Scarcity as Tutor

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

At TCS Daily is a column by Jerry Bowyer that is worth a read. He writes on a subject I have considered off and on for some time: how life experience (or lack thereof) can aid or hinder the development of one's moral character.

Charles Koch built the largest private corporation in the world, and then wrote a book about it. His publicist mailed it to me this week. It's a great read. It just so happens that at the same moment I was reading about how Koch and J. Howard Marshall banded together to take control of Great Northern Oil Company, a newsflash appeared in my in-box announcing that Marshall's widow is now known to have died of a drug overdose. The book in my lap contained the story of how J. Howard Marshall's great fortune was created in life. The PDA in my hand told the story of how that great fortune destroyed a life. Then I realized something: Anna-Nicolle Smith died of a sudden and massive injection of unearned wealth. [bold added]
I cannot read Bowyer's mind, but I suspect that he over-simplifies to make a point here. Be that as it may, human beings have free will. Neither dead, wealthy woman was determined by the mere possession of great riches to take her own life or otherwise to behave foolishly while still alive.

Nevertheless, Bowyer has a point, although with the profusion of seductive "virtuous cycle" arguments floating around out there, it is in risk of being lost. The mere possession of wealth cannot make or break anyone. One's trajectory in life will be guided by his philosophical ideas, be they implicit or explicit.

Our culture presents everyone with an overwhelming mixture of numerous choices and good and bad ideas. To the extent that one must act in order to achieve any measure of wealth however small will require that person to accept at least implicitly many of the better philosophical influences floating around in our culture. And to the extent that someone has met challenges in life and succeeded, he will see the pleasure of being in control of his life and will be happy. He will probably not feel a strong need to escape temporarily (or permanently) through drugs.

The severing of having to act from staying alive observed in two wealthy women by Bowyer is also a big part of why our government-dependent underclass -- despite its poverty -- sees more than its share of deaths related to drug overdoses. These unfortunates often start out around the worst cultural influences, end up with much less than the normal amount of experience in exercising virtue to overcome adversity, and are consequently less happy. They are not determined to end up this way, and many can and do become successful adults, but the lack of experience can make it harder for them.

This is a valuable point, which could only be improved upon by a more explicit linking of morality to philosophy and of both to the requirements of life on this earth. But do credit the man with pointing out that wealth creation requires virtues!
The thing about wealth creation is that it requires certain virtues, like patience, thrift and diligence. Jefferson taught us about this. It's why he wanted a nation of owners. There are certain tests an entrepreneur has to pass in order to go from mild affluence to millionaire status.
Our society seems too often obsessed with the trappings of wealth and not with how to create it, as evidenced by its enthusiasm for various schemes of wealth redistribution. We would do well to have a few more people in the know pointing out that wealth doesn't grow on trees.

Better still would be for the basis of our nation's success, the better elements of its implicit philosophy, to be explicitly identified and made much more commonly known. Then its beneficial influence would be available on a less haphazard and incomplete basis than through mere cultural osmosis, which as we have seen with the British, can be of very limited value. "Virtuous cycles" cannot last indefinitely without the guidance of explicit philosophical ideas that correspond to the requirements for man's life.

-- CAV


coreyo said...

Koch is a very interesting company to follow. At the University of Kansas (only a couple hours from Koch's world HQ), we have them constantly recruiting us on campus.

Koch has a very different culture than most corporations. They are very indvidual project oriented.
Continuing with your ownership theme, Koch views its company like a nation. Everyone has its own property in a way. They all lead their own seperate individual projects. It is very much a culture that is entreprenuerial and individual based.

Too bad Koch is lead by a big L Libertarian.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the tip. I might just take a look through their web page some time. (Their recruiting page does a good job of playing up Kansas, too.)

As for Charles Koch's political philosophy, I don't think you mean this, but if you do, you should not base whether you work for him or not entirely upon that fact. Having said that, it is not surprising that Koch is a Libertarian. Most people do not fully integrate their political beliefs into their philosophy or make explicit connections between the two, and since the positions espoused by Libertarianism sound good, such people will espouse it, unaware of the problems caused by its incorrect approach to philosophical ideas.

Galileo Blogs said...

GVH post 1/19/07, referenced above: “I haven't seen discussed much at all is the fact that in some respects, a high-technology society can actually make it easier for some people to be irrational -- by shielding them from the consequences of their false beliefs.” I agree. Much of the story line of Atlas Shrugged hinged on that, showing the looters at their posh skyscraper parties, spilling their cocktails all over themselves, while blithely mouthing anti-capitalist platitudes and discussing new laws to throttle the productive. I also thought that this concept is what Ayn Rand meant when she said, “The goods are here.” She used that phrase to capture the concrete-bound, looter mentality.

