Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I Am Sure

A reader recently asked why we're such greed heads. And he wondered if it was because the US basically follows the economic perceptions of Adam Smith of "Wealth of Nations" fame and have thereby institutionalized greed in the name of efficiency. Others have said greed is human nature and Smith just gives us justification. Smith and anyone with an economics degree from the University of Chicago and its many clones.

And he asks about if there isn't a nobler way to live.

We Americans love laws. We call ourselves a "nation of laws," and we're pretty busy making new ones all the time. Probably this is because we've broken so many of the old ones we're afraid that unless we build replacements, we'll run out and then we won't be a nation of laws anymore. If you stacked the law books of every municipality and the federal government, we'd have enough dead wood to build a stepladder to Pluto. And please remember a step ladder is a trapezoid, twice the length of a regular ladder, but folded in two.

Our love of laws is a symptom of our love of certainty.

Here's something that's driving the world of physics nuts. Physicists are looking for a "theory of everything," laws that will cover all possible occurances of all possible phenomena. So far, it hasn't worked. There's Newtonian physics which pretty much describes how stuff works on earth. There's Einsteinian physics which pretty much the way things work in outer space. And there's quantum physics which pretty well describes how things work at an atomic and subatomic level. And guess what? They don't seem to have a point where they join up.

It's possible that there isn't a "theory of everything," and that different physical laws simply work at different scales of size, and sometimes contradict one another. That discovery would send generations of scientists into the nut hatch, drooling and babbling to themselves.

It also is possible that there are laws of economics that work the same way. Chicago standards work in some cases, MIT standards work in others. Sometimes, von Mises is right, sometimes Keynes is right. And we don't always know which applies to what.

This discovery would drive generations of economists into the nut hatch, drooling and babbling to themselves.

(There are those who say it's perfectly normal for both physicists and economists to drool and babble to themselves, and that no nuthatch is necessary.)

Then, there's the reader's question about nobility. Maybe there are conflicting sets of the laws of nobility, too.

It's pretty easy for guys like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to be noble. They don't need to worry about where their next ten trillion meals are coming from. The rest of us may have a little more trouble.

But as the philosopher John Dewey said in "The Quest for Certainty," we love to be sure.

Bible and Torah and Koran thumpers are sure. Smithian economists are sure. Capital "C" Communists are sure. And so am I.

What I'm sure of is that I don't know the answers. And neither do you. And I'm sure I don't know what "nobility" is, and that I don't want to be a nobleman. And that insecurity, with or without an invisible hand, is all I'm going to get in this life.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©2008 WJR

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was very slightly misquoted, having written: "we Americans have been relying solely on Adam Smith's philosophy to institutionalize greed (in the name of efficiency) for so long that we've lost our ability to even envision a nobler way of being."

Now that my picayune requote is made, let me go on to say I appreciate your commentary thoroughly.