Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Can You Spot the Absurdity?

Stephen Crane is most well known for his book...The Red Badge of Courage...but he also wrote poetry as well.  Here's one of his poems...
I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
"It is futile," I said,
"You can never — "

"You lie," he cried,
And ran on.
Kinda reminds me of Albert Einstein's definition of insanity..."doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".  Here's another poem by Crane...
Tradition, thou art for suckling children,
Thou art the enlivening milk for babes;
But no meat for men is in thee.
Then --
But, alas, we all are babes.
Do you ever find yourself in the middle of a tradition're suddenly struck full force with the absurdity of it?  How many traditions are the equivalent of vestigial traits?  Of course, it's utter folly to try and completely remove a vestigial trait without first being absolutely certain that the trait is indeed unnecessary.

Every tradition depends on followers...just like, when it comes to government, every function depends on supporters.  How absurd would it be if we had to follow traditions that we thought were absurd?  Does that question sound familiar?  It's the very same question that led people to this country in the first place.

Right now both the Democrats and the Republicans appreciate that we need to make some cuts to our budget.  The question is...where to cut?  Doctors spend years learning about where to cut but there is absolutely no educational requirement to be a politician.  Why is that?  It's because when it comes to the budget...cuts are largely subjective and value based.

Republicans say..."let's cut public welfare...can't you see it's making the problem even worse?"  Democrats say..."let's cut unnecessary wars...can't you see they promote a vicious cycle?"

We can go round and round pursuing the horizon...or we can let taxpayers decide for themselves where to cut.  Errrr...except, taxpayers wouldn't be able to use their taxes to cut anything.  Rather than worrying about "cutting" functions they would worry about "funding" functions.  Ah, that's the beauty right there.  Taxpayers would turn into donors.  This transmutation will be the subject of my next entry.

If you can spot the absurdity then you're qualified to use your taxes to support the functions you consider absolutely essential.  If you can't spot any absurdity then you would still have the option to give your taxes to congress.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The aggregate of each taxpayer deciding where to fund would produce far greater results than the aggregate of each congressperson deciding where to fund/cut.  Even if you just barely grasp the concept of the invisible hand it should be fairly straightforward to understand that the visible hand (congress) could never allocate resources as efficiently as the invisible hand (taxpayers).  If the visible hand was even remotely successful at allocating resources then there would be at least one example of a successful command economy.

In terms of absurd-spotting, Herbert Spencer, wrote by far the most entertaining passage on the subject.  Admittedly, it's a very looooooong passage....but, it so wonderfully conveys the idea behind allowing individual taxpayer to decide on their own what is, or isn't, absurd.

From...Social Statics by Herbert Spencer...

To the assertion that the boundary line of State-duty as above drawn is at the wrong place, the obvious rejoinder is— show us where it should be drawn. This appeal the expediency-philosophers have never yet been able to answer. Their alleged definitions are no definitions at all. As was proved at the outset, to say that government ought to do that which is "expedient," or to do that which will tend to produce the "greatest happiness," or to do that which will subserve the "general good," is to say just nothing; for there are countless disagreements respecting the natures of these desiderata.  A definition of which the terms are indefinite is an absurdity. Whilst the practical interpretation of "expediency" remains a matter of opinion, to say that a government should do that which is "expedient," is to say that it should do, what we think it should do!

