April 30, 2020

Breaking down the problem

Liberty and plague

Mr. Neff is senior editor of The Last Ditch.

IN HER LECTURE COURSE "Principles of Efficient Thinking," Barbara Branden recommends that when one is beginning to solve a problem he should break the problem into its constituent parts, and work on each of them separately.

This is not just good advice for problem-solving; it is a reflection of the nature of reality, for reality is composed of individual things, not the general terms that we use for speaking and thinking of them as an abstract unit. We do not sit on "the chair." We sit on a particular chair, and however many of them we sit on in our lives, we sit on particular chairs.

We do not even purchase chairs. We purchase this chair and that one and the other one. We do not purchase food. We purchase this can of fruit cocktail, this gallon of milk, this jar of peanut butter, this package of rice, this quantity of hamburger.

There is nothing wrong with thinking of chairs or food. It is both pleasant and necessary, and forming concepts of them (and everything else) enables us to build on our knowledge and experience and to form ever wider concepts, giving us greater insights and knowledge, eventually even of abstractions we can never handle as individual things (e.g., galaxies, justice), or accurately picture (e.g., black holes, antimuons, acceleration). What is important is that we know or at least remember what we are talking about when we do that.

The issue has been captured in Charles Schulz's reworking of Dostoevsky: "I love mankind. It's people I can't stand." We chuckle, and it is bad form to analyze cartoons. Even so, if we allow ourselves bad form for a moment, we quickly see that it is simply not possible; it makes no sense to love mankind and to be unable to stand people. One might just as well say that he loves opera, but cannot name a single opera he enjoys. We can narrow it down. What sense would it make to say, "I love Bach's music; I just don't like anything he wrote"? Or "I love Fragonard's art, but I just don't like looking at any of his paintings"? "I love Pushkin's writing, but I don't like any of his stories or poems"?

When a person attempts to deal with an abstraction in a way that requires action in the real world, the only world we have, the world of men, time, and events, we see he is trying to deal not with individuals, but with collectives. Thus, the man who wants to solve the problem of "the homeless." He readily sees that he cannot solve that problem or any like it. So he turns to another abstraction, to another collective: society or the state. It makes sense for him to do so. If a problem is stated as a collective one, it makes sense for some kind of collective to be the engine of solving it. Collectivist questions demand collectivist answers, which means that the state must "do something."

We already know that these collectivist solutions never seem to work, that when the state "does something," what it does is never quite right, and there have been many reasons adduced to explain that. To them, I add one more: since the collective problem has no real existence, the collective entity has no way of getting ahold of the problem. The collective entity, the state, has no way of gathering together all the general and intimate knowledge that is necessary for solving the problems it has defined. So it must attempt a solution without having that information, by instead concocting a "policy." It is its attempt to love mankind without learning to stand the people.

Set against this mode of action is that of the market. The market does not solve collective problems. It does not solve the problem, say, of "feeding Paris." It feeds Parisians. Or rather, not "it," but "they." And who are they? They are the farmers who grow, this one that crop, that one another, a third both crops and something else. They are the packers and the loaders who prepare the harvested crops for being transported, and the teamsters and truckers who do the actual transporting. They are the grocers and food-stand workers and restaurateurs who sell it or cook it and serve it. They are the advertisers and sign painters who tell the rest of us where we can find it. Not one of them is going about solving the big problem, How does Paris get fed? For each of them, the problem has been broken down to its component parts, and each of them sets himself to solving one or at most a few of them. No one has to, no one can, solve all those parts because individual persons have all solved small parts that add up to a healthy, well-fed Paris.

The market solves real-world problems using essentially the same epistemological method that must be used to solve intellectual problems: it breaks them down into their components.

If one were to set about to solve the problem himself, by himself or with others, he would have to somehow impart his solution to all those individual persons, and then get them to do it. It is impossible for him to speak to each and get each of them to accede to his visions. And therefore, he must employ some device other than persuasion or motivation, and no device for the purpose of getting masses of reluctant people to do what you want them to do has been found that is better than compulsion.

And compulsion means, making people do what they themselves will not do of their own accord. It normally involves giving them disincentives for disobedience. It normally involves the pain of preventing them from doing what they want to do and making them do what you want them to do. It normally requires that they give up their plans to help you fulfill yours.

It all hangs together: It is not the instrument of love. It is the instrument of hatred, of not being able to stand those other plans, of not being able to stand the plans of other people, of not being able to stand the other people.

Yaron Brook, an Objectivist lecturer, remarked in a discussion of the possible aftermath of the coronavirus "crisis" that we will be told that emergencies — he uses the coronavirus and climate change as examples — cannot be solved by markets, cannot be solved by individuals, can be solved only by the state. We need the government, we will be told, to intervene in markets and individual actions because the problems are too big for markets and individual actions.

But it is a mistake to expect markets to address "big" problems. Markets and individual actions are not designed to address "big" problems; they are not meant to address them. They address the components of "big" problems. Consider "health care." Instead of a governor screaming that "we" need umpty-ump thousand ventilators, each hospital, each clinic will look at its market base and the expected demand on its services and make an assessment of how many ventilators it needs. And then make an assessment of how many it can afford: what will they have to forgo to purchase them? will they have to put off hiring more nurses? put off buying new stethoscopes or wheelchairs or beds? The collective approach never has to consider these trade-offs — and couldn't if it tried — because trade-offs are necessary only in the world of particulars, the world of scarcity, not in the world of collective abstracts. What trade-off can there be for health care?

