Sunday, December 30, 2007

A rambling monologue on worldviews

(Or, whatever little sense I have been able to make of the world around me. In no particular order.)

1) When one thinks, one attempts to clear the clutter - grey is a colour that no one is truly comfortable with. The only sensible thing Deepak Chopra has ever said is when he asserted that mythological tales are powerful becuase they have well defined concepts of good and bad. At all points of time in my ruminations I am trying to judge correctness, to ascertain credit and to appropriate blame. Those who claim to not judge are either not thinking at all, or just being polite.

When thought does clear the clutter, it does so with with a brilliant sweep. Things fall into place - one knows exactly why one believes what one believes. Thought is nothing but self articulation. Given that a general proficiency in the tools of communication is achieved, it is easy to be articulate when one in clear.

The problem is that very often one has to make peace with the greys. It is difficult to be undecided when one is not indifferent. It is difficult, also, to be truly indifferent. Sometimes, it is fatal to be undecided. Very often, the clutter is not cleared, nor is there the hope that it will be cleared in the recent future. It is a painful state to be in. The only comfort is that most often, the Cartesian view on one's own existence is reaffirmed.

The single greatest advantage of thought is clarity. The single greatest disadvantage of thought is lack of clarity.

2) Just as mathematics is at the base of all natural sciences, and philosophy is at the base of all humanities, psychology is at the base of all social sciences. A priori enunciations of economic truths are nothing but claims that one has figured out the human mind. Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Ludwig von Mises are authors who fall in this category. It is no surprise that Friedrich Hayek went on to link spintaneous order with the connectionist hypothesis of cognition.

The validity of each enunciation lies in empirical evidence, and empirical evidence is temporal and contextual. What is contextual can never, by definition, be universal. The infinitely long run is an absurd idealization - it is of almost no use.

3) 'Universal human rights and values' is technically, a self-defeating concept. History shows as much. Universe has to be defined across space and time, and no set of human values has ever been consistent across time - not even the right to life. (I am not talking about violations of rights, only about the belief that these rights should exist in the first place. Weak newborns in Sparta were deemed to not have the right to life at all.) Does this mean that an axiomatic specification of a world view is impossible? Not really. One only needs to have the modesty to not pronounce it universal. The axioms of choice are dynamic - a recognition of this is enough.

People, most notably Murray Rothbard, have tried to argue that the right of 'self-ownership' is the one necessary and sufficient human right. Everything else follows. There is, of course, the disclaimer that self-ownership has no meaning unless we respect the self-ownership of others. This is not entirely true. Self-ownership as a concept can exist independent of the equivalence of political rights. There is the more fundamental assertion here, that my political system, whatever it is, will not indulge in any a priori discrimination. This is the zeroth law implicit in almost all political debates of today, and it is also independent of self-ownership or any other such rights. The zeroth law has profound implications. Socio-political equivalence of all citizens is by itself not a very ancient idea. It seemed abhorrent to Locke and Paine that a charter may determine basic rights, and it is extremely seductive to indulge oneself in the concept of natural and universal rights. Yet, a question worth asking is - if these rights are indeed so universal and natural, why did we chance upon them so late? It is a little strange to accept a prophet of human rights.

I am enchanted by the enlightenment age views on liberalism. John Locke was a phenomenal man. But, he was not a prophet. He was a change-maker, one of many. 'Universal human rights' before him and 'universal human rights' after him are different sets, and this difference renders the term 'universal human right' an oxymoron.

4) 3 above forms the basis of one of the strongest arguments in the defence of the communismt end that I have ever heard. I believe that an ideal system will try to ensure, non-coercively, that station in life is contingent not on birth but on ability. Like many others, I am given to believe that the communist utopia is not really a utopia. Even if somebody could magically get communism to work, I would not want to live in a scoiety where everyone has the same outcome, irrespective of ability. It seems natural to me - I won't be surprised if it was proven that this feeling is hardwired into us by evolutionary mechanisms. I do, however, believe that society should try its best to provide everyone with the same opportunity, irrespective of anything. This belief could be a result of evolution. It could also be one of the many 'anti-evolutionary' tendencies that we have developed over time.