The flip-side to this point is that it is easier to see the value of rationality in a capitalist society. No doubt that is true and it is the essence of the “virtuous cycle” argument you reference. However, I think it is easiest for people to get away with being non-ideological in a wealthy, capitalist society. In a certain sense, “The goods are here.” The majority of people can go about their lives benefiting from capitalism without understanding the slightest bit about what ideas and actions it takes to keep and preserve capitalism.

As a result, despite the momentum from a virtuous cycle, to the extent it might exist, it is the ideas of those who do value ideas (good or bad ones) that will set the policies of a government and the values of a culture. At its core, the virtuous cycle argument strikes me as a materialist argument. The materialist says that one’s physical condition (socioeconomic class) determines one’s ideas. If everyone is confronted with the bounty of capitalism, he will embrace capitalism. Isn’t that the same type of materialist argument that Marx uses?

Interestingly, that materialist argument has been put to the test in New York. Abundant funds have been thrown at the “poor”. First they were given public housing projects, then nicer public housing projects, then public housing with free parking (in a city where it costs $400/month to park your car in a private garage). When these steps weren’t successful, they were offered free medical care, preventative medical care, daycare, “Head Start” educational care, even free homemaking “care” (i.e., free maids). The result is the unsafe, dreary, dismal swamp that the typical public housing-dominated neighborhood is.

Welfare recipients in New York suffer from the “severing of having to act from staying alive” in the same manner as those who inherit money. As you state, this severing of effort from living weakens the message that one must work, and practice all the attendant virtues, in order to live well. That is why many of New York’s welfare poor smoke crack, and a certain percentage of the “trust fund kids” lead dissipate, unproductive lives.

However, there are those few “ghetto kids” who make it out and lead productive lives, just like there are wealthy heirs who take their wealth and multiply it. Why do they do it, if it is not the philosophical ideas (whether explicitly or implicitly) they hold?

Looking at a society as a whole, isn’t it just a collection of many individuals, all of whom are influenced by the philosophical ideas around them? Most people simply passively accept and live by the ideas they were taught as children and they see in the newspapers, in churches, among their friends, etc. Some people are mavericks. Regardless, if someone or many people, those who originate and propagate the ideas, advocate new ideas, the masses will eventually act on them. The mavericks will lead and the rest will follow.

Gus Van Horn said...

"At its core, the virtuous cycle argument strikes me as a materialist argument. The materialist says that one’s physical condition (socioeconomic class) determines one’s ideas. If everyone is confronted with the bounty of capitalism, he will embrace capitalism."

Hmmm. I don't know if I looked like I was agreeing with that type of argument, but just to be clear, I agree that the form in which it usually appears is a variant of materialism, or at least of a taking-for-granted of rationality.

Having said that, induction into the right principles is probably made easier in a rational society. This doesn't mean that it WILL occur, though.

Ultimately, a free and prosperous society is like money itself: Just an advantage, and one that can easily be squandered.

Galileo Blogs said...

To be clear, I was not implying your agreement with the virtuous cycle argument which, in fact, I believe you more or less disagree with (correct me if I'm wrong!!).

As you say, inducing the correct principles is easier in a rational society, thankfully. I think that is what has kept our society going as long as it has. Americans, in particular, "get" certain basic ideas, such as that one's home is one's castle, one must work to earn a living, etc.

Unfortunately, they also "get" the idea that capitalism must not be taken to extremes, that regulations are typically the answer to all of the "excesses" and "problems" of capitalism, that the rich are often corrupt, etc. Americans induced these ideas when FDR "saved" the country from the Great Depression and in countless government actions since then. Those inductions were hammered home in a lot of textbooks written by leftists and interventionists and even conservatives, and reinforced by newscasters and reporters steeped in these ideas.

To use your money analogy, which I like, we shall see if it is Gresham's Law -- "bad money drives out the good" -- or its opposite that rules the day!

Gus Van Horn said...


On your mention of Gresham's Law, you caused me to have an interesting thought.

Absent explicit philosophical ideas, bad ideas will tend to drive out good, limited by the ability and willingness of the members of a society to evaluate such ideas in relation to any evidence that they are bad.

As evidence for how likely this is to happen, consider how long it took mankind to reach the level of civilization of the Ancient Greeks, and how many false starts and dead ends there had been! This should serve as just one good indication of the enormous value of correct philosophical ideas.

Call it "Van Horn's Law" if you wish.