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.

Profiles in Heroism: Ayrton Senna

Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian F1 driver, three time world champion and former go-kart racer who died in a crash during a race at the San Marino GP (May 1st, 1994). Tragically, he was the second driver to die at the track that weekend, the first being Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying earlier in the weekend.

Senna was a devoutly religious individual who attributed much of his success to the influence and providence of god. This may have been an irrational flaw of his, but it seemed balanced by his rational characteristics– humility, honesty, discipline, perseverance and determination to continually improve himself both as a driver and as an individual.

Senna was fiercely competitive and hated the politics of the F1 world, which put many drivers like him at risk all in the name of making the sport more entertaining and sensational. His original relationship with teammate and former world champion French driver Alain Proust quickly turned from a seasoned pro mentoring the young upstart rookie into a battle for survival and supremacy that ultimately resulted in a nasty and dishonest move by Proust in an attempt to deny Senna a chance at the championship title. Secure in his points leadership so long as Senna did not finish the race, Proust forced a collision that disabled his car and nearly eliminated Senna from the race several laps before the finish, pushing both cars off a chicane and into a safety tire barricade.

Undeterred, Senna restarted his vehicle from a standstill, navigated around the tire barrier and back onto the track and ultimately won the race. Still, he was denied the championship by inside F1 politics revolving around technical interpretations of the governing regulations whose interpretation had no prior precedent.

Senna got his revenge the following season when the roles were reversed. Secure in the points lead himself so long as Proust did not finish, and having won pole position in qualifying but having been relegated to the outside of the track at the start of the race because of insider politics, Senna took matters into his own hands by forcing a collision between he and team mate Alain Proust moments after the start. Proust was finished and Senna claimed his title at the end of the day, though he would’ve preferred to win in an honest fashion.

A proud Brazilian, Senna finally won the Brazilian GP in 1993 despite a failed gearbox which locked his car into 6th gear for the final few laps of the race. Luckily, his lead was so great that even with the inability to utilize any other gears, Senna was able to achieve victory. He was so excited upon finishing that he first passed out, then suffered debilitating shoulder weakness that caused him to be almost unable to raise the trophy above his head in the winner’s circle. The lesson to be learned? Never take the lead for granted, push for every marginal advantage you can find because you never know when you’ll be incapacitated and have to rely on coasting to the finish for victory.

Senna was not perfect. He attributed part of his success to a faith in a make believe entity in the sky. He was not above playing dirty if that was what it took to get revenge against those who had done the same to him.

But he was still a hero. He followed his passion in life– to be a championship racer. He refused to give up. He spoke his mind about the realities of F1 politics and the dangers of his profession and was not afraid to defend his understanding of justice. He was committed to personal excellence because he realized that even if his career would be short, his life might be long, and self-improvement was a journey he could carry on with for his entire life no matter his circumstances.