to produce honest men and women. In order to obtain certain collective social goods, a society must first create human actors who are capable of achieving them. You must first produce courageous men if you wish to achieve the collective social good of defending your society; you must first produce prudent men if you wish to achieve the collective social good of keeping your society on a stable course; you must first produce men who are willing to control their impulses in order to create the collective social good of an orderly society.

This, too, explains why communities have historically reacted so severely against those who challenged their habits of the heart. What was really at stake in such a challenge was not the community’s ideological superstructure but the ethical foundation on which it had been socially constructed–its inherited visceral code.

Tradition, then, is the only possible mode for transmitting a community’s habits of the heart, and it does this by providing the recipe for making the kind of human beings who will viscerally feel and respond to the same habits of the heart as the community to which they belong.

Yet these recipes, like those used for cooking, do not by any means demand to be rigidly or mechanically followed. To make pasta, for instance, you need the essential ingredients–Italian noodles and sauce–but otherwise you are free to experiment. You may vary the sauce as you wish, from tomato to cream, adding mushrooms or black olives or spinach; or you may mix the sauce with different types of noodles, like spaghetti or angel hair or vermicelli. But all in the end have the same essential nature and accomplish the same pragmatic purpose–a satisfying bowl of pasta.

This allows us an interesting new way to appraise a tradition. We can look at it as if it were a recipe and say, “This is what you must do, if you are to create a certain type of community–and these are the options you have, once you have done this.”

To see institutions and traditions as recipes is to grasp at once how pointless it is to debate their truth or falsity. Is Julia Child’s recipe for Bouillabaisse true or false? The question sounds absurd because it is. Here again, we seem to be caught in the quandary of cultural relativism. The recipe for creating different habits of the heart, like the recipes for creating different authentic dishes of various cultures, would appear to be ultimately a matter of taste. Indians like plenty of fiery spices; most American Southerners do not. How is it possible to devise a neutral method by which to judge which dish or which culture is objectively better?

Let us grant that this is the case; no one is really in a position to judge fairly whether the cuisine of his own culture is better or worse than that of another. But there is something that everyone can judge for himself–whether he prefers the old recipe for making meatloaf (or Bombay curry or Bouillabaisse or Pad Thai) or the new one.

Taking this to a higher ethical plane, we can ask ourselves as individuals whether we like ourselves the way we are today, or whether we liked ourselves better in the past. And we can do the same thing collectively. The members of a country club may prefer older customs to newer ones; a baseball franchise may no longer have the team spirit it once had; or a church may have suddenly found religion and be in the midst of a revival. More generally speaking, a community can judge for itself whether it prefers the habits of the heart by which it now operates to those by which it operated in the past. Both the individual and the communal mind can make comparisons between their before and their after. Experiencing both childhood and adulthood, a man can judge the relative merits of each stage from the inside, something no child, however precocious, can ever hope to do, just as a man who has experienced drunkenness may appreciate the value of sobriety and may even make a point of never having that experience again.

An individual may try new things and like them so much that he decides never to go back again to the old ways. But so too may an entire culture. During the Meiji Restoration in 19th-century Japan, an entire society discarded or revamped many of its own traditions in order to preserve its independence and avoid falling prey to the rampant imperialism that had left China weak and mutilated. The Japanese, grasping that new traditions were imperative, “imported” them from the West, sending intelligent young Japanese to study and master these traditions “hands on” as they were practiced in Europe and America.

The Japanese were able to gain an insider’s knowledge of the West in the only way such knowledge can be gained–by assimilating into their own visceral code elements they acquired from the West and evaluating the social world this adaptation produced within Japanese culture itself. This demonstrates the Janus-faced quality of tradition: In the culture that produced the tradition, it is old, while in the culture that adopts it, it is brand-new. In the first, it represents the wisdom of our ancestors; in the second, it represents the creative innovation of those who are currently living.

Thus, a tradition can be a passive inheritance from the past that weighs heavily on the present generation or a vehicle for actively transforming the present generation in accordance with the pattern set by the borrowed tradition. A society may take what was close to becoming a moribund ethical institution and suddenly breathe new life into it–treating it not as a relic of the past but as a blueprint for the future. It is also possible for a tradition to shed its original ideological superstructure but continue to function as a perfectly valid visceral code within the same community, much as Victorian infidels continued to scrupulously honor the visceral code that had been programmed into them as children. Finally, the same visceral code may be justified by competing and even contradictory ideological superstructures: A Southern Baptist may justify his own exemplary conduct by invoking the name of Jesus, whereas a Buddhist may do so by invoking the name of the Enlightened One. Indeed, it has not infrequently happened that a tradition continued an underground existence as a visceral code while undergoing drastic remolding at the level of its ideological superstructure.

