Nietzsche Madness

Acknowledgement of the death of God is a bomb that blows up many things, not just oppressive traditionalism, but also values like compassion and the equality of human dignity on which support for a tolerant liberal political order is based. This then is the Nietzschean dead end from which Western philosophy has still not emerged.”   Francis Fukayama, New York Times Review of Books, April 11, 2010.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a savant intellectual, a genius learner, a tenured Classics professor by age 24, a prodigy of learning what is already known.

One thinks of Joseph Knecht, the character who plays the Glass Bead Game in the Hermann Hesse sci-fi novel about academia: Magister Ludi. In this book, a game is played by special minds in which all forms of art and knowledge are codified into a form of a musical/logical/lexical informatic with which the players competitively uncover new syntheses of insight.  Hesse may have had Nietzsche in mind. Nietzsche was an academic philosopher, his entire life was reading, writing and thinking. He never married or had children. He came to believe that humans should be ruled by . . . . academic philosophers. For Nietzsche, an individual’s philosophical journey was to be his and everyone’s God. He wrote theatrically, with anger, condemnation, and provocation, if not hysteria.

Nietzsche scorned utilitarian and bourgeois morality. He saw human nature as Darwinian. He loved to describe the ‘will to power’ hidden in the actions of history, a motivation he found to be greater than survival. Thinking Men take us to something greater, he says, do not resist this. The strong should triumph. Exceptional people (like him) should flourish. Good versus evil is the rationalization of the weak. The notion of universal objective truth will be found wrong, and man will come to name his own truth. God is dead, and the Ubermensch, the Superman, will arise.

Nietzsche himself was continually sickly, and suffered increasing mental imbalance. His final breakdown is reported to have occurred after he witnessed the whipping of a horse.  He supposedly then ran to the horse to try to protect it, throwing his arms around its neck, and then collapsed into incoherence.

Mania with psychosis is strongly suggested. His writing and thought is megalomaniacal, racing, and grandiose. He came to see inorganic matter as having ‘motivation’. Thinking has magical power, intuition is supernatural.

In Nietzschean thought there are the inklings of Freudianism, fascism, communism, post modernism, and evolutionary psychology. He provides flamboyant cover for academic chauvinism and condescension, for intellectual elitism, for the cult of the Great Leader.

Academics love him to this day. For Cornel West, and many others, Neitzsche’s works are the most treasured. For those that gravitate to deconstruction, always parsing to uncover and reject what is wrong, Nietzsche invites them along, into tangles of creativity and corruption, idealism and nihilism. We have Francis Fukayama’s dead end.

The Strange Case of Elian Gonzalez

It has been ten years since the strange episode of Elian Gonzalez. His mother risked and lost her life bringing him to the U.S. on a small boat from Cuba. Castro demanded his return and President Clinton complied. The boy was ‘repatriated’ at the gun point of US Marshals. “The boy should be with his father”, Clinton said. Now, Elian is 16 years, old, a member of the Young Communist Union of Cuba. He attends military school. A museum about him in his home town has his statue with a raised, clenched fist. His birthday has been celebrated personally with Fidel, and his father has become a member of the Cuban National Assembly. The Cuban State Security set up a ‘monitoring station’ next door to his home.

Certain facts have emerged. Elians’ father called relatives in Miami to tell them that Elian and his mother were on their way. Janet Reno suppressed aspects of a report by court-appointed US judges who presided over the hearings in which Elian’s american relatives opposed his return. Elian’s grandmothers from Cuba covertly signaled to the Judge panel that they were under scrutiny by the Castro government and unable to speak candidly. Elian’s father was allowed to visit the US, his other children were not. He was under constant Cuban escort while in the United States.

And so a sitting President of the United States assisted an anti-american dictator in the forced repatriation of an escapee from a communist dictatorship to the United States. The President did this with force of arms, delivering not only the boy, but also a giant PR coup for the dictator, a leader who regularly proclaims himself an enemy of the United States. The President, with this action, essentially declared to the world his view that a nation without civil liberties, without independent judiciary, without freedom of speech or association, without democratic elections, a nation ruled by a secret police, is as good a place to raise a young boy as is the United States, a young boy whose mother gave her life to bring him here.

We are asked to believe that the father truly wanted his son in Cuba rather than in the United States. We are asked to ignore the mother’s heroic efforts to get him here. We are asked to assume there was no coercion from the Castro government.”

