RR Reno on Death’s Dominion

Valuable essay here. A summary selection below:

Alexander Solzhenitsyn resolutely rejected the materialist principle of “survival at any price.” It strips us of our humanity. This holds true for a judgment about the fate of others as much as it does for ourselves. We must reject the specious moralism that places fear of death at the center of life.

This sentiment is hard to swallow, maybe. But you should glean something from this, whether or not you agree with the author.

He’s right. It’s not a whole-hearted defense of life (even that of the very-elderly and terminally-ill) driving this drastic pandemic response. For why, then, is there no similar response to the genocide of the unborn? Or to other behaviors — more destructive than this virus — that diminish both the quality and quantity of life for millions?

What’s driving this response (or, at least, the rhetoric surrounding it) is an underlying sentimentalism — a vague insistence that we ought to live in a world without triage (the necessary prioritization of medical needs). And the erroneous belief that, somehow, we can.

“If it saves one life” is not a realistic strategy, nor one that anyone actually follows. But worse than just being impractical, it trivializes other virtues and values (justice, beauty, honor) — implying that they are worthwhile only when the most important concern (or, as Reno says, the “false god”) of preserving life at any cost is satisfied.

That said, perhaps this is simply the Governor’s role within the cadre of competing human authorities. Where Reno is wrong, I think, is in failing to recognize that many actions policymakers have taken DO balance other concerns with virus suppression (i.e. we aren’t all confined to our individual bedrooms, which would certainly eradicate the virus quickly). And I do suspect we’ll all take economic realities into more consideration soon enough, whether the virus is defeated or not.

But if not the actions, then much of the rhetoric surrounding the pandemic response belittles any concern other than “life at any cost.” That’s not fair. This is a complex medical and spiritual episode in the life of humanity. There is no one obvious solution. There are only trade-offs.

Be safe and hygienic. Avoid close proximity with at-risk persons. But be open-minded, too. And don’t ridicule someone for choosing to be less anxious than you.

My Fundamental Argument Against Socialism

Prices are pieces of information that facilitate coordination between actors.

They communicate changing supply and demand conditions, allowing actors to make real-time, rational judgments about how they ought to allocate resources if they are to be efficient and if their ventures are to be successful.

As Hayek writes, the price system is a “machinery for registering change.”

Prices arise from the decisions and valuations of individual actors who, by their observation and closeness to the sources and uses of commodities, understand how changing conditions—in the earth, the skies, the minds of men—affect the supply and demand associated with those commodities. Most intimately, they begin with the owners of such commodities, whose livelihoods depend on rational and sustainable allocation of such commodities as objects of sale to their fellow human beings.

This is key: That prices begin as subjective valuations in the minds of those with a personal stake in the priced commodities, and that these valuations are then informed incessantly by the valuations of others with different perspectives and understandings of dynamic supply and demand conditions. These prices are affected even further by the uses of these priced commodities down the structure of production—influences that extend back up (and down) the production structure to communicate changed conditions at any point.

It is simply fact, then, that a socialist society has no prices, and thereby no means to allocate resources such that changing supply and demand conditions at any point in any good’s production structure proportionally affect a good’s price.

A socialist society, understood as an arrangement where the means of production are owned by the state (representing, in theory, the common interest of all members of society) and not by individual actors, divests anyone in the society of the incentive and uniquely-associated knowledge to adequately adjust prices to reflect changing conditions. Whereas shifts in demand and supply are, in a free market economy, observed in the behaviors of actors exchanging their produce—in ever-changing volumes—for some goods more than others, such behaviors ostensibly do not occur in a socialist economy, where materials are not owned by individual actors, but are owned more-or-less by all, with no one person having a greater stake in some commodity than another.

Prices, therefore, carry no use as information regarding changing supply and demand conditions in a socialized society. They do not communicate from one actor to another the unique knowledge possessed about how events might and do affect the value of some good. Rather, they serve simply to direct actors toward or away from certain goods as deemed appropriate by those with the duty of setting prices (they direct actions toward here or there, but they do not guide actions toward true efficiency). Though perhaps not entirely arbitrary, assuming some methodical rationale on the part of such bureaucrats, prices in a socialized system do not serve to communicate changing real world conditions, but assume the role of communicating someone or another’s interpretation of how changing conditions ought to affect price.

Socialism divests prices of their use in reflecting real conditions and informing actors (that is, connecting them to the real world and to all their fellow actors), and instead imagines some imputation of value by prices onto goods, based on some schema rooted in something other than actual, true valuations on the part of actors with a personal stake in relevant goods.

