Saturday, August 09, 2008

The System

To begin with, you are without knowing that you are. There is no comprehension or incomprehension, there is simply experience and feeling.

Then, gradually, vapours of thought condense, a kernel of self-awareness crystallises, and a nascent layer of linguistic understanding accumulates. A new I has entered the world.

There is then a period of play and exploration. There is boisterous exuberance, an untrammelled joy at being and learning.

Then, at some stage, one discovers that one has been born into a system:

"Why do I have to go to school?"

"To learn things."

"Why do I have to learn things?"

"So you can get a job."

"Why do I have to get a job?"

"So you can make money."

"Why do I have to make money?"

"So you can buy things."

"Why don't we just give people money without making them work?"

"Then nobody would do the things people don't want to do, to make the things to buy."

So, grudgingly, we enter the system. After some years, however, a second existential transition creeps upon us. Not only is each I born into an external system, but each I is incarnated in its own animal system, and that animal system is programmed to reproduce. Previously dormant mental systems and hormones kick into action, and suddenly it is these body systems which are in control, the I simply a means to realise their imperatives.

A re-interpretation of the external system then takes place. It becomes a system to be played to our advantage to satisfy the physiological exigencies. Money will provide not only food, drink and shelter, but a means of attracting mates, and a means of rearing progeny. This second existential transition converts most into an acceptance of the system. Many are consumed by ambition from this point on. The world for most is then a world of careers, families, mortgages, bills, and pensions. A world of planning, rules and systems.

The joy and spontaneity of the young I is a barely acknowledged mote of memory.

And then a third existential transition creeps upon us. The internal system begins to decay and fail. The reproductive drive shrivels. The layers of linguistic understanding erode, and eventually even the kernel of self-awareness becomes brittle. Thought evaporates, and only feeling and experience remain. At the end, you are without knowing that you are. Beyond, there is nothing.


Anonymous said...

There are people who never move beyond the "why don't we just give people money?" stage. It's appropriate for a 5-year old child to ask this question; for someone in their 30s, however, it's worrying. These infantile types are often quite nice - they don't ask "why don't we just shoot people?", after all - but their inability to advance beyond the infantile "people should just give me things for free! we should not need money!" stage means any good they do is accidental and they tend to piss people off at the least.

You could argue that most left-wing journalists are infantile in that their demands for a fair world etc. are just a more sophisticated form of "why don't we just give people money for free".

And of course the USSR was driven by this infantile urge, which sought to deal with the actual problems of life by just killing people and lying about everything.

James Redford said...

Money itself the medium of exchange in a given society. In the case of commodity money, it has value on the market even appart from its use as a medium of exchange. In the case of a fiat currency, such almost all present-day government-issued currencies, it has little, if any, value on the market appart from its function as a medium of exchange (e.g., it may have commodity value as kindling, etc., although much of it exists as digital ones and zeros, which aren't even good for burning).

So with this child's question regarding "mak[ing] money," what is actually at issue is the child producing values (goods or services) which are of greater value to others than they are to him, so that he may in turn exchange these values to receive what is of greater value to him than those who make the exchanges with him.

What makes this process of exchange possible (in the long-term physical sense) is the greater efficiency derived from the division of labor. If it were not for this, then the market would not even be possible, physically speaking, except for a short time (i.e., the time required for people engaging in the market process to starve to death).

That is, one on the market produces goods which he himself may have little practical use for, such as a particular gear for a machine. But even though what he produces may be of no direct use in sustaining his life, and hence has little, or no, value to him in of itself, others may be in a position to fit that gear (to continue with the example) into a machine which then gives a value to its creators greater than that which was expended in obtaining its parts.

That is the process which, physically speaking, makes the market possible, and which makes the advancement of society possible (i.e., the building up of ever-greater levels of capital goods [i.e., the machines which we have no direct desire for, but which make the things we actually want; as well, the machines that make the machines that make the things we directly want; and so on, and so on], and hence raising the per capita wealth of society by making a given labor-time ever more efficient): i.e., the division of labor.