As Scott was a slave when taken into the state of Illinois by his owner, and was there held as such, and brought back in that character, his status, as free or slave, depended on the laws of Missouri, and not of Illinois.”  Supreme Court Case: Dred Scott vs. John F. A Sanford, March 6, 1857.

Did Elian Gonzalez determine the results of the 2000 presidential election?  Al Gore was running a close race for the Presidency. Florida would be crucial. How would a Gore victory affect Hillary Clinton’s political future?  The Florida Cuban community was enraged by Clinton’s actions. Gore, over a barrel, at first approved the decision to return Elian, but then disavowed it. He lost Florida by an extremely narrow margin, and then the election, despite winning the popular vote.

Hayek’s Information

The economy has number. The term “economy” is singular, but its properties emerge from a collection of things which are numerous and diverse.  And it is important that the definition is always tied to its disparate components. When we create statistical aggregates to describe the economy, we lose information, we change the concept into something that is not real.  The economy is not singular.  It is a group, a set, of people, transactions, and ideas.  And the individual distinctness of its components, though unseen by the analyzing scholar, is precisely the quality that matters.

This is Friedrich Hayek’s insight in his famous essay, The Use of Knowledge in Society.

There are two kinds of “knowledge”.  There is the scientist’s knowledge, which seeks to understand the economy comprehensively, and the knowledge of the individual agent, who is uniquely aware of his own circumstances.  The individual’s knowledge is the disparate element, and the scientist’s knowledge is the conjectural, theoretic attempt to understand a complex system as a singular object.

As Hayek explains:

The sort of knowledge with which I have been concerned is knowledge of the kind which by its nature cannot enter into statistics and therefore cannot be conveyed to any central authority in statistical form.  The statistics which such a central authority would have to use would have to be arrived at precisely by abstracting from minor differences between the things, by lumping together, as resources of one kind, items which differ as regards location, quality, and other particulars, in a way which may never be very significant for the specific decision.

When Hayek uses the word “knowledge”, in today’s vernacular he means “information”.  We know that useful information is condensed, coded, and patterned.  The problem of economic coordination is the problem of transforming information for exchange.  And it is the system of price setting, by the natural mechanism of supply and demand, that achieves this end.

It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as…a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement.

Thus, the interactions of numerous, disparate, autonomous individuals create economies by responding to supply and demand, communicating with price.  Information is exchanged, but the diverse elements of the economic system are preserved.

Recall that Margaret Thatcher famously said:  “there is no such thing as society”.  Hayek tells us why.  She was concerned that being oriented to  “society” can lead to ignoring citizens.

Hayek’s reasoning shows how aggregated information (the knowledge of the societal planner) doesn’t have relevance to any individual citizen.  The prudent policy maker doesn’t work on “society”, but on the liberty, safety, and opportunity of the individual.

Stalin

His was a low-slung, smallish figure, neither markedly stout nor thin, inclining, if anything, to the latter. The square-cut tunic seemed always a bit too large for him: one sensed an effort to compensate for the slightness of stature. Yet there was also a composed, collected strength, and a certain rough handsomeness, in his features. The teeth were discolored, the mustache scrawny, coarse, and streaked. This, together with the pocked face and yellow eyes, gave him the aspect of an old battle-scarred tiger. In manner – with us simple, quiet, unassuming. There was no striving for effect. His words were few. They generally sounded reasonable and sensible: indeed they often were. An unforewarned visitor would never have guessed what depths of calculation, ambition, love of power, jealousy, cruelty, and sly vindictiveness lurked behind this unpretentious facade.” George Kennan

Imagine Hitler ruling for 30 years, that was Stalin. An intellectual psychopath, Stalin recognized Leninism/Bolshevism for what it was, intellectual justification for brutality, theft, repression, and power. Promoting the destruction of all the social institutions that served to keep the people precariously bound in some element of civil reciprocity was cat nip to the bank robber he was, and the murderer he became.

His feral cunning, callousness, and Machiavellian malevolence brought him from poverty in Georgia to absolute ruler of the largest victorious army in history, and the conquest of much of the Eurasian continent.

