You're So Vain (If You're a Plato-like Hierarchalist)

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Over at Economic Principals, David Warsh has a stellar review of David Levy and Sandra Peart's great recent book, The Vanity of the Philosopher, which charts the movement away from "analytical homoegeneity" favored by Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and other classical liberals and toward "analytical hierarchy," which attempted to create a scientific understanding for why some groups of people were supposely inherently inferior and hence deserving of rotten treatment. Summarizes Warsh:

Peart and Levy trace the peculiar forms that racism took in England—the equation of the Irish and the Africans as inherently inferior races; the notion that to seek self-rule was to step out a natural chain of hierarchy and to "devolve" into a still lower position on the scale; the strange three-way alliance among the classical economists, evangelicals and Jews that led to the abolition of slavery. They describe the gradual transformation of the heterogeneity view, first into social Darwinism, then into eugenics movement, and the policies that flowed from it: immigration strictures, sterilization, and, eventually, mass murder. The postulate of hierarchy is "extraordinarily pliable," the authors note: "'Inferior' becomes any group who is presently out of favor with the analyst."

The whole article is here and is well worth reading (as is the book itself), especially if you're into academic economics and its fetishization of mathematical precision. Levy and Peart do great work in rediscovering both how Victorian "progressives" were actually the vilest racists of their day and underscoring the role of classical liberal political philosophy in raising second-class citizens to something like full participation in society.

I interviewed David Levy here about his great book How the Dismal Science Got Its Name, and he and Peart wrote about H.G. Wells' jones for eugenics for Reason Online here.

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  1. Levy and Peart do great work in rediscovering both how Victorian “progressives” were actually the vilest racists of their day…

    That’s been well known for some time now.

  2. H.G. Wells’ jones for eugenics for Reason Online

    H.G. Wells is, in {latonic terms, the “Form” of “a nasty fellow”. Read much about his personal life and your skin begins to crawl.

  3. “Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy” by Michael Palyani (written about 50 years ago) covers this.

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0226672883/reasonmagazinea-20/

  4. Karl Popper, who rivals David Levy in his ability to bury his best points under thick snowdrifts of prose, traced the Platonic origins of anti-liberalism in The Open Society and Its Enemies. And of course, Capt. Kirk found out what happens when Platonists are given free rein in “Plato’s Stepchildren.” The point is always worth making again, because the Platonic idea appears to be unkillable in the west: You’d think 6,000 years of Judaism, 2,000 of Christianity, 1,400 of Islam, and 230 of the United States would have established the principle of universal human equality once and for all, but there’s always the future…

  5. John Stuart Mill

    Man, this guy does get around. I mean, what with the Daily Show, and his new book, where does he get the time?

  6. and other classical liberals and toward “analytical hierarchy,” which attempted to create a scientific understanding for why some groups of people were supposely inherently inferior and hence deserving of rotten treatment.

    …but seriously. Identity politics: bad in any form…

  7. You’d think 6,000 years of Judaism, 2,000 of Christianity, 1,400 of Islam, and 230 of the United States would have established the principle of universal human equality once and for all…

    Tim, I think you answered your own question as to why it failed.

  8. Progressives were the least vile racists of a day in which almost everybody was racist.

    Progressives believed, in contrast to the laissez faire mainstream, that the condition of the poor, including ethnic minorities, was the consequence of social conditions which could be addressed, rather than the inherent inferiority of the non-rich.

    But hey, don’t let me get in the way of your mutual admiration society. Global warming is a fraud, Vietnam was a noble cause, there are WMDs in Iraq, and the Progressives were the most vile racists of the early 20th century. Everyone knows that! Everyone.

  9. As I see it, there is mathematical economics (the study of growth in a logical universe) and psychological economics (the study of growth as a subset of the logical universe — limited by genetic and cultural restraints — with added illogical variables). As a realist, I can never accept a purely mathematical understanding as a basis for policy or even business. However, I have to emphasize the severe limitations of a psychological (read: philosophical) understanding — models must stay current with societal change.

    In regards to future developments in Economics, I’m impressed with recent economic studies of online gaming. It’s important to note that within hours and without regard to geography, communitiees can coalesce to accomplish specific goals via distibuted tasks according to non-traditional ethics.
    See – ESRC Centre for Research on Innovation and Competition – University of Manchester

  10. the peculiar forms that racism took in England — the equation of the Irish and the Africans as inherently inferior races

    Considering that Ireland’s per capita GDP (PPP) is now 10% higher than the Brit’s, does this mean that the Irish are genetically superior than the Brit’s? Cough. Perhaps that has always been the case? Or perhaps they did a better job of breeding than the inbred Brits? Or perhaps “mundane” things like tax policy matter massively more than genetics?

  11. Lionel Robbins:

    But I do believe that, in most cases, political calculations which do not treat them (all people) as if they were equal are morally revolting.

    In other words; the equality of opportunity-that some categories of folks should not be the victims of state oppression, or the recipients of state favor more than other folks. Also, the direct victims or beneficiaries of unequal treatment by the government cause many of the rest of us to be victims. For when the government restrains or rewards some, we often lose the opportunity to interact with them in a manner which is reflective of what we value-to take or reject what they may offer, and offer what they may take. However, a formulation of equal treatment is not enough to assure Nozick’s organization of society optimal for people who are far less than ideal, optimal also for much better people.

