Review of “The Book of Journeymen” by Albert Nock

February 28, 2010

You can find the book here (pdf). It’s a selection of Nock’s essays from the New Freeman. The book makes a nice short introduction to Nock, but it will be review for those more familiar with his work. There is little one can do to review, besides quoting. Nock is wonderfully quotable.

A note from a correspondent this morning contains two sentences that should be written in letters of gold and framed in silver, studded with precious stones. "What is truly living in any period is what is capable of remaining alive; and this can be established only in relation to the ages that succeed it. … Our freedom of choice depends upon our ability to make use of the past, and when we lose this, we become slaves of the immediate, do we not?" Criticism’s first job in this country is the humble ground-floor job of differentiating itself from journalism by taking its eyes and mind resolutely off the contemporaneous. The reason for our ludicrous slavery to the immediate is just the loss that my correspondent speaks of—we really have no freedom of choice—and the reason for our loss is that we have had no criticism for a quarter of a century, but only journalism.

. . .

The Russians are the best off of almost any people in the world in one respect, which is that their laws are not made for them by lawyers. Hence they have very few laws, and those few are easily intelligible. I was reading the translation of one the other day, and remarked its simplicity and ease. One could not read any clause of it without knowing not only what it meant, but the only thing it could mean. . . . Russia has a healthy tradition towards lawyers, dating from Peter the Great. On a visit to England, he was dumfounded at seeing so many of them about, and said, "Why, there are only two lawyers in my whole kingdom, and I intend to hang one of them the minute I get back." A proportionate mortality among American lawyers—whether brought about in the same way or not—would be a great benefit to the country; and this mortality should include all lawyers—legislators and lawyer-judges. Then the idea of justice might begin to pervade our courts. It is quite an education in Americanism to follow our court-reports a while, and notice how seldom any one goes to a court for justice. I think I never heard of one who sought a court save for gain or revenge; and obviously, justice is the last thing considered under our legal system.

. . .

When a missionary asked Horace Greeley for a subscription to help keep people from going to hell, Horace refused, saying "there aren’t half enough of them going there as it is." I confess I feel just that way about Secretary Wilbur’s demand that the churches join in a great drive to eliminate illiteracy. It seems that the 1920 census reported nearly five million illiterates in our population, and the Secretary of the Interior is worried about it and wants to get them all taught to read. When I think of the kind of thing they would be likely to read, and how little good it would do them, I am disposed to congratulate them warmly on their present immunity, and to wish there were many more like them.

. . .

Following the strange American dogma that all persons are educable, and following the equally fantastic popular estimate placed upon mere numbers, our whole educational system has watered down its requirements to something precious near the moron standard. The American curriculum in "the liberal arts" is a combination of bargain-counter, grab-bag and Christmas-tree. It is not long since the newspapers were quoting President Butler of Columbia as saying he did not think he had a man in his whole institution, student or professor, who could pass the examinations that Columbia College used to set for entering freshmen fifty years ago.

. . .

One count against the book [that was being removed from the school
curriculum] according to this report, was that the description of Calvin as the "political boss" of Geneva was likely to offend the Presbyterians. It does not appear that the description was regarded as inaccurate; indeed, there is the clearest and most abundant evidence that no other description of Calvin’s civil relations with Geneva is admissible. The question therefore arises, whether in the mind of New York’s school-authorities the chief end and aim of teaching history is to please Presbyterians or to inculcate a competent understanding of some very important and significant social phenomena that appeared in Europe in the first half of the sixteenth century, and that quite distinctly colored European history for three hundred years. . . . Not to mince words, the fact of the matter is that under our educational system, the study of history, like other formative studies, does not even rise to the dignity of being a waste of time.

. . .

One of the excellent consequences . . . of advancing age is in the rapid dwindling of one’s sense of responsibility for Burbanking human society into a new and improved form. This exemption comes entirely from within, nor is it the fruit of disappointment and cynicism. It is released largely by observation and experience of how the things that one believes in actually work out. One believes in them as much as ever, and is all on the side of their being lived out. One also has as much faith as ever in the possibilities of the human race. But unforeseen things happen, and they keep happening so often and so decisively, and with such an air of inevitability about them, that before long one becomes aware that the Burbanking business has more to it than one thought.

. . .