But there is another possibility altogether: An individual or a community may entirely reject its own visceral code, root and branch, for the sake of what it has come to see as an ethically superior plane of existence. This “conversion” experience is the key to understanding the uniquely arresting phenomenon of a newly “revealed” or intuited code that is explicitly seen as a break with the past.

A collective metastasis at the primary level of the visceral code is the most profound change that a society can undergo–far and away more earthshaking than a change in its ideological superstructure. When carried out on a grand scale, such changes constitute a genuine cultural revolution. After one, men and women not only think and argue differently; they feel and respond differently. They are now ashamed of what once made them proud and proud of what once shamed them. In certain cases, this is due to a revelation of a higher ethos, such as occurred to the Hebrews; in other cases, it may be due to the revival and reclaiming of an older visceral code that, though it has ceased to function within the community, is now made a conscious object of imitation, as in the Southern Baptist revival or the rebirth of pagan classicism during the Renaissance.

The conversion experience is the key to grasping the nature of transformative customs and traditions. A convinced ethical relativist may hold that one ethical norm is no higher or lower than another, but he cannot deny that others have been sincerely convinced that the ethical norms they have consciously adopted are vastly superior to those of their own collectively recollected past. He may call it an illusion, but he must acknowledge the power of this illusion to generate profound and lasting behavioral differences in those groups under its spell.

It is important to be clear about the experiential source of this sense of ethical superiority. It arises not from a feeling of being born superior to others, but from a feeling of having become superior to what we ourselves once were. In the Christian tradition, this experience is called being born again; in the Jewish tradition, it is identified with the story of the Exodus, the transformation of former slaves into the Chosen People. In both cases, the outcome of the transformative experience is the same: a firm determination to be lifted from a stage of ethical experience that has now come to be seen as lower, and an aspiration to a stage of ethical experience that is higher.

A transformative custom takes us from a more natural (or more probable) state of being to a less natural (or more improbable) one. Thus, it is important for a community to signal the critical significance of the transformative custom it has adopted–indeed, to make it uniquely sacred–because it is a custom that departs so drastically from the path of instinctive nature. No one needs to be taught to strike back; it is the refusal to strike back that must be instilled by our ethical training.

Furthermore, a transformative custom may also be understood as a barrier, a device to keep those who have reached a higher ethical stage from backsliding. Such a custom is by nature intolerant. It may permit us to change our manner of doing things in certain areas of life, but it prohibits us from changing the way we embody those essential values without which we would fall back into the old ways. We are determined not to return to our transcended past, and we establish our set of transformative customs and traditions to make sure that neither we nor our children, nor our children’s children, will do so.

There is an important qualification here: We must retain a collective memory of what we were like before we had mastered the technique of transcending our lower nature. If we no longer know what it is that we have escaped from, we will be unable to appreciate the significance of the technique that permitted us to escape. Indeed, at the maximal point of societal forgetfulness, there is the danger that even the most critical transformative customs will no longer be grasped for what they are. Instead of being understood as techniques for the achievement of collective self-mastery, they are reduced to being mere folkways–or, to use the language of contemporary enlightened rationality, “residual personal prejudice.”

There is a safe and certain way of passing on these transformative customs, and in the most compelling manner possible–through the ethical institution known as the family. Of course, the family must first be raised to the ethical plane where the parents’ first concern is to compel their biological offspring to abandon their original state of nature and take on a transformed identity as civilized adults.

The ethical, as opposed to the merely biological, family is the site for the making of civilized human beings out of id-governed monsters. It turns man’s purely animalist collection of impulses and urges into a vehicle for passing on not merely accidental memes, but deliberately engineered transformative customs across generations. It is, in a sense, a metacustom–the transformative custom that is responsible for the existence of all other transformative customs. You must first be trained to pass on the ethical family itself before you can hope to transmit what the ethical family finds so valuable, namely, the civilizing process by which men and women obtain self-mastery.

Seen from this perspective, marriage has nothing to do with biology: It is an elaborate social construction that has been erected against the anarchy of the human id, not merely to keep it from doing damage, but for the purpose of transforming the id nature into the highest ethical ideal–the father who raises his son to be a good father, so that his grandson will have a life no worse than his own, and hopefully better. And the mother who does the same.