This is true only so long as planners do not possess the means to predict the valuations of all a society’s actors. Such a means would be some feat, indeed—it entails comprehensive, real-time knowledge of not just all changing material conditions, but all shifts, at all times, in human needs and preferences, and the simultaneous rational synthesis of all such data. Absent this capacity (that is, in the conceivable real-world as we know it today), valuations in a socialist system occur in a parallel universe, where markets for commodities do exist and thereby influence the subjective interpretations of actors in a world unmarked by socialism whatsoever even after private ownership is verboten

Prices in a socialist context, therefore, are not prices at all, but fiats. Their use is merely to advance some end (be it even so noble as maximizing human welfare). They possess no characteristic of market prices—they do not communicate changes in supply and demand rooted in the minds of individual valuators with a personal stake in valued goods. They do not facilitate efficient adjustments to ensure a steady and rational flow of goods toward their most valued ends—Hayek’s “machinery for registering change.” And they do not economize on information and guide actors’ behaviors regarding their productive energies, as such entrepreneurship is of no use when all production is planned, and decreed valuations say nothing, with certainty, about how energies might be spent toward productive ventures.

Mises writes, “There is no such thing as prices outside the market.” This is a fact of nature. What alleged prices may exist in a completely planned and socialized society will direct activity toward some end or another, but will not accurately inform actors of changing real conditions nor guide them toward efficient goods allocation relative to what goes on the real world of subjective wants and valuation.

How sentimentalism steals from your happiness

Lots of people today—especially teens and young people—have an unhealthy obsession with “making memories” and trying to fully realize the value of an experience in real-time while it’s still happening.

I call this real-time memorialization.

It’s a form of cheap sentimentalism. It’s a way of avoiding the more uncomfortable emotions inherent in all of life’s more notable occasions, and replacing them instead with a catch-all feeling of “I’m-going-to-miss-this!” (a feeling that, of course, is tenuously-held and inevitably fleeting).

What happens, then, is we become sad (and only sad) when thinking back to times gone by. Because at the time, we insisted on being happy (and only happy) by ignoring all the reasons—big or small—why such occasions were less than perfect.

And we make it all worse for ourselves by documenting everything with photos and looking back with nostalgia at those photos even while the documented event is still happening.

All of this replaces deep engagement with the present moment. It steals from the actual progress we can make by being fully-present, engaged, and critical with our time and what we’re doing. And ultimately, it fills our heads not with memories, but with vague feelings of wistfulness and “memories of memories” that can never fulfill us in the way actual, organic memories can.

It applies our highest mental and emotional energies toward continually scanning for experiences that might be worth real-time memorializing, rather than toward a goal of personal progress without (or, at least, with much less) regard for how things are going to make us feel.

The result of all this is an emptiness inside. Pervading melodrama. Missing things we’re not even sure we can remember, and being sad of that fact. Perpetual longing for times gone by that were, when they happened, nowhere near as joyous as we remember and that during which, in fact, we were much less happy than we are today.

This is a self-destructive tendency. It’s cynicism in disguise. It will steal from your happiness. Fight it.

Politics and Nutty People

Wisdom from Robert Higgs’ Facebook page:

When I was growing up, without ever dwelling on the matter, I thought of most people as “normal,” that is, like me. What I saw, they saw; what I felt, they felt. Of course a few were weird, and even fewer were bat-shit crazy, but these outliers dwelled, or so I supposed, well outside the realm of us normal people.

As I passed beyond my youth, I became more and more cognizant that the crazy ones were much more numerous than I had supposed while growing up, and I learned rather early in my adult life that I was one of the crazy ones. What I saw, many others did not see; what I felt, many others did not feel; and vice versa.

Now, at an advanced age, I am inclined to regard “normal” people as quite unusual in the overall population. I don’t mean to suggest that lots of people are psychotic or schizophrenic—that is, completely nutso. But I do mean that almost everyone has some twisted or bizarre psychic aspects that make people shake their heads, even those who are equally nuts but in a different way.

In view of how common crazy people are in the overall population, it’s nothing short of a miracle that society and economy hang together at all. That they do testifies, I think, to the fact that even nutty people can usually respond rationally to incentives, that they are sane enough to continue to play a value-yielding role of some sort in the socio-economic order. When they engage in political life, however, their nuttiness is free to run rampant without immediate, visible adverse consequences for them—indeed, they may even be rewarded for acting crazily—so nuttiness tends to be the norm in mass political participation.

Robert Higgs