The trouble with the "Western civilization" that we are so proud of and boast so much about, is that it makes such limited demands on the human spirit; such limited demands on the qualities that are distinctly and properly humane, the qualities that distinguish the human being from the robot on the one hand and the brute on the other. There seems no reason why our civilization could not have reached its present degree of development and be in all respects exactly as it is, if those qualities had never existed in mankind. None of them is necessary to the furtherance of its ideals and aims. Intellect does not enter into those ideals, but only sagacity; religion and morals do not enter into them; beauty and poetry do not; manners and the social sense do not. To

. . .

Why expect us to try seriously to tinker with a machine that is expressly built to work in only one way and do only one kind of thing, and try to get it to work another way and do something else, without any fundamental structural change? In any other field than that of politics, such an idea would at once be put down as supremely silly. My impression is that the American’s attitude towards political affairs shows that in this field too he instinctively and by implication puts it down as supremely silly; as why should he not?

Review of “Characteristics” by Thomas Carlyle

February 28, 2010

You can find the book here.

In this work, Carlyle lays out a moral theory. In brief, his argument is that morality is like health. The healthy are unaware of their good health, while the sick are constantly aware of their lack of health. So to with morality. Those who are truly moral are unaware of their goodness, while the immoral are constant concerned with their morality or lack thereof.

In like manner, under milder phraseology, and with a meaning purposely much wider, a living thinker has taught us: “of the wrong we are always conscious, of the right never.” But if such is the law with regard to speculation and the intellectual power of man, much more is it with regard to conduct, and the power, manifested chiefly therein, which we name moral. “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth”: whisper not to thy own heart. How worthy is this action! For then it is already becoming worthless. The good man is he who works continually in well-doing; to whom well-doing is as his natural existence, awakening no astonishment, requiring no commentary; but there, like a thing of course, and as if it could not but be so. Self-contemplation, on the other hand, is infallibly the symptom of disease, be it or be it not the sign of cure.

. . .

To say that we have a clear conscience, is to utter a solecism; had we never sinned, we should have had no conscience. Were defeat unknown, neither would victory be celebrated by songs of triumph.

. . .

The healthy-moral nature loves goodness, and without wonder wholly lives in it: the unhealthy makes love to it, and would fain get to live in it; or, finding such courtship fruitless, turns round, and not without contempt abandons it.

And a bit on government:

Every society, every polity, has a spiritual principle; is the embodiment, tentative and more or less complete, of an idea: all its tendencies of endeavor, specialties of custom, its laws, politics, and whole procedure (as the glance of some Montesquieu, across innumerable superficial entanglements, can partly decipher), are prescribed by an idea, and flow naturally from it, as movements from the living source of motion. This idea, be it of devotion to a man or class of men, to a creed, to an institution, or even, as in more ancient times, to a piece of land, is ever a true loyalty; has in it something of a religious, paramount, quite infinite character; it is properly the soul of the state, its life; mysterious as other forms of life, and like these working secretly, and in a depth beyond that of consciousness.

. . .

Again, under another aspect, if utilitarianism, or radicalism, or the mechanical philosophy, or by whatever name it is called, has still its long task to do; nevertheless we can now see through it and beyond it: in the better heads, even among us English, it has become obsolete; as in other countries, it has been, in such heads, for some forty or even fifty years. What sound mind among the French, for example, now fancies that men can be governed by “Constitutions”; by the never so cunning mechanizing of self-interests, and all conceivable adjustments of checking and balancing; in a word, by the best possible solution of this quite insoluble and impossible problem, Given a world of knaves, to produce an honesty from their united action? Were not experiments enough of this kind tried before all Europe, and found wanting, when, in that doomsday of France, the infinite gulf of human passion shivered asunder the thin rinds of habit; and burst forth all-devouring, as in seas of nether tire? Which cunningly devised “Constitution,” constitutional, republican, democratic, sans-culottic, could bind that raging chasm together? Were they not all burnt up, like paper as they were, in its molten eddies; and still the fire-sea raged fiercer than before. It is not by mechanism, but by religion; not by self-interest, but by loyalty, that men are governed or governable. Remarkable it is, truly, how everywhere the eternal fact begins again to be recognized, that there is a Godlike in human affairs; that God not only made us and beholds us, but is in us and around us; that the age of miracles, as it ever was, now is. Such recognition we discern on all hands and in all countries: in each country after its own fashion.

I can’t resist quoting this; it may be one of my new favorites:

Well might the ancients make silence a god; for it is the element of all godhood, infinitude, or transcendental greatness; at once the source and the ocean, wherein all such begins and ends. . . . But indeed, in a far lower sense, the rudest mind has still some intimation of the greatness there is in mystery. If silence was made a god of by the ancients, he still continues a government-clerk among us moderns.