Some say that Hitler had difficulty murdering those he had known well. Not so Stalin.  He had the cherished wife of his personal valet of some many years, Poskrebyshev, taken and executed. They had a young son, who Stalin would sit on his lap, like a grandpa. The loved wife of Foreign Minister Vaicheslav Molotov, one of the signers of the death sentence for 21,000 Polish officers held at Katyn forest, and Stalin’s closest comrade in rule for thirty years, was imprisoned for ‘disloyalty’. (Molotov ‘abstained’ on the vote in the Politburo about her arrest, and then later apologized to Stalin about his ‘error’ in judgment and never again raised the issue of her case) Mrs. Molotov was eventually released – four years later – after Stalin’s death. Molotov never acknowledged that Stalin may have intended her harm. Anastos Mikoyan, another lifelong comrade, (also a signer of the Katyn death sentence), the USSR representative at JFK’s funeral, saw his two sons imprisoned, also only released after Stalin’s death. Genrikh Iagoda, Stalin’s early NKVD secret police chief, was ‘tried’ and then shot, as were his wife, and his sister. Another sister, and both parents, perished in the Gulag.

Stalin’s chief rivals for power, Zinoviev, Kamenov, Bukharin, and Trotsky were all executed for false crimes confessed under torture. Many of their wives, children, and parents were also executed, including a teenage son of Kamenov.  For many Bolshevik comrades, their real crime, a monstrous crime against humanity, a crime indeed justifiably punishable by death, was their failure, themselves, to bring to trial and to execute Joseph Stalin.

Revolution Misremembered

Oh posterity, you will never know how much it cost us to preserve your freedom.  I hope that you will make a good use of it.  It you do not, I will repent in heaven that I took half the pains to preserve it.

So speaks John Adams in the last line of the HBO mini-series inspired by David McCullough’s biography.  Adams knew that our American revolution was precarious, and that its principles were vulnerable to misinterpretation.

The mini-series juxtaposes Adams and Jefferson. We see Adams as a prudent, calculating revolutionary.  For the cause of independence, he leads the Continental Congress with the temperament of a radical.  His revolutionary convictions were shrewd, and genuine.  But as a President he was conservative. Once the revolution was achieved, he was solely determined to preserve the government.  Meanwhile, Jefferson envisioned a perennial revolution, with each generation overthrowing the institutions of the last.

McCullough shows that Adams was uniquely aware of the fragility of the new government and the principles it affirmed.  As he transformed from a revolutionary to a conservative, his reputation faltered.  His efforts in office to protect the delicate union, his preoccupation with its infant weaknesses, lead many in his time to question his true commitment to the revolution—as though revolution, itself, was always virtuous.  He lost the legacy battle to Jefferson, and witnessed firsthand the cold unfairness of history.

Though mocked and unpopular, Adams commented before vacating the Presidency, “Mr. Jefferson is fortunate that I have left him a county at all over which to preside.

It is probably true that part of Adams’ pessimism was partly due to offended disgruntlement.  He clearly resented Jefferson’s popularity.  But there was also something worrying to Adams about the way history embraced Jefferson.  Adams believed completely in the principles of the revolution, and the institutions of the new government, and he knew of their profound importance to the world.  To him, the revolution was real, necessary, and genuine.  To Jefferson, and to many Americans of the time, it was abstract and romantic.  Adams seemed to know that there would be something lost if the realness of the American principles was not appreciated.

In a later scene, the mini-series shows an old, ornery Adams surveying John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Adams tells Trumbull:

Do not let our posterity be diluted with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical licenses…It is a very common observation in Europe that nothing is so false as modern history.  Well I would hasten to add that nothing is so false as modern European history, except modern American history.  In plain English, I consider the true history of the American Revolution to be lost…forever.

Beltway Nationalism

“Lobbyists need something to buy, and legislators need something to sell.” Milton Friedman

Lobbyists have clients who pay them to purchase advantage from legislators who are writing laws that affect them.  Legislators have lobbyists who pay them – in campaign contributions – to create laws that favor specific individuals and businesses that are represented by lobbyists.  Utilizing taxpayer money, both legislators and lobbyists prosper.  And so, Beltway D.C. neighborhoods have become the wealthiest in our nation, and the average Beltway income is directly correlated with the continually increasing number of pages in the federal tax code.   The business value of H.R. Block, the company people pay to figure out their taxes, also correlates with the continually increasing number of pages in the federal tax code.

The Beltway must create, but also hide, the myriad favors and exceptions to special interests that are placed into our federal laws.  And it does.  Congress has become not unlike the Catholic church before the reformation, it sells indulgences –  special exemptions –  from its taxes and laws.  And our politics is transformed. Freedom becomes not freedom from government, but support from government. Opposing taxation becomes suspect.  Special groups are selectively excluded from taxation, while of course still able to vote – we have growing “representation without taxation”.

