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Friday, August 31, 2007

Gee Guys - could you do a better job?

In a previous post titled memetic infection I displayed what Eric Raymond calls suicidal memes meant to undermine Western Civilization. They certainly infected many Intellectuals. These ideas were part of an evolution of mistaken notions dating back to the 1700's. Some of the history and roots of these ideas are presented with differing points of emphasis in three books.

The Counter-revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason by F.A. Hayek. He shows how some thinkers demonstrated perhaps the ultimate example of what Richard Feynman called fragile knowledge. In Intellectuals by Paul Johnson he makes the point:
By "intellectual", Johnson means scientists or artists who go well beyond their abilities and try to design new codes of behavior, new systems of government and new moral rules for the humankind. That is, people who, just because they are good at doing something, think they get the moral right (and duty) to tell the rest of the world how to conduct their affairs.
In Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault Stephen Hicks traces these same ideas that having failed in the real world and have devolved into the philosophical deadend of Postmodernism. But they still won't die.

If this is not enough of a fisking of intellectuals, I came across a book titled Common Genius:
During the past half-century, the scholars and academics, descendants of those disparaged by Machiavelli, have failed abysmally to advance the lot of the poverty-stricken people of the Third World. They have relied mostly on handing out charity, much as they might give crumbs to beggars. And, being scholars, they have held conferences, written monographs, and given talks, none of which has helped one whit. One of the most damning records in intellectual history is this sixty-year failure to remedy the ongoing human misery in much of the world. So we must forget for a moment the abstract theories and ideologies that have failed, and seek the effectual truth. If economic history is to serve some practical purpose it must identify the fundamental lesson that has lain hidden beneath the jumble of history and academic jargon. Most of the academics who study and write about history have never been able to accept the truth, although it has always been there before their unbelieving eyes.

A major theme of these pages is that all historical progress has bubbled up from the bottom—from the actions of common men and women. A secondary theme is that most of history's evils have flowed from the top—from the intelligentsia, organized groups, and soft-science experts who arise in mature societies and are the pied pipers of their decline. In the final chapters, we will examine how the decline of free societies has often resulted from the transfer of authority and leadership from those who built the society to a destructive intelligentsia who arrive after the heavy lifting is done. The arrival of the intellectuals also marks the time when knowledge and decision-making appears to enter a steep decline. The notion that intellectuals are wise and should be listened to is a persistent, recurring, and insidious error that has doomed most past civilizations.

I do not mean to demean all people of intellect—most of them are great assets to their communities. However, there is reason to beware those with little practical experience in any field, who parade their "expertise" before the public, and operate primarily as critics rather than participants.

Any history of mankind and its successes must begin at the beginning; and in the beginning, there were no intellectuals. However, there were people struggling to exist and improve their lot in life, and mankind made magnificent strides, advancing from harsh and primitive tribal and nomadic life to complex and prosperous civilizations. The growing influence of intellectuals in the relatively recent past has served only to confuse, divert, and subvert that progress.

Political and religious freedom and economic opportunity have been exceedingly rare during these millennia. Since the first stirrings of civilized society in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley and the days of King Solomon, freedom and opportunity were only a dream, out of reach of the common man. Instead, his lot was to labor under tyranny and oppression that were ever present and that in much of the world still linger malevolently. This dream of freedom, the dream that became reality in America and has endured to this day, is borne of the uniquely human characteristics of man—his ability to reason, his natural curiosity, his instinct to innovate, his independence of spirit. These qualities, sometimes summed up as "free will," distinguish man from the beasts, and they set his destiny. Only one thing has stood in his way: the lust of other men to rule and appropriate for themselves all the good things in life.