Review of “Democracy and Reaction” by Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse

February 28, 2010

You can find this book here. There’s some background on the author here. It also wouldn’t hurt to refresh the old knowledge of Cobden before you dive in.

The book begins by laying out the following questions:

Is it that the Democratic State, the special creation of the modern world, and the pivot of the humanitarian movement, has itself become an obstruction to progress? Does popular government, with the influence which it gives to the Press and the platform, necessarily entail a blunting of moral sensibility, a cheapening and vulgarisation of national ideals, an extended scope for canting rhetoric and poor sophistry as a cover for the realities of the brutal rule of wealth? Are these evils of popular government essential and inevitable, and if so, does it mean that the work of generations of reformers must be undone?

Hobhouse is criticizing the decline of liberalism – what we would now call classic liberalism – and the triumph of reaction. I think his use of reaction is confusing as his time was not seeing a return to the old order, but the rise of a new order. From his perspective however, the liberal advancements made in the arenas of peace, free trade and freedom to Britain’s colonies (among others) were being lost. Hobhouse saw democracy as the cause of some of these losses.

The socialistic development of Liberalism paved the way for Imperialism by diminishing the credit of the school which had stood most stoutly for the doctrines of liberty, fair dealing, and forbearance in international affairs. So nonintervention abroad went by the board along with laissez faire at home; national liberty was ranked with competitive industrialism as an exploded superstition; a positive theory of the State in domestic affairs was matched by a positive theory of Empire, and the way was made straight for Imperialism . . .

Foremost among them stands the method of handing over public money or, what is the same thing, assigning relief from public burdens, first to one and then to another group of supporters of the Government in power. It is hardly possible under a popular suffrage to legislate in the interests of one class or one interest alone. But unfortunately a system of log-rolling is quite feasible, by which first one interest and then another gets “value received ” for its political support, and the invention of this system is a heavy blow to popular government. And this is not the only blow that has fallen. . . .

the Cobdenist ideas turned, as it were, inside out. There we saw that Free Trade, peace, retrenchment, self-government, democratic progress were mutually dependent principles. In their reversal we see the same truth. Aggrandisement, war, compulsory enlistment, lavish expenditure, Protection, arbitrary government, class legislation, follow naturally one upon the other. They move along the same line of thought . . .

More on the problems of democracy:

That the people as a whole have learnt to read has no doubt had the result that a certain portion of them have read the literature that is worth reading. Another result has been that the output of literature that is not worth reading has vastly increased. Once again, to suit the man-in-the-street, everything must be chopped up into the smallest possible fragments to assist digestion; even the ordinary article of the old journalism has proved far too long and too heavy; it must be cut up into paragraphs, punctuated by frequent spaces, and spiced with epigrammatic absurdities to catch attention on the wing. It must be diversified with headlines and salted with sensationalism; if it is to sell, it must appeal to the uppermost prejudices of the moment. As to news, mere fidelity to fact ceases to be of moment when everything is forgotten within twenty-four hours, and when people do not really read in order that they may know, but in order that their attention may be momentarily diverted from the tedium of the train or the tramcar. Such a public may be swayed by pity, as by other obvious and easy emotions, provided no prejudice stands in the way of its humanity, but for the most part it takes its daily toll of bloodshed in the news paragraphs as a part of the diurnal repast, and if there were no real wars, murders or sudden deaths, would probably expect the enterprising journalist to invent them.

A lesson for modern libertarians:

Popular sovereignty for instance was an article of the Liberal creed. Put into practice, popular sovereignty has not been very kind to Liberals, nor—which is more to the point for us—has it dealt very tenderly with some other Liberal ideas.

On the new reaction:

No social revolution will come from a people so absorbed in cricket and football. Should the beginnings of a movement appear, society has an easy way of dealing with it. In old days they hanged the leaders of popular movements. Now they ask them to dinner—a method of painless extinction which has proved far more effective.

Hobhouse has a firm belief that “right” should triumph over might in government and society. He doesn’t, unfortunately tell us how to identify “right” or how, precisely, it should triumph against might. Along, the way, he leads us on a weird explanation of evolution, for example:

Utilitarianism thus paved the way for the biological theory of society in which, as we have seen, the notion of right gives place altogether to that of force.