A medium of exhange raises society above the barter level, which is quite inefficient (in comparison to an effective medium of exhange), because then people have to expend energy to search out others who have goods which they are both directly seeking (or goods which they think they will have an opportunity to exchange for what they actually want, which again requires another level of labor and opportunity costs). An effective medium of exhange is accepted by virtually all market actors, because each of them know that virtually every other market actor will readily accept it for what they themselves desire.

An effective medium of exhange also makes calculation on the market possible, since then there exists a medium by which all actors on the market can denominate the exchange-price. This makes mutual comparison of virtually all goods on the market possible, and hence makes the computation of input and output factors possible, thereby letting actors on the market determine whether their planned production efforts for the future (i.e., even the short-term future) will be worthwhile, and hence makes possible planning for the future, such as investing in capital good (which, recall, are not directly of use, but instead make the things--and in turn make the things that make the things, etc.--that people want).

Here we see the devastating impact that governments can wreck upon society. For the market process is a voluntary process of mutual exhange, i.e., the only way in which a voluntary exchange can take place is because each party to the exhange expects to benefit; ex post one or both parties may come to find that they regret the exchange. But the market process itself insures that even ex post the tendency will be that both parties to the exhange prefer that it took place (since the voluntary nature of the market makes it possible for people to consider information [including their past performance] and make changes accordingly).

Whereas the nature of government edicts is of the nature of "Do this, or we will use physical force to punish you." Such includes the wealth used to employ government workers, since they are paid with taxes, and not via voluntarily agreed-upon exhange.

Government, whatever its size, always has a distorting effect upon the economy counter to that which market actors would otherwise have chosen. The larger government grows, the more distorting this effect.

Governments obtain their wealth via involuntary means, and so necessarily the government is a parasitical drain upon a society's economy, since it expends the wealth produced by others against the voluntary-chosen wishes of actors within the market. To rephrase that in more fundamental terms, the wealth of society is expended in involuntary means, such that what is expended is not received back in order to make up for the loss (according to the chosen actions of the actors on the market). In other words, due to such involuntary means, there is a disconnection between that which advances society and that which merely drains its wealth: since the only heuristic which exists (or could exist) to make that determination is the voluntary transactions on the market.

In addition, we have the fact the governments often expend great wealth in intentionally crippling the production of wealth of other countries (and as the last century showed, often in their own countries [e.g., the progroms of mass-murders conducted in Mao Tse-tung's China, the U.S.S.R., Nazi Germany, Cambodia, etc.]): e.g., in destorying industrial facilities of other countries, even if such facitilies are not producing munitions (since in modern warfare, the thought of the megadeath intellectuals has been that anything which provides for the vital needs of a society is fair game). Yet that also impacts the aggressive government's peaceful subjects, since it's likely that trade between the nations is conducted. (And again, recall that one of the main benifits of trade is found in the resulting efficency due to the division of labor, which is fundamentally a physical process: i.e., finding the most efficacious use of a person's productive efforts as considered by the market as a whole. The reason this is a physical process is because society would be reduced to the level of individual self-sufficiency without it, which would necessarily entail most of the given population dying off.)

As well, we come back to the issue of money. Governments throughout history have debased the currency in order accumulate more wealth (i.e., actual goods and services) to themselves. In past times, this consisted of such things as clipping the edges of coins, in order to melt down the clippings in order to circulate the new mintings. In recent times, it consists of fractional-reserve banking, which can create via loans many times the amount of fiat currency than are held in reserves.

So the very basis for which the market has to calculate is, historically speaking, almost always in the process of being debased by government (and by "historically," I mean since governments have existed on wide scale).

The market is inherently very resilient, but it can only sustain so much abuse before it collapses. And if it collapses, there is nothing that can replace it, since the market itself is the only heuristic which could possibly exist in order to determine whether resources are being put to efficacious use.

And by "collapse" I don't mean that the market will cease to exist, but merely that it will be so degraded that most everyone save for the ruling elite will be impoverished relative to what had been common before. For indeed, barter, too, is the market, yet a very primitive form which we should dread to see come about.

But such is the nature of governments that they actually benefit from society's crises. For then they can enact even stricter measures, and gain ever-more power as society is flushed down the proverbial toilet.

