August 23, 2017

A parable

Arithmetic and the end of the state

Mr. Neff is senior editor of The Last Ditch.


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Let me assure the reader at the outset that this essay will not be full of equations or Euclidean proofs. Rather it is a parable, and I find arithmetic a useful hook for this particular parable.

So put aside your fears of the irrationality of the square root of 2, of the quadratic formula, of fractals, and of Fibonacci numbers (though I suspect that someone with a sharper imagination than mine could use the last of these in coming up with a strategy for dealing with the state).

I have made no secret of my political views: I am a free-market anarchist and I have nothing better to say of the state than that certain of its functionaries have sometimes engaged in useful activities, such as providing a living for artists, rather than killing people. Allow me a digression.

A friend of mine once made an interesting observation concerning Ludwig II of Bavaria, "Mad Ludwig," as he is sometimes called. He pretty much bankrupted his kingdom by spending untold fortunes on luxurious, fairy-tale-like castles. And by funding Richard Wagner, saving him from utter financial ruin. While other monarchs were out there making their kingdoms "great" by waging war on one another, Ludwig was indulging dreams and fantasies. His love for illusion, his piety, and his ideals were not, as Wikipedia puts it, "compatible with his duties as a head of state." He was declared insane and (illegally) deposed. His captors interned him in Berg Palace, and the next day he and the psychiatrist who had certified him insane were found mysteriously dead. Other monarchs enjoy a reputation for greatness and even have highfalutin sobriquets attached to their names because they got lots of their own subjects killed. The best poor Ludwig ever gets is "the swan King."

But today millions of tourists visit his castles and spend piles of money in Bavaria. His madness has provided a continuous flow of revenue to the state from people who freely give it. In other words, where the greatness of other monarchs has left most of their countrymen little more than monuments, widows, and graves, Ludwig's madness has left behind operatic and other artistic treasures that continue to enrich visitors and lovers of the arts to this day, to say nothing of wealth for the state he bankrupted. So much for madness.

And so much for my digression on the usefulness of states. Apparently it takes a madman to make them anything of the sort.

When we studied arithmetic in childhood, we were the beneficiaries of the labors of men long dead when Julius Caesar went to his reward. And when the idea of the zero was mastered, it added even more tools for us to perform ordinary tasks. We learned techniques such as the multiplication tables that helped us use numbers more efficiently. Double-entry bookkeeping depends only on the arithmetic that sixth-graders know by heart (well, they used to, anyway). Even a few tricks were common knowledge: if the difference between your answer and the answer you should have gotten is divisible by 9, you've probably made a transposition mistake. And the wrong answer itself will even suggest what that mistake is. We learned the "6 percent method" for calculating interest. We also learned how to check our answers: checking a long-division problem by using multiplication or checking a subtraction problem by using addition.

Even a little bit of number theory could be easily mastered with nothing more highly developed than multiplication and beginning algebra.

The skills and tricks and techniques we learned were honed when we applied them to story problems. We learned to set up the problem and then apply our knowledge to solving it. Some of us were more skilled than others, but we all could manage the essentials and apply them usefully and successfully. I often marvel at how easy it is for some people to keep track of money at a poker table, but how hard it is for the same people to calculate a 15 percent tip on a bar tab.

Let us think now of the tyrannies that existed before the 20th century as story problems of arithmetic that end with the question, "What will it take to get rid of this monstrosity?"

Certain insightful men, and not a few geniuses, studied the "arithmetic" of the problem by reflecting on history, theology, and ethics, and came up with the idea of the limited government, with a constitution.

The arithmetic of the problem they were studying did not seem simple to them, as it may to us. They had to learn the political and historical equivalents of multiplication tables and invent the equivalent of the zero. They also had to learn a political equivalent of double-entry bookkeeping. And when they did, they arrived at the idea of limiting the state with a constitution that limited and enumerated powers, that divided power, and that incorporated subsidiarity. It covered nearly all the facets of the problem that they could see, and it seemed to check out, the way a good solution to an arithmetic problem should.

