Saturday, 17 May 2008

On activism

I've just discovered an astonishing essay from 1953, and from the unlikely pen of an economist:  it attacks those who sniff that any proposed policy or proposal that might alter the status quo, no matter how slight, the change, is "too radical" or unrealistic."

As Clarence Philbrook points out (yes, his name is as unlikely as his profession),

the only thoroughgoing escape from the charge of impracticality is never to advocate any change whatever in existing conditions.  But to take this approach is to abandon human reason, and to drift in animal- or plant-like manner with the tide of events.

He might have been talking about John Key, mightn't he?

As Philbrook commentator Daniel Klein points out,

    The "realism" philosophy must, therefore, come down to a set of beliefs about which policy reforms are politically viable and which are not. It must rest on a set of beliefs about the probabilities associated with various reform proposals. Free banking, for example, however desirable it may be thought to be, is regarded to have such a small probability of realization that it is foolish to even discuss it, and hence is dismissed as "unrealistic." ...
    The probability that free banking, for example, will be realized depends on how many other economist-advisors advocate the reform. "If all, however, follow the 'probability' principle, no one can commit himself until many others (nearly all?) have committed themselves." If making their choices simultaneously, economists' advice will "be the product of infinite involutions of guesses by each about what others are guessing about what he is guessing about what they will advocate."

It's like talking to a row of zeroes, isn't it.  One almost expect to find the word "consensus" -- and one almost does.

    Philbrook is pointing out that if science is what scientists say it is, and scientists are those who practice science, then scientists are playing a coordination game with bad equilibria. One equilibrium in particular stands out for its focal properties. Philbrook (p. 858) writes of the "mutual anticipation ending only in universal support of the status quo."
    The focal power of the status quo shapes the evolution of professional ("scientific") norms. The profession suffers from what path-dependence theorists call "lock-in." Philbrook (p. 847) remarks: "There has grown a widespread practice of cooperation with 'things as they are,' without explicit criticism of them, which is bound to have the effect of active approval regardless of whether such is intended."

As Marx would say in support, the point of philosophy is not just to understand the world, but to change it.  But the status quo merchants aren't just relying on an endless row of zeroes for their judgement; they're not just hung up on belonging and fitting in; they're also scared of real change -- which is why they talk up the bogus change represented by a Key or an Obama.

But the honest man doesn't just seek to fit in and preserve the status quo.  The honest thinker wants to make the world a better place.  Another Philbrook fan, Murray Rothbard concludes (well, I've quoted Marx in support, so why not Rothbard):

    We must make clear our policy convictions not on the basis of what others believe [or say they believe] the best course to be and then try to convince others of this goal, and not include within our policy conclusions estimates of what other people may find acceptable.
    For someone must propagate the truth in society, as opposed to what is politically expedient.
    If scholars and intellectuals fail to do so, if they fail to expound their convictions of what they believe the correct course to be, they are abandoning truth, and therefore abandoning their very raison d'être.
    All hope of social progress would then be gone, for no new ideas would ever be advanced not effort expended to convince others of their validity.

And then the grey ones will have won.


  1. Not Your Business17 May 2008, 14:48:00

    One of the problems with activism today is that seemingly anyone who cares passionately about making a difference is regarded as unhinged.

    Most people don't give a damn about politics --it doesn't affect them and their lives to any significant degree. They just go on with life--which, let's face it, is almost certainly not too bad in this country.

    So you are pretty much trying to sweep water uphill.

    I would be interested to know your definition of an activist. Most 'activists' these days (especially libertarian ones, I have to say) are too lazy and selfish to even turn off the computer. They think being a blowarse in the pub and at social events makes them freedom fighters.

    That means people like me, who want to be involved, who want to make a difference, are left just writing a cheque, and never feeling impactful.

    So what makes a good activist?

  2. NotYourBusiness18 May 2008, 15:07:00

    The fact you don't answer tells us all we need to know.

    An activist is whoever you personally like - whoever you invite to personal functions - whoever in in thecurrent clique.

    A few years ago I emailed Sally - I think it was - and offered my services free of charge - in admin. I was given the cold shoulder, which I took on the chin. A few months later you forgot to pay your registration fee and wanted to pay someone for the admin functions I offered to do for nothing. That's karma eh.

    I will say the National Party does brilliant work involving their small-time funders in the process. They are also inclusive in social function invites. You could learn from that.


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