    For this we need a capitalist/libertarian organization of society with not just equal treatment, but minimal treatment from the government. The demonstrated tendency for this type of organization (spontaneous organization!) of society is for the rich to get richer and the poor to get richer.

    Nozick also pines for an organization which is such that living under such organization tends to make people better and more ideal.

    Again, the evidence is that libertarianism delivers the goods (literally!) here. Although it may be complained that what is “better” and “more ideal” is rather subjective, we can agree that the initiation of force is a terrible thing, and big government systems institutionalize lots of initiation of force, while libertarianism eschews it

  12. Hey joe,
    That’s a heck of a lot of conflation in that last post. The problem for me is that I don’t support any of those ideas you threw on the pile – WMD can be found in Iraq, honorable Vietnam cause, Global Warming as fraud, progressives as necessarily more racist than anyone else of that era. Nevertheless, it’s quite possible one could be skeptical of the Global Warming evidence (as I initially was) but still think half to all these other notions are wrong, for just one example.

    I don’t know that progressives were any more racist than others of that era but to say they were the ‘least racist’ is unlikely. Look at all the legislation they tried to pass discriminating against minorities. And the unions fought long and hard to discriminate against blacks and other ethnic minorities.

  13. joe:

    Progressives believed, in contrast to the laissez faire mainstream, that the condition of the poor, including ethnic minorities, was the consequence of social conditions which could be addressed, rather than the inherent inferiority of the non-rich.

    You’re ignoring the import of the article and evidence that the authors present that: From Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill, the classicals rejected race and genetic endowment as factors that might determine the differences among nations, took for granted a certain human homogeneity with respect to the taste for commerce, and focused on the role of institutions instead.

    And about these anti-capitalism “progressives”:

    The eminent Victorian Thomas Carlyle famously castigated economics as “the dismal science.” The epithet first appeared in his 1849 screed, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” — in which the “humanist” attacked free-market economists for their role in the anti-slavery movement. For Carlyle and “progressives” such as John Ruskin and Charles Dickens, economics was dismal because it sought to replace hierarchy with democracy.

    https://www.reason.com/0202/soundbite.shtml

    joe:

    But hey, don’t let me get in the way of your mutual admiration society. Global warming is a fraud, Vietnam was a noble cause, there are WMDs in Iraq, and the Progressives were the most vile racists of the early 20th century.

    joe, why don’t you just set the straw men on fire after you knock them over? You know that most laissez faire folks here didn’t swallow the WMD lies. And note that the most cogent anti-war criticism is found at the libertarian, anti-war.com. and at American Conservative

    The globe may be warming but the question of the cause is not settled at all.

    Now forget about those straw men and try to defend the racist (racism is a type of collectivism) pronouncements and philosophy of those Progressives, if you really want to.

  14. It’s my conjecture that there was a populist strain among the Progressives. They justified the subjection of certain minorities for their audience just as they played upon anti-market mythology.

  15. In Jewish History, Jewish Religion : The Weight of Three Thousand Years Israel Shahak blames Greek Platonic influence for the authoritarianism in fundamentalist Judaism-a fundamentalism which poisons Israeli polity to this day. It’s relief from this Platonic driven Jewish fundamentalist authoritarianism that leads Shahak to conclude that the most important result of the centuries old liberation of Jews throughout Europe was Jewish liberation from Jewish law and rulers.

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0745308198/reasonmagazinea-20/

    (I’m not Jewish, nor any religion)

  16. Did anyone else try to sing the title of this thread to the Carly Simon tune?

    You’re so vain……..if You’re a Plato-like Hierarchalist.

    You can almost do it but Hierarchalist is a bit of a mouthful.

    You probably think that plato’s heirarchical,
    Don’t you,
    Don’t you,
    Don’t you,

  17. But hey, don’t let me get in the way of your mutual admiration society.

    And here we have another such society, one whose members claim that biology, neuroscience and evolution don’t apply to humans because some Brits didn’t like the Irish.

    “Still, facts are a danger to the vision. In recent times, those on the left have increasingly sought to suppress facts that go counter to the vision. esearch dealing with innate biological differences are of course anathema to those with the liberal-left vision. Even research that turns up cultural or other behavioral differences between groups is almost as great a danger. Both kinds of research undermine the notion that there are “solutions” that government can impose to eliminate differences, gaps, disparities or “inequities” that liberalism claims to be able to eliminate.” – T. Sowell, May 30, 2006

  18. “6,000 years of Judaism”

    Are you on Graham Hancock’s mailing list? 4,000 years would already be pushing it.

  19. The point is always worth making again, because the Platonic idea appears to be unkillable in the west: You’d think 6,000 years of Judaism, 2,000 of Christianity, 1,400 of Islam, and 230 of the United States would have established the principle of universal human equality once and for all, but there’s always the future…

    ROTFLMAO!!!

    A self-ordained professor’s tongue
    Too serious to fool
    Spouted out that liberty
    Is just equality in school
    “Equality,” I spoke the word
    As if a wedding vow.
    Ah, but I was so much older then,
    I’m younger than that now.

    –Bob Dylan, My Back Pages

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