Moreover, it supplied the men who had worked on the problem with ideas and concepts, theories and proofs, even theorems laden with embryonic possibilities that made matters clear to them, that provided guidance, that gave them a hold on truth and the ability to make good decisions later on.

The story problem of the modern state, however, is much more difficult than that of the earlier tyrannies. Its methods and entanglements with society make it much more like a calculus problem. And whereas arithmetic, like plain geometry and algebra, has a long history, calculus is a discipline invented only somewhat recently. It is sometimes attributed to René Descartes, sometimes to Sir Isaac Newton, and sometimes to Gottfried Leibniz, each of whom developed some form of it independently of the others. And whereas the ordinary person will have recourse to arithmetic nearly every day, and perhaps algebra once a month, he will almost never feel the need for calculus.

But if he should face a problem that calls for calculus, and he has only the tools of arithmetic at his disposal, he will find himself repeatedly frustrated. The tools, the concepts that serve him so well most of the time will thwart him at every turn. The methods and knowledge that were so helpful to him, when he attempts to make decisions on the basis of them, will be useless. Or worse, they will give him false or even meaningless answers.

If we insert our metaphors into the political realm, then, we will see that constitutionalism will serve us well enough for most purposes if we are dealing with the arithmetical problem of the simple state that tries (so we are to believe) only to serve the common good, even though to that end it robs its citizens, pushes them around, and by means of war gets some of them killed and gets some of them to commit mortal sins.

But when we face a problem like the modern state, a state that has oozed its way into every nook and cranny of our life, trying to change our life's blood into a kind of ichor so that we no longer function as human beings, but rather think and act as the stooges of alien intelligences "vast and cool and unsympathetic" — when we face a problem like that, the arithmetic of constitutionalism will no longer be up to the job. It will keep telling us that we must get the "right people" in government, whereas in such a state there are no "right people." And such "right people" who may find their way into it will find quickly enough that their choice is simple: Continue to be right and lose their position, or cease to be people, or at least cease to think, speak, and act in a way that is identifiably human.

Another metaphor: think of a Muslim offering his daily prayers to Allah, "the merciful and mighty" who wakes up one day to find out that he has been praying to Cthulhu or to Kali. He can continue to pray as the Koran instructs him, even performing the traditional ablutions, but in the end he will see that they have not led him to any kind of heaven whatever. And cannot. They just cannot, because he has not been dealing with a merciful and mighty deity. He has been dealing with an omnipotence that hates him.

Saying his prayers, reforming his life, performing religious duties will avail him nothing, if Kali is the true god. Or Cthulhu.

Or if Satan should overthrow the triune God — I mean no blasphemy, it is merely a fiction to express my meaning — the Catholic's recitations of the Rosary will be worthless, and the Evangelical's daily Bible reading will be of no use in giving him direction for living in the Hell that the world has become.

Other metaphors are possible. The key to your home is useless for your safe deposit box, which requires two keys. Or for Ft. Knox, which requires I know not what.

Or aspirin, which is good enough for a headache, but if you have AIDS you will require a delicate balance of any number of exotic and expensive drugs.

Or a bicycle, which can get you to the corner store, but not to the bottom of the sea.

Whatever metaphor engages your mind, use it and grasp the enormousness of the problem and the enormity of the state.

We who oppose tyranny, then, must stop depending on the arithmetic, the aspirin, the bicycle of constitutionalism. We must stop standing arm in arm with the honorable men who gave us the limited state and, like Newton, start standing on their shoulders to see farther.

The 20th century showed us that the problem of the state is larger and filthier than men had ever imagined. The problem is bigger than our predecessors saw. We therefore need bigger ideas, bigger thoughts, and bigger strategies.

And it may be that my metaphor of calculus is too weak. If so, let us get to work on learning whatever we need to learn to deal with this problem. Let's admit that so far, we have been sandbox thinkers, merely reciting the multiplication tables. If it takes the equivalent of developing modularity theory in order to prove Fermat's Last Theorem, let's learn whatever we have to in order to bring it down.

The state has been in business too long already. Ω

August 23, 2017

© 2017 Ronald N. Neff
Published in 2017 by WTM Enterprises.

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