In even the shortest possible list of the attributes of a civilization, you are certain to discover the feature of transgenerational stability. A civilization must have a proven track record of cultural permanence, which is to say that it must be a multigenerational project. A civilization must be passed, with its fundaments pretty much intact, from one generation to the next; and this is especially true when we are dealing with civilizations whose civilizing process requires a stern renunciation of the id in all of its manifestations–ungovernable impulses, unruly desires, a lack of consideration or feeling for the well-being of others, sexual promiscuity, prodigal expenditures on passing fads, and so on. In short, the loftier the ethical ideal of a civilization is, the harder it must work to preserve this ideal against the return of the id.

But how exactly is a civilization passed on from generation to generation? We can understand passing on an heirloom, like a set of fancy china, from one generation to another. But a civilization cannot be reduced merely to the physical props that are associated with it: the buildings, the transportation system, the machines and the tools, the gold and the treasure. What possible use would America’s complex superhighway system be to a generation no one had taken the trouble to teach how to drive?

A society that wishes to reproduce itself must take care to pass on to the next generation the knowledge required to maintain itself at more or less the same level of civilization. It is not enough to pass on the good china; you must also pass on the family recipe for making the pot roast. Yet even that is not quite enough; you must also find a way to pass along the culinary skills needed to transform a recipe written in words into an actual plate of pot roast. Figuratively speaking, a civilization must pass on the china, the recipe and the cook. But even this is not quite enough. You must also make the cook realize that in addition to cooking, he must know how to replace himself, and, most critically, he must feel that he has a duty to replace himself. Not only must he teach his children to cook, but he must also teach them how to teach their children to cook.

If a society wishes to find a way of ensuring that newly emergent and valuable techniques are passed on and preserved, its members must feel themselves under an ethical obligation to leave the best possible world not only for their children, but also for their grandchildren.

The grandchild, far from being incidental, is decisive. Civilization persists when there is a widespread sense of an ethical obligation on the part of the present generation for the well-being of the third generation–their own grandchildren. A society where this feeling is not widespread may last as a civilization for some time–indeed, for one or two generations it might thrive spectacularly. But inevitably, a society acknowledging no transgenerational commitment to the future will decay and decline from within. Which leads to our main question: How is this task accomplished? How do you make parents feel such a deep and unshakeable ethical commitment to their grandchildren?

I have suggested that a tradition is a recipe. We now need to refine this concept further. After all, there are techniques for making soapbox racers, paper airplanes and omelets, as well as for the proper way to brush one’s teeth; but clearly, these do not represent the core traditions that parents feel ethically bound to pass on to their grandchildren. This means that what we are looking for is, in effect, a recipe for producing a certain character and class of people.

In ancient Greece, in addition to passing on techniques for making swords and pots, men had to pass on the recipe for producing sons who would grow up willing to fight to the death to defend their polis. A city-state that lost the recipe for producing such men also lost the recipe for constructing civic freedom and exposed the city-state to the most horrible fate that a free people can imagine: enslavement.

This is something to keep in mind when we compare the theory of tradition being developed here with Hayek’s empiricist evolutionary theory. For Hayek, a tradition was viable if it was well adapted to the past circumstances of the society; in the view outlined here, a tradition is viable if it effectively keeps future generations from backsliding to a lower ethical or civilizational state. The track record of a tradition is irrelevant here; it may have been supremely useful in the past, but if its continuing embodiment in the rising generation begins to lower the society’s civilizational standards, the tradition must be discarded and replaced, and it makes no difference how many evolutionary challenges it may have successfully overcome in the past.

Some Quick shots.

Harris gets Hayek’s evolutionary model wrong. Hayek wasn’t Popper, and Hayek’s model is not a model of Darwinian selection over individuals.

Second point. Hayek is explicit in emphasizing the priority and primacy of behaviorial ways of going on together over explicitly articulated rules and propositions — indeed, Hayek’s position is very similar to that of Wittgenstein on this matter. Which is perhaps not accident, in that it very likely Hayek derived this insight in some measure through the works of folks writing under the influence of Wittgenstein.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.

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“Hayek Links” Blog

Posted by PrestoPundit on 07/23/2005

The excellent — and freshly updated — Hayek Links blog has move here.

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Zywicki and Sunstein do Hayek

Posted by PrestoPundit on 07/23/2005

Zywicki on Sunstein on Hayek.

Sunstein’s original posts are here and here.

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The New New Left

Posted by PrestoPundit on 07/23/2005

It’s the taxpayers vs. the taxeaters.

Dan Weintraub comments:

This book, and the author interviewed here, would seem to be pretty relevant for anyone trying to understand what’s going on these days in California government and politics.

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