Throughout history, such leaders have made life as difficult as possible for the bulk of humanity. The expression of man's genius had to be fought for, and opportunities for its release have been restricted to a few brief moments and places in time. Such moments were the "accidents" of history, but there was nothing accidental about what subsequently happened. The achievements were never pre-ordained but arose from a long-term struggle by ordinary people to advance, one step at a time, over thousands of years. But wherever individual men and women got even a little such opportunity, freedom and prosperity followed. They built it piece by piece, not by trying to apply utopian theories, but by solving one problem at a time and moving ever forward.

Now, this is a revolutionary idea and perhaps in a perverse way, will delight most of the average Joes out there who are pestered by those "beautiful people" who want to tell them what to do and how to do it. I know this discovery has emboldened me to set forth this hypothesis; a hypothesis passed on to me by my wife's uncle, a simple Polish immigrant named Harry Radzewicz. I suspect many of the best and brightest will scoff at my message, saying that I simplify too much, that things are much more complex than I can comprehend. But that is okay with me, for as observed earlier, it is better to seek the "effectual truth" than to build vast conceptual edifices or perpetuate grandiose theories that don't work.

An advantage of the Radzewicz Formula is its ability to simplify a complex question so that it is easily understood. It was explained to me as follows: "History's progress," I was told, "can actually be reduced to a simple equation. It's easy, like simple algebra, or Polish notation." He put it on paper: CM + S - O = EF

"CM, the common man, with Security, minus Oppression, equals Economic Freedom, and that leads to Prosperity. It also subsequently leads to Political Freedom."

And there it was—neat and simple. A fundamental principle missed by all the intellectuals. Deliberately missed, perhaps, because there is no "I" in the formula—intellectuals have never had anything to do with progress.
No grand designs and radical remakes of society please. Incremental improvement will do.

Update: I think this boils it down rather nicely:
Indeed, one could, without too much effort, extend the Long War analogy back to the end of the 18th Century and argue that the real struggle is between various rational egalitarianisms growing out of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution vs. the faith-based republicanism of the Anglosphere.
Update 2 [12/08/2007]: Fixed the link to "Common Genuis"


Bret said...

I may buy that book for a scan. Have you already read it? Or just that chapter?

I particularly liked the following passage:

"We can only hope that the basic good sense of the average American has remained hostile to the bad ideas of the intellectual experts. This defensive hostility is crucial, because the intelligentsia are putting out more bad ideas than ever."

I wonder if that's actually true (that there's more bad ideas than ever) or if I'm just more aware of it now.

Susan's Husband said...

I think more aware.

erp said...

Societal Peter Principle produced intellectuals, i.e., individuals who have
been bumped up to a level far over their heads. Having lost the ability to communicate coherently with the rest of us, they're reduced to babbling among themselves, and we, softies that we are, instead of disposing of them as superfluous, tuck them away in ivory towers where they can do the least damage while we go about the business of building a free society.

Howard said...

I've only read the linked to section of Common Genius but will read the whole book soon. There are probably more ideas being put forth, good and bad, but hopefully our awareness does improve with age. To paraphrase a friend: "when exploring ideas it is good to be as promiscuous as possible." However, the signal leading to progress just barely rises above the noise.

Anonymous said...

Howard, that is one fantatstic post, thanks.

Hey Skipper said...

I agree with Peter.

I'd comment further, but nothing I could say would result in any improvement.

Howard said...

Thanks for the kind comments!

Harry Eagar said...

Each idea ought to have the right to be evaluated on its merits, not whether it comes out of an ivory tower or not.

There are a lot of ideas out there that are very, very hard to evaluate. Common sense is useless in evaluating them.

For example, to pick an idea common among the scorners of ivory towers:
Should American foreign policy be predicated on the assumption that Arabs desire to live in liberal democracies?

I'll put the book on my list, though

Oroborous said...

American foreign policy should be predicated on the assumption that America will be better-off if Arabs lived in liberal democracies.

How or if we can make that happen is a whole 'nother game.

Bret said...

For sure.

Generally making other people better off makes Americans better off.

Harry Eagar said...

Wishful thinking is the kind of thing this post was supposed to be against, wasn't it?