Either way, a 1000 years ago the sentiment that station of birth should not ideally be a large component of success in later life wasn't a very common one. It is now. Is it then unimaginable that a 1000 years from now the prevailing sentiment of 'universal human rights' and utopia will include the communist idea of equal outcomes, not just equal opportunities? I had no answer to this question posed by a dormmate after I had summarily destroyed the rest of his commie arguments. It was a useless argument, for it was not debatable and also irrelevant from the perspective of policy-making, but it was a strong argument and one that gains immense relevance the moment we start connecting free market mechanisms to the natural and social evolution of human civilization and positing them as universal truths.

Communism may just be an ideology that came much before its time. It may make sense to qualify 'self-evident economic truths' with adjectives that are temporal instead of 'universal'.

5) Property rights, indeed the very definition of property, are the crux of every major philosphical point of difference in conflicting worldviews. Unless one wishes to indulge in humpty-dumptyism with the meaning of property rights, the deontological position on property is far from settled. I have never heard a convincing argument about the moral philosophy underlying the default heratibility of property. Nor have I ever read any convincing arguments about any given property distribution being considered moral in a non-contextual, universal sense. For this and similar other reasons, property rights have to be separated from other rights that seem to be analogous. The right to life must exist independent of property rights, and the right to free speech can also be evaluated in a framework that need not necessarily build upon property rights.

Random information - I am getting extremely enchanted by behavioural finance these days. Riskless arbitrage does not exist, or so my hedge fund trader friend informs me 2 weeks into the job. The insurance fund market is apparently so inefficient that one can safely claim that market mechanisms don't even seem to work.

I'm also getting enthused by the New Keynesians, not the least because Greg Mankiw is one himself. He can be safely added to Raghuram Rajan and Hernando De Soto in the list of economists I want to read extensively.

As you must have observed already, I am too much of a lazy bum to put up the requisite links. Sorry, but deal with it.


Venu said...

Either way, a 1000 years ago the sentiment that station of birth should not ideally be a large component of success in later life wasn't a very common one. It is now.

I am not sure that this is a common sentiment. John Rawls sort of formalised this sentiment, but his arguments are by no means widely accepted. An example of what I consider to be a common sentiment is political equality, that everyone should have equal rights. It would be hard to find professional philosophers who disagreed with the second sentiment, whereas it would not be hard in the case of the first.

zen babu said...

Agreed, partially. The reason is that I'm not gouing to measure the 'commonality' of a sentiment by the number of professional philosophers who agree with it. Popular wisdom is more like what I'm referring to here. My point was simly that a 1000 years ago (or maybe 1200, you get the drift) neither of the two sentiments prevalent now was the default popular wisdom. People had an unshaking belief in the divine right of kingship.

doubtinggaurav said...


When in doubt just throw historical materialism.

anil said...

5. First, Any deontological position would in the first place require that you accept the existence of an absolute morality, or a categorical imperative... which you don't seem to believe in (which precludes a 'moral' position on property, I suppose).
Even otherwise, a society that evolves from Rawls' original position could be construed as fair, as any property appropriated by an individual is only through his personal ability (though Nozick did later provide a disconcerting rebuttal of this notion, which I conveniently will not mention). If we accept that property rights exist, would those rights include the right to dispose of it as the owner sees fit? If so, then inheritability is justifiable as long as there is an explicit direction from the previous owner...
4. You hit upon Nietzsche's 'Last Man' argument, that a society of equal outcomes is also one without achievement, wonder or even ability...But when the Neocons use this argument, they forget the crucial distinction b/w 'equal' outcomes and 'minimum' outcomes, a social security net that breaks your fall (admittedly, this is not a distinction Marx recognised).
2. To simply dismiss validity on the basis of the contextuality of empirical evidence is naive, then gravitation is true simply because we have not yet seen a ball not fall down once thrown up...This inductive nature of knowledge is why science holds that all knowledge be constantly testable, and that the theory that best explains observed phenomena is held true until proven otherwise.( Depends of course on whether you are a fan of Wittgenstein or Popper)
Of course, your fundamental point(if I got it right)-that Marxism is essentially indefensible unless the notion of equal outcomes is acceptable-is an idea that I wholeheartedly subscribe to, though I would go at it from a totally different standpoint...