Ideas Matter: Why Everyone Should Find Time To Argue About Things

The contents of this post are adapted from e-mail correspondence with an acquaintance.

To give some context, this e-mail was prompted by a friend who made the point that our (by then) lengthy discussion on theoretical economic and political concepts was not a productive use of time and was little more than mental masturbation. In replying to this insistence (and attempting to refute more of what I saw as fallacious arguments), I tried to plead the case for caring about stuff like economic or political theory, esoteric or otherwise.

I wanted to make the case that these ideas had real, practical validity in our everyday lives, not just in the narrow halls of academia or someplace equally arbitrary and detached from the real world of everyday issues:

On the contrary, I believe these discussions can always be a constructive use of time if they lead one or both parties closer to an understanding of the truth on a given issue. I don’t know if Mises was the first to say it, and certainly he wasn’t the only one because Ayn Rand articulated a similar philosophy, but he had a slogan, “Ideas move society.” Over time, the structure of production and the political system overarching any society will come to be informed by the prevalent ideas held by its individual members.

In a grand and very real sense, every erroneous idea we hold takes us a little bit further from a harmonious, progressing, civilized society, while every truthful idea we hold takes us a little bit closer. This is not a matter of elegant armchair theory but of cold, hard, factual reality and it is all a consequence of Mises’s famous dictim, “Man acts.”

Every man acts, this is an inescapable fact of life. But what every man acts upon, well, that is informed by the ideas he holds and the values he determines to be worth pursuing.

We live in a time of gross ignorance of many simple truths, among the bitterest of which happen to be economic laws of cause and effect. Unfortunately, we also live with the consequences of this ignorance. It is not our duty in a universal, cosmic sense, but it is our obligation in a means-end sense, that if we wish to push back this tide of ignorance and live our lives on the dry-land of reason, we must fight it with sea walls of truth, not attempt to gather it up in fishermen’s nets of half-truth, pseudo-reason and arbitrary preference. Only consistent, logically-sound ideas can replace the fallacious if hope of progress is to be made, else you simply replace one flawed system with another.

I take a personal interest in the ideas of people who fascinate me because I think it is a natural implication to be curious about the beliefs and reasons of those I respect, and because in my own quest for truth and understanding I try to be ever vigilant that I may not have all the facts and perhaps someone can respectfully cross me on something I thought was true and show me why it is not. I am not content to simply say “My mind is made up” and carry on merrily when someone claims the truth is not my own.

This is why I have made an honest and sincere attempt to engage you on this subject and others in the past. I feel if you are to be my acquaintance and in some ways my friend, and if I am to respect your judgment in things, I must test you on these matters for the good of us both.

We all act, all day, every day. The actions we choose are based upon our values and our values are informed by our understanding of truth. Our understanding of truth, by shaping our values which inform which actions we take and when, has a direct, tangible bearing on the practical manner in which we live our lives.

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Observations On Expectations

A story of expectations met and unmet, in two parts.

Part the first. I spoke in front of a group of students at a local continuation high school this morning. The original topic was my career (what do I do? what do I like/dislike about it? etc.) and my career path (what’s my background? education? how’d I get to where I am?) but I never quite got there. I mostly ended up talking about economics as I was speaking to an economics class, nominally, and the program coordinator kept prompting me on that subject.

I introduced two economic concepts to the assembled: TNSTAAFL/opportunity cost, and subjective value theory. I tried to apply them to “real life” to make them tangible and interesting to the audience. I talked about how everyone got suckered into the Housing Bubble, which cost a lot of people their homes, their personal finances, their jobs and sometimes more. I suggested that a person who understood that TNSTAAFL wouldn’t have gotten suckered in because he would’ve recognized the bubble for what it was and played it safe as he could. Subjective value theory I used to explain why we have an economy and why people work jobs, to serve each other’s subjective needs. I encouraged the class to think about their own values and to pursue them, and recognize that when people tell them what to do they’re simply telling them they should follow subjective values other than their own. I tried to highlight the role opportunity cost plays in pursuing subjective values, for example, people often get into traps such as pursuing money to provide for their families in such a way that they don’t get to spend time with their families. This opportunity cost is forgotten or ignored.