And if things were bad for Hobhouse, they’ve only gotten worse:

Men are intelligent enough and public-spirited enough to vote down a policy which is palpably ruining their own neighbourhood. Even in the most corrupt American cities when the misgovernment passes the tolerable the voters rouse themselves and suppress it.

Alas, this is no longer true. Just look at Detroit.

Back to democracy:

In its most obvious meaning, democracy implies a direct participation of the mass of ordinary citizens in the public life of the commonwealth, an idea most nearly realised, perhaps, in the great assemblies and large popular juries of Athens. This idea is held by observers to have materially influenced American public life, and not to have influenced it for good. It has lent support to the superstition that the highest and most difficult of public functions can be safely entrusted to the ordinary honest and capable citizen without the need of any special training as a preliminary.

. . .

With the formation of a regular civil service democracy in its first and most obvious form disappears. There remains the second idea, the idea of ultimate popular sovereignty. In this conception [of democracy] the part played by the individual man becomes less important than the part played by the people as a whole. It is held that the details of government are for the expert to arrange, but the expert administrator holds from the people, receives their mandate, and stands or falls by their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the result. The people are the ultimate authority, but only the ultimate authority. An immediate power is delegated to politicians who make a business of public affairs, and through them to civil servants with a professional training in administration.

. . .

It is admitted that the popular judgment can only be formed on the broad results of policy, and must be as much a judgment of persons as of things.

. . .

Finally, every form of government must be held responsible for the type of man whom it tends to bring to the front, and he who would weigh the merits and defects of democracy must take into account the character of the democratic leader. He must measure the power of brazen self-assertion and unblushing advertisement to bring a man to the front in a society like ours; he must allow that the capacity of gaining power depends more on the effective use of the rapier or the bludgeon in debate than on any proof of capacity to serve the country, while the art of maintaining power resolves itself into the art of so keeping up appearances as always to maintain the show of success for the moment, trusting to the levity of the public and the shortness of political memories to let the real final reckoning go by without close inquiry. A popular leader is not wont to take long views. He seldom looks farther than the next General Election. It would sometimes seem that he looks no further than the next Parliamentary division, and as long as he keeps his majority, thinks little of the effect his words may produce—it may be, on the future of a historic party; it may be, on the broad interests of the nation; it may be, in deepening the wretchedness of some persecuted people in a distant land. If sufficiently endowed with sophistical skill and debating readiness, a democratic ruler may become a very irresponsible being.

Review of “On the Choice of Books” by Thomas Carlyle

February 28, 2010
You can find the book here. The essay is originally a speech given by Carlyle to the students of Edinburgh University. It's relatively easy to read for Carlyle and it is done in his inimitable style. What can I do besides excerpt?

On work:

For work is the grand cure of all the maladies and miseries that ever beset mankind.

On choosing books:

A man ought to inquire and find out what he really and truly has an appetite for-what suits his constitution; and that, doctors tell him, is the very thing he ought to have in general. And so with books. As applicable to almost all of you, I will say that it is highly expedient to go into history-to inquire into what has passed before you in the families of men. The history of the Romans and Greeks will first of all concern you; and you will find that all the knowledge you have got will be extremely applicable to elucidate that. There you have the most remarkable race of men in the world set before you, to say nothing of the languages, which your professors can better explain, and which, I believe, are admitted to be the most perfect orders of speech we have yet found to exist among men. And you will find, if you read well, a pair of extremely remarkable nations shining in the records left by themselves as a kind of pillar to light up life in the darkness of the past ages; and it will be well worth your while if you can get into the understanding of what these people were and what they did.

. . .

I believe you will find in all histories that that has been at the head and foundation of them all, and that no nation that did not contemplate this wonderful universe with an awe-stricken and reverential feeling that there was a great unknown, omnipotent, and all-wise, and all-virtuous Being, superintending all men in it, and all interests in it–no nation ever came to very much, nor did any man either, who forgot that. If a man did forget that, he forgot the most important part of his mission in this world.

On democracy:

Machiavelli has remarked, in speaking about the Romans, that democracy cannot exist anywhere in the world; as a Government it is an impossibility that it should be continued, and he goes on proving that in his own way. I do not ask you all to follow him in his conviction (hear); but it is to him a clear truth that it is a solecism and impossibility that the universal mass of men should govern themselves. He says of the Romans that they continued a long time, but it was purely in virtue of this item in their constitution-namely, that they had all the conviction in their minds that it was solemnly necessary at times to appoint a Dictator-a man who had the power of life and death over everything-who degraded men out of their places, ordered them to execution, and did whatever seemed to him good in the name of God above him. He was commanded to take care that the Republic suffered no detriment, and Machiavelli calculates that that was the thing that purified the social system from time to time, and enabled it to hang on as it did-an extremely likely thing if it was composed of nothing but bad and tumultuous men triumphing in general over the better, and all going the bad road, in fact.