Collectivists cry out for improved health care. But markets do not provide "health care." People do not need "health care." People need particular goods or services. And markets provide particular goods and services, here a surgery, there a ventilator, and over there shots and vaccinations. Each person performs his own tasks and in so doing serves as many as he wishes or can. No optometrist needs to worry that he cannot set a fractured bone or perform a kidney transplant. No surgeon needs to worry that he cannot assess a patient's hearing. No oncologist needs to fret that he is unable to treat a diabetic ulcer. No emergency-care nurse needs to worry about stocking the cafeteria. No one provides "health care."

Collectivists say that the system I am describing cannot work because they have lost the capacity for imagining it. They can't understand the athlete who says, "We're not thinking about how we're going to finish the season. We're just focused on the game tomorrow and how we're going to win it." The collectivist thinks the athlete is being short-sighted, not thinking of the big picture. But the athlete knows that the way you complete a big picture is to paint one stroke at a time, to complete each particular pass, to start each particular jump correctly, to time each jump to clear each particular hurdle, to run to catch each pass or hit. You win the season by winning games. You do not win games by winning the season.

One reason the collectivist has difficulty with the idea of freedom and the free market is that he is under the influence of positivism, or of pragmatism, or of Marcusianism. In all of these philosophies the individual is not quite as real as the abstract, and the more time one has spent in a university, the more influential one or the other of these philosophies will be in his thinking. And it is not just "eggheads" who are so influenced. Ideas filter into a society over many years, through the transmission of many media, and today most people have embraced one or another of those philosophies to some degree, especially when they think about political issues.

Can the market, the free market, which is to say free men, solve a problem like climate change, assuming that there is a problem? Not really. And free men don't have to. Each one appraises his situation and takes the actions best suited to his means, his goals, his abilities, his interests, and his context. "But what about people who don't see a problem? What about people who lack the means to take action?"

Of course, what the collectivist means is, "What about people who don't agree with me and who don't do what I think they should do?" Well ... what about them? People who make bad decisions, suffer losses. If economics teaches us nothing else it is this: market-based thinking and action is the best way anyone has ever found for large groups of people to solve problems. It is market-based thinking and action that makes them prosperous, which means, supplies them with the wherewithal to meet difficult situations, that creates a setting in which innovators find ways of doing things that no one had thought of before, that gives people choices for how to address the challenges they themselves face in their particular, unrepeatable circumstances. They themselves — not a faceless decision-maker who must somehow calculate what is best for thousands upon thousands, if not millions, of people he doesn't know, and will never know.

And doesn't really want to know.

But the problems of climate change are far away, and many people today will never actually be affected by the troubles it brings. What about plague? Are you really going to let each and every person make his own decisions about what to do, or even let some of them decide they don't have to do anything when a plague is raging?

My immediate answer is that I'd rather do that than to let someone else, who has no more knowledge than I and who has to rely on his own speculations, make the decisions for me. Or even for you. Someone whose primary advantage over you and me is not that he is smarter or is more experienced, but that he has more power.

A more thoughtful answer is that in a plague, nothing has changed. Free people are free to avoid people who make no effort to protect themselves. Free people are free to assess risks and to act on them. Free people are free to access information sources, and rely on those they trust, and discount those they don't. To quote Roy Childs from his debate with Jeffrey St. John, "Government does not consist of men who have powers of epistemological elitism; that is, they have no means of knowledge not available to other men."

But won't some people die because of others' carelessness, because of others' negligence, because of others' ignorance? Because others won't listen to good advice? Are you just going to let innocent people die?

Innocent people are always dying. In car accidents, by not getting physical or dental check-ups, in fires they didn't start, in weather for which they made no sufficient allowance. We cannot prevent innocent people from dying or getting sick or becoming cripples or falling to any of the other conditions mortal flesh is heir to. We can be sure that in a free-market economy, where people are free to be prosperous and innovative, there will be more and better medical facilities for everyone, and very likely at lower prices. And very likely more accurate sources of information. But even if none of that were the case, what we can do for the innocent is to let them be free for as long as they are alive. Why make innocent people slaves to collectivist health care merely on the bare chance that at some indeterminate time they will catch a virus some other person is carrying?

In any case, innocent people are as capable as others of looking out for themselves and taking action to prolong their lives. In a free economy, where people are free to be prosperous and innovative, we can expect there to be more opportunities and more selection for taking actions of self-preservation, better medical facilities, and very likely lower prices. And if there are those who cannot take advantage of them ... to borrow another thought from Barbara Branden, anyone who wishes to help them will be free to. Without a license, without a permit, without having to get the approval of anyone except the person being helped.

Perhaps in a free society, it will be possible to treat most communicable infection as a kind of tort, but I doubt it. Any political philosophy that is unable to function in the face of ordinary biology very clearly has shaky foundations.

It may be that market solutions to problems of plague or climate change require that people be more reasonable, that they be less susceptible to scare tactics, that they not act on range-of-the moment gains or impulses, that they more often act after doing some cost/benefit thinking. In other words, it may be that market solutions for the constituent parts of big problems can work only if people are morally better than they are now, and have a greater respect for their own mind, for their own capacity to think, for their own life, all of which are derogated in a collectivist society. I am willing to say that that may be. But we know that collective-based solutions do not work, whether a population is smart or stupid, alert or half-asleep. And if people need to be morally better than they are now in order to be free, it is high time that they get to work on it. They can start by ditching philosophies that tell them that knowledge is impossible, that their lives are unimportant, and that "the good of the many outweighs the good of the few or the one." And the sooner, the better.

So take your choice: a solution that can work well only if people change for the better, or one that we know won't under any circumstances. Ω

April 30, 2020

© 2020 Ronald N. Neff
Published in 2020 by WTM Enterprises.

Notice to visitors who came straight to this document from off site: You are deep in The Last Ditch. Please check out our home page and table of contents.