I also covered time value of money and the function of credit during a brief tangent, prompted by the program coordinator emphasizing the importance of personal finance principles.

The instructor goaded the students into applauding me before I had even spoke, as some kind of polite welcome for someone who had taken the time to stand before them and pontificate on a subject they cared little about. I said, “We’ll see if you still feel like applauding me at the end” and then began my talk. At the end of it, as the students rose to leave at the sound of the Pavlovian bell, one of the young men closest to me in the front of the room turned to his classmate and said in a quite intentionally audible way, “Thank GOD that is over!”

The morning’s events completely met my expectations and as a result, I was satisfied with myself when I myself left. I had entered a prison, whose inmates were being held against their will, by force of law, who had been assembled before me because they had no other choice save punishment and who had little to no interest in the subjects I had been invited to speak about before them. You certainly can’t blame a person in such circumstances for being disengaged, melodramatic and at times downright hostile.

If you put me in a cage I’d be uncomfortable and not in a friendly mood, either.

I didn’t expect to touch anyone, change a life or spark a fire or interest in anyone for the subjects I spoke about (economics, careers, my career, me) and if I happened to do that despite my intentions, that’s fine. I expected to go in there, treat the poor beasts with respect and maybe a bit of sympathy, having once been caged in a similar manner myself, and deliver my thoughts as articulately and coherently as I could. I expected to get practice speaking before an audience and trying, not necessarily succeeding, at making a foreign subject engaging or relatable for them.

In this, I met my expectations and so I believe I succeeded and thus I felt satisfied.

Part the second. For some time now I have watched in despair as a previously favorite blog of mine has gone into seemingly terminal decline. What was once a source of original thinking, unique coverage and respectable ideological consistency has in time become a haven for hacks and simpletons, its content hollowed-out and refocused on a few topics I just don’t have much interest in. The purveyor of the site has taken numerous opportunities, on his blog and his new webcast radio show, to demonstrate qualities of his personality I’ve found surprising, disappointing and at times reprehensible.

My distress with this reached a fever pitch early this week when a long-awaited debate on the subject of “intellectual property” was joined by the purveyor and another popular blogger on the subject. While the purveyor’s behavior leading up to the discussion gave me no reason to believe it’d be an intelligent, objective attempt at sussing out the truth by the two parties, but rather much evidence that it would be a battle of wills and ego characterized by willful blindness of reason and savage emotional assaults on each respective victim, the final product was so shockingly extreme in terms of all the undesirable qualities I suspected it would contain that I almost couldn’t believe these two adults had allowed themselves to be recorded, their outrage to be shared in front of a public audience of strangers.

I found myself so disappointed with the whole thing. It was anti-intellectual and truly uncivilized, the kind of stuff blood feuds at made of (gusto about sacred honor and the like that can never be satiated by way of reasonable argument). I knew both men were capable of a bit of underhandedness, but at least in the past the underhandedness seemed to have some kind of productive point. This time, after I finished sitting through two and a half hours of two middle-aged men calling each other names and screaming at one another, waiting for a point, I realized too late that there was none beyond sharing pure hate and distrust.

Who was to blame for my dissatisfaction in this instance? Initially, I found myself disgusted with these two people for subjecting me to this idiocy. “How dare they!” Then I thought about it some more. They are who they are. Their current skills and capabilities with regards to interpersonal communication and intellectual reasoning are aspects of their identity that exist as they do, whether I find them appealing or satisfying or not. I expected them to work hard to please me in their debating efforts (despite, I should add, much evidence that they were capable of no such thing) and when they didn’t live up to my expectations, I was disappointed.

Not by them, but by myself. For expecting people to live to serve my intellectual and emotional needs.

In the first part, I participated in something that could easily be seen as a disastrous waste of everybody’s time. Yet, I walked away from it in a positive state of mind. In the second part, I witnessed a true social tragedy and felt depressed and upset. Both circumstances were undesirable, but my reaction was different each time because my expectations were different.

Expectations can glorify our existence or cast the light of our lives down a dark abyss. I hope to remind myself of this fact more often.