Bret said...

Which part is wishful?

Howard said...

I thought the post was about intellectuals and experts overselling their ideas, ignoring real world evidence of failure yet still insisting upon correctness...even to the point of coercion.

Harry Eagar said...

'I thought the post was about intellectuals and experts overselling their ideas'

Precisely. That's exactly who I was pointing the finger at. Or don't you think the people in the Federalist Society think of themselves as 'intellectuals and experts'?

Wishing Arabs were thirsting for liberty and individualism -- in other words, wishing they were just like us -- never had much going for it. It's very like wishing that the Germans in 1938 really were 'satisfied' with Austria and Czechoslovakia and would now let the rest of Europe alone.

Thinking that your declared enemies are 'just like us' led to appeasement in the '30s and appeasement in the '00s.

There's a pattern in there somewhere.

Oroborous said...

Wishing Arabs were thirsting for liberty and individualism...

They don't have to thirst for it, they just have to live with it once we impose it.

Anonymous said...

Does Atheism Promote Totalitarianism ?

I just ran across the August 31 posting on "COMMON GENIUS, How Ordinary People Create Prosperous Societies and How Intellectuals Make Them Collapse." The link you show goes to an incorrect( site. The correct address is, or a full summary is shown on my website:

What I really liked about you post was how at the end of the quoted selection you concluded that "The Long War" analogy could be extended back to the time of the French Revolution when the rational and secular egalitarians emerged as part of the so-called Enlightenment and did battle with the faith-based Republicanism of the Anglosphere.

That comment is a great recap of my theory presented in Common Genius about the turning point in European affairs--the onset of Decline--when the new intellectual elites began their 200 year-long usurpation of authority. Chapters 11 and 13 in "Common Genius" analyze that period when the abstractions of European philosophers introduced and promoted the fateful ideas of atheism and glorifed an all-powerful state. Those two amoral concepts have a natural affinity because Christianity, which elevates the sanctity of every human being, constitutes a roadblock for tyranny.

It was the professors at the University of Berlin, starting with Johann Gottlieb Fichte in 1807who called for a "superman" leader to lead a small elite of pure German blood, free of any moral restraints to subjugate the inferior decadent races. He was followed by Hegel, von Trietschke and Nietzsche who spewed their notions for a hundred years before Hitler's time.

Hitler was only ten years old when his intellectual countryman Dr. A Ploetz proposed that every new born baby should be judged whether it was fit to live, and if not, to kill it. He was followed by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche who recommended euthanasia for the physically and mentally defective. One reason Hitler's violent and racist programs met with success was that the nation's intellectual elites had long-since instilled these beliefs in many of its people's minds.

Nothing Hitler ever said or did had not been already advocated by the professors. Most European countries were similarly impacted by their "Enlightened" philosophers who paved the way for a series of Dictators, most notably in Spain, Italy,and Russia.

The extraordinary thing about the 19th and 20th century was that while most of the world was falling under totalitarian rule with its related secular and "rational" ideas, America was moving forward as a beacon of freedom and opportunity. This was the period when Lincoln freed the slaves, women got the vote, labor unions were formed to protect the workers, and every four years a president was peacefully elected. Such democratic alternatives were known to the European intellectuals, but rejected by them. The continued assertion of authoritarian ideas is a testament to the molding power of an intellectual elite when it controls a nation's schools, colleges, and press. It was that leadership that caused the 200 year Long War you allude to. They saw to it that their people did not gain from America's example. Instead they were conditioned to accept the elite's twisted and inhumane vision of how a society should be organized. The warning posed in Common Genius is that this story is now being repeated in the United States. The new elites are encouraging people to trade freedom for security and to accept a balooning central bureaucracy and a tangle of taxes and regulations. It will yake a lot of Great Guys to turn this mess around! Bill Greene

Bret said...

Oh how I love the Internet! Write a post about a book, and the author stops by to comment. Cool!

I fixed the link to the book.