And let's end with more on books:

In short, as I have written it down somewhere else, I conceive that books are like men’s souls-divided into sheep and goats. (Laughter and applause.) Some of them are calculated to be of very great advantage in teaching-in forwarding the teaching of all generations. Others are going down, down, doing more and more, wilder and wilder mischief. And for the rest, in regard to all your studies here, and whatever you may learn, you are to remember that the object is not particular knowledge-that you are going to get higher in technical perfections, and all that sort of thing. There is a higher aim lies at the rear of all that, especially among those who are intended for literary, for speaking pursuits–the sacred profession. You are ever to bear in mind that there lies behind that the acquisition of what may be called wisdom–namely, sound appreciation and just decision as to all the objects that come round about you, and the habit of behaving with justice and wisdom. In short, great is wisdom–great is the value of wisdom.


If you’re libertarian, put down that Reason

February 28, 2010

If communism is the ideological opponent of libertarianism, then this piece could easily have appeared in The Daily Worker.

Let’s ignore the substance of whether or not Ron Paul is a serious thinker. A short glance at any politician will make clear that being a serious thinker is not a prerequisite for holding public office. The cheap-shot of an article doesn’t even pretend to justify this standard or offer an alternative, libertarian candidate with a chance of winning more than 1% of the presidential vote.

Let’s ask the more interesting question of why a supposedly libertarian magazine would run a hit piece on the only (potential) presidential candidate that is actually libertarian. And a piss-poor hit-piece at that!

The only logical conclusion is that Reason does not want a Ron Paul presidency. The likely alternative candidates this year are Obama, Romney or Palin. If Reason doesn’t want a Ron Paul presidency, presumably it would prefer a presidency under one of these serious thinkers.

Reason takes marginally libertarian positions which still depend on statism. For example, privatizing social security or using school vouchers are Reason-esque libertarian positions. Note that both positions still depend on a big government that takes your money. Ron Paul supports a more radical libertarianism – the government wouldn’t take your money in the first place. Frankly, the guys at Reason have been working hard to be taken seriously by the DC establishment so that they can have some small percentage of federal taxes diverted in slightly more libertarian ways. This Paul guy is screwing it up for them, because Paul seems crazy to the establishment. If Paul keeps it up, the guys at Reason might not get invited to all the cool parties and panels, etc. Paul, therefore threatens Reasons’ position as court libertarian, which Reason cannot stand – hence the hit-piece.

Got a better reason why they would run such a crappy hit-piece?

I have seen the future . . .

February 28, 2010

. . . and it works.

I just go back from a week in Singapore (and being on the plane – hence the 3:00am blogging). Singapore is better than here by virtually any reasonable metric.

The same party has been in power for the last 40+ years – since independence. The party is viewed favorably by 86% of the population – a stable number over this period.

The city is beautiful. All the roads were well maintained, well lit, and well decorated (with perfectly spaced and perfectly groomed trees). The city is the cleanest you will see. It’s also the safest you will find. My first cabbie told me it was safe. He said you could walk any where in the city at any time of day or night. I asked him if he would really let his wife or daughter walk around any neighborhood at 4:00am. He looked confused and then said "of course."

Their highest tax bracket is 20%, but 20% of your income must be saved in a private account. The account can be used to purchase stock or a house and it can also be used for medical expenses, otherwise, it’s for retirement.

The government carefully manages virtually everything, from the number of cars on the road (permits to buy cars are auctioned) to the price of alcohol (high to discourage drunks). The government is starting to relax the ban on gambling, but the country as a whole has a very conservative outlook (my first tour guide said that there were a couple places where they were allowing table dancing – and then she blushed, deeply). I didn’t see a single homeless person or street performer. I spent a big chunk of one day walking around the city and no one spoke to me besides people whom I initiated contact with – it was surreal and wonderful.

I can’t see how any can argue that giving up the right to chew gum isn’t worthwhile, if in exchange you get a beautiful, orderly, safe, and efficient city AND a big reduction in the amount you have to pay for taxes.


February 21, 2010

I’ll be off for work – mostly on the plane. At least I’ll have a chance to do a lot of reading.