To satisfy this ‘market’, Congress must continually expand its role.  More and more social issues and inequalities must be conjured and legislated.  And they are.   In this way the nation’s original federalism gives way to a nationalism, a Beltway nationalism. The original Federalists advocated for a national bank, a national currency, a strong chief executive in time of war, and regulation of interstate commerce, but not much more.  They believed in the sovereign power of the states over their local affairs.  The original antifederalists, confusingly named Republicans originally, (and later called Democrats), believed the federalists wanted too much power. They sought to limit federal power, and not just to protect slavery – many of them were against slavery – but their knowledge of european history made them wary of government power.

Today, beltway nationalists, who mostly call themselves Democrats, seek more than a strong central power for defense and commerce, they seek national power in local affairs, too.  They have grown from the Progressive movement, the New Deal, and the Great Society.  Confusingly, today’s federalists – neofederalists? – who mostly call themselves Republicans, are more like the original anti-federalists. They seek to limit national power in local affairs and the economy.  The nationalists have been the most successful.  They have essentially nationalized transportation, public education, food production, medical care, and college education, with the recent nationalization of all college loans.

The Federal Register, the compendium of all federal, bureaucratic rules and regulations, is 20,000 pages long. . . . weekly, and it keeps getting longer.

Old World government, centralized bureaucratic government, has come to the United States.

History of Christianity

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek,  and author of American Lion, Andrew Jackson in the White House, reviews Christianity, the First Three Thousand Years, by Diamond MacCulloch, in the New York Times Book Review, April 4, 2010.

Meacham tells us he is officially sympathetic to christianity.  ” I am an episcopalian who takes the faith of my fathers seriously“,  but then, with qualification: “if unemotionally“.   He notes, too, that MacCulloch is also sympathetic to christianity, but also with qualification:   “I would now describe myself as a candid friend of christianity. I still appreciate the seriousness which a religious mentality brings to the mystery and misery of human experience and I appreciate the solemnity of religious liturgy as a way of confronting these problems” . . yet, “I live with the puzzle of wondering how something so crazy can be so captivating to millions of other members of my species.”

So, Religion is OK, but only unemotionally, and don’t forget it is crazy.

Meacham seems to accept that religious faith is necessarily dogmatic, rigid, opposed to critical thinking, and intolerant.  He doesn’t seem to know that what makes religious faith, faith, is that it is a decision held knowingly in the face of known doubt and uncertainty.  And contrary to his concerns, the history of christianity is full of debate and philosophy and disagreement.

Meacham seems also to equate having religious faith with being ‘literalist’ –  taking the words of the Bible as only factual, without metaphor.  In this thinking, one is all or none – the Bible is all factual truth or all metaphor.   Yet he very likely would not deny that the Bible is great literature, written over thousands of years by numerous authors mostly unknown to each other, truly an authentic compilation of human literary effort.  And he would without doubt affirm that there is great truth in literature.  Not one element of profound literary theme or structure is missing from the Bible.

To the religious, the question of the literal truth of the Bible is not a meaningful, or even valid question.  It seems intended to diminish the sophistication of faith, and deserves no answer.  Is not all knowing, all conceptualization, ultimately metaphorical?  Is not story a powerful way to communicate profound truth?

Meacham approves of MacCulloch’s accusation that the Apostle Paul justified slavery.  But this is a weak point.  Paul wisely advised the very fragile early church to avoid radical opposition to the “existing social distinctions.”  This included slavery, which was, in those times, the ubiquitous norm of all civilizations. Meacham seems unaware of the powerlessness of the early christians, despite having read this history.  Their swift demise would have quickly followed any political stance against Roman power.  This, after all, is precisely what happened to Jesus.  A surviving movement was better than no movement at all.

Meacham also notes, approvingly, another MacCulloch opinion:  “For most of its existence, christianity has been the most intolerant of world faiths, doing its best to eliminate all competition, with Judaism a qualified exception”. Huh?  Christianity has had its corruptions, and has been an instrument of political power, but what religion has built more hospitals, schools, and universities?  What religion has most fostered the independence of learning and the pluralistic societies of our day?

New Deal, Political Deal

Many consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be our third greatest president.  In books such as The New Dealers’s War,  by Thomas Fleming, 2001, and  The Forgotten man, by Amity Shlaes, 2007, FDR receives re-evaluation.