Although, to answer this allegorical child:

Physics insures that everyone must take in at least as much, if not more, energy than that which they consume. If they do not, then early death results. This is the fundamental physical basis for all verdical economics.

Yet very long ago a very remarkable process was discovered. In fact, in primative forms it likely precedes mankind. Indeed, when it was discovered, no one realized its fundamental significance, since those hominids which did so were just trying to get by in the world, and probably didn't spend much time contemplating its revolutionary nature. All they knew regarding it is that they liked the results better when they did so.

What that process is is the division of labor, and a voluntary market is required in order for it to work properly, since without voluntarily chosen means, what we have instead is violence diverting what people would have otherwise voluntarily chosen, and hence diverting exactly that which is required in order to make the process work. For this voluntary process is a heuristic: it is the means by which a society can determine whether or not members in society are advancing society. Indeed, it is the only means which exists, or could exist.

But, child, freedom for society is a general benefit which accrues to no one in particular. Governments and their rulers would collapse if they did not collect taxes (with, ultimately, the threat of imprisonment, physical harm, and death upon noncompliance backing it up).

So you see, child, just because that which is good for society, in general, does not mean that it is good for governments and their rulers.

Because of this, child, you must undergo intensive inculcation, preferably in government-approved facilities. They will go a long way in making you forget your questioning ways. If you somehow excape that fate, then the television will impart to you what you are to think and believe. And if even that doesn't work, the churches will be there to catch you.

From this, child, you ought to see that life doesn't have to make any sense. Stop attemping to analyze things so deeply. Just let this world wash over you.

When you do that, you will be complete. You will be whole. You will be one of us.

Neil Forsyth said...

It could be worse: you could lose feeling.

Jonathan said...

Brilliant piece Gordon.

I think the weakest link in the external system's justification is this bit:

"Then nobody would do the things people don't want to do, to make the things to buy."

Still, I grant it's still a strong point nevertheless. But in the real world of money a question can yet be asked: How can people want to do menial, boring and dirty jobs? Well, beyond stimulating the social conscience and inculcating a holism in the soul that articulated itself in a desire to serve ones fellow man, not oneself, one could always perhaps offer such work as an alternative to income tax. Such that each year we all do these boring jobs for maybe 2 weeks a year for free, as a kind of permanent national service. Then these menial jobs would get done, and we'd pay less tax too. Just a thought.

Generally, I think also that a lot of undesirable jobs are only undesirable because they have no glamour or cachet and/or because they are badly paid. In itself the work could very well be interesting if viewed with imagination and freed from prejudicial condescension. Dustmen for example do very noble jobs because they allow everyone's houses to be clean. And yet we look down on these occupations. Why?

With respect, when you say 'Beyond there is nothing' do you say this with evidence? How do you know?

I could as equally maintain that beyond we go back to the rich oceanic sumptousness that we know as children before the falling of the veils.

Can you prove me wrong easier than I can prove you wrong?

Gordon McCabe said...

The empirical work done by psychologists and neuroscientists to establish the correlations between the mind and the brain, (at the very least, that the mind supervenes on the brain), and the logical fact that bodily continuity (or, to be precise, brain continuity) is a necessary condition for personal identity, entails that when the brain dies, the person ceases to exist.

Jonathan said...

Well, the person as we know the 'person' to be - as it lives in the body, ceases. I wouldn't deny that. But how do we know there is not more to our entire identity than that which is controlled and determined by, and limited to what we understand of the body-brain?

A truth does not need to be known in order for it to exist, I believe. Did the Earth only start going round the Sun when we discovered that it did? Will God only exist when his appearances become indisputable?

How do we not know, moreover, that the mind-brain correspondednces and interactions dont go in both directions. Not only the brain effecting the mind, but the mind effecting the brain.

Apparently, for example, psychiatrists discover, so I heard, that changes in thought content, through will, can alter brain chemical disposition, and hence the physical base stimulation of depressive mood. Chicken and egg questions arise.

Of course, I could be wrong, and you could be wholly right. I just don't see how one can be certain about this stuff either way...

I realise that the problam about such vaguenesses is that with them its harder then to write robust papers etc, or write marketable books. Audiences in our world not tending to favour shades of grey, etc