Not all went as well with FDR as has been taught.  Unemployment was still 20% in 1939.  There was a severe recession in 1937, Europe had recovered much faster. Eight years into his presidency, we were not prepared for war, a war easily foreseeable, and building the military would have greatly aided the economic recovery. Churchill was left to oppose Hitler largely alone for a year, and eventually the US had to side with and arm Stalin to beat Hitler.  We were unable to influence the immense slaughter in Poland and Ukraine by Germans and Russians alike. FDR placed Japanese American citizens in detention camps, he prevented Jews from emigrating from Europe.  Ships with fleeing Jews were actually sent back into the clutches of Hitler.

FDR shelved Einstein’s famous warning about the possibility of an atom bomb, and the English had to urge on the Manhattan Project.  FDR did not move to support anti-lynching legislation, or oppose the segregationist southern democrats.  His National Recovery Board supported monopoly price fixing and collusion in markets, favoring big business, placing small businesses at great disadvantage. This was eventually ruled unconstitutional, unanimously, which led FDR to try to ‘pack’ the Supreme Court.  He taxed the ‘little guy’ with excise taxes, and raised taxes overall, and enormously increased government regulation.  The NRA in 2 years created more federal law that all the previous years of the nation since 1789.

The Great Depression turned out to be the one exception of the US ‘boom and busts’ that didn’t quickly resolve, the only one in which government didn’t act to increase the incentives of investment and the small business economy.  The hampered economic recovery served to justify increasing federal power.  And increasing federal power is what he did. He targeted political enemies with IRS investigations, and muscled the elections of congressional leaders.  Far from having a ‘first class temperment’, he manipulated,  frustrated, and infuriated his appointees, and staff.  Many abandoned him.  He was the first to break George Washington’s honor code of serving only two consecutive terms.

But he was a political success.  The New Deal was a political deal.  FDR personally directed New Deal funds for political gain, lavishing his supporters with government funds, denying those that opposed him.   He was a charming public speaker, he cultivated and pressured the press to support him and to gloss over his contradictions.  He spoke a strong populist theme, but he bought elections with New Deal money. In his great electoral victory of 1936, federal spending outpaced all local and state spending for the first time.  He didn’t hesitate to say opposing things to opposing audiences.

FDR died in office, galvanizing his image of victorious service to the nation, but he brought Tamany Hall to Washington, D. C.

Lincoln Economics

In October, 1959, Abraham Lincoln made his way to Milwaukee, on horse back, and gave a remarkable speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society.  He went there to respond to charges that northern wage earners were no better off than southern slaves.  This was a time when American industrialization was just beginning, when the entire economy was based on small farms.  People with land had pretty much what they needed to take care of themselves, but this was beginning to change.  Available land was running out.

Something about the southern charges bothered Lincoln.  He may have sensed, as perhaps only he could, that something terrible like the Civil War was coming, and the southern charges would need full rebuttal. He likely had read the Communist Manifesto, with its thesis of wage earner slavery, it was published in English in 1850.  An industrial worker society was already underway in England.  He had been a farmer himself.  Was he answering Karl Marx?

He spoke with great prescience.  He foresaw the application of scientific knowledge to the problems of farming, and the coming of something like the tractor.  He sensed how this would liberate farming from its drudgery and low return and greatly boost its production.  But would this be progress?  Would farm laborers be victims of their own success?  Would they be more and more trapped by the low prices induced by their increased production?

Lincoln rejected what he called the ‘mud sill theory’:

By some it is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital – that nobody labors, unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow, by the use of that capital, induces him to do it. Having assumed this, they proceed to consider whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent.   Having proceeded so far, they naturally conclude that all laborers are necessarily either hired laborers or slaves.  They further assume that whoever is once a hired laborer, is fatally fixed in that condition for life: and thence, again, that his condition is as bad as, or worse than, that of a slave.   This is the mud-sill theory”.

Labor creates capital, he reasoned, and in America laborers can own their capital, they can be both laborers and owners.  In this way, they can avoid serfdom.   In addition to the return from their labor, they can also receive return from their capital, thus avoiding the low wage effects of increased productivity, and maintaining independence from the power of capital.

Property is the fruit of labor – property is desirable – it is a positive good in the world.  That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise.  Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another;  but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”     March 21, 1864    Reply to New York Workingman’s Association