Still then our demand is—a definition. Between the two extremes of its possible action, where lies the proper limitation?  Shall it extend its interference to the fixing of creeds, as in the old times; or to overlooking modes of manufacture, farming operations, and domestic affairs, as it once did; or to commerce, as of late—to popular education, as now—to public health, as already—to dress, as in China—to literature, as in Austria—to charity, to manners, to amusements?  If not to all of them, to which of them?  Should the perplexed inquirer seek refuge in authority, he will find precedents not only for these but for many more such interferences.  If, like those who disapprove of master-tailors having their work done off the premises, or like those who want to prevent the produce of industrial prisons displacing that of the artizans, or like those who would restrain charity-school children from competing with seamstresses, he thinks it desirable to meddle with trade-arrangements, there are plenty of exemplars for him.  There is the law of Henry VII., which directed people at what fairs they should sell their goods; and that of Edward VI., which enacted a fine of £100 for a usurious bargain; and that of James I., which prescribed the quantity of ale to be sold for a penny; and that of Henry VIII., which made it penal to sell any pins but such as are "double headed, and their head soldered fast to the shank, and well smoothed; the shank well shaven; the point well and round-filed and sharpened."  He has the countenance, too, of those enactments which fixed the wages of labour; and of those which dictated to farmers, as in 1533, when the sowing of hemp and flax was made compulsory; and of those which forbade the use of certain materials, as that now largely-consumed article, logwood, was forbidden in 1597.  If he approves of so extended a superintendence, perhaps he would adopt M. Louis Blanc's idea that "government should be considered as the supreme regulator of production;" and having adopted it, push State-control as far as it was once carried in France, when manufacturers were pilloried for defects in the materials they employed, and in the textures of their fabrics; when some were fined for weaving of worsted a kind of cloth which the law said should be made of mohair, and others because their camlets were not of the specified width; and when a man was not at liberty to choose the place for his establishment, nor to work at all seasons, nor to work for everybody.  Is this considered too detailed an interference?  Then, perhaps, greater favour will be shown to those German regulations by which a shoemaker is prevented from following his craft until an inspecting jury has certified his competence; which disable a man who has chosen one calling from ever adopting another; and which forbid any foreign tradesman from settling in a German town without a licence. And if work is to be regulated, is it not proper that work should be provided, and the idle compelled to perform a due amount of it?  In which case how shall we deal with our vagrant population?  Shall we take a hint from Fletcher of Saltoun, who warmly advocated the establishment of slavery in Scotland as a boon to "so many thousands of our people who are at this day dying for want of bread"? or shall we adopt the analogous suggestion of Mr. Carlyle, who would remedy the distresses of Ireland by organizing its people into drilled regiments of diggers?  The hours of labour too—what must be done about these?  Having acceded to the petition of the factory-workers, ought we not to entertain that of the journeyman-bakers? and if that of the journeyman bakers, why not, as Mr. Oobden asks, consider the cases of the glass-blowers, the nightmen, the iron-founders, the Sheffield knife-grinders, and indeed all other classes, including the hardworked M.P.'s themselves?  And when employment has been provided, and the hours of labour fixed, and trade-regulations settled, we must decide how far the State ought to look after people's minds, and morals, and health.  There is this education question: having satisfied the prevalent wish for "government schools with tax-paid teachers, and adopted Mr. Ewart's plan for town-libraries and museums, should we not canvass the supplementary proposal to have national lecturers? and if this proposal is assented to, would it not be well to carry out the scheme of Sir David Brewster, who desired to have "men ordained by the State to the undivided functions of science"—"an intellectual priesthood," " to develop the glorious truths which time and space embosom*"? Then having established "an intellectual priesthood" to keep company with our religious one, a priesthood of physic, such as is advocated by certain feeless medical men, and of which we have already the germ in our union doctors, would nicely complete the trio. And when it had been agreed to put the sick under the care of public officials, consistency would of course demand the adoption of Mr. G. A. Walker's system of government funerals, under which "those in authority" are "to take especial care" that "the poorest of our brethren" shall have "an appropriate and solemn transmission" to the grave, and are to grant in certain cases "gratuitous means of interment."  Having carried out thus far the communist plan of doing everything for everybody, should we not consider the peoples' amusements, and, taking example from the opera-subsidy in France, establish public ball-rooms, and gratis concerts, and cheap theatres, with State-paid actors, musicians, and masters of the ceremonies: using care at the same time duly to regulate the popular taste, as indeed, in the case of the Art-Union subscribers, our present Government proposed to do?  Speaking of taste naturally reminds us of dress, in which sundry improvements might be enforced; for instance—the abolition of hats: we should have good precedents either in Edward IV., who find those wearing "any gown or mantell" not according to specification, and who limited the superfluity of peoples' boot-toes, or in Charles II., who prescribed the material for his subjects' grave-clothes. The matter of health, too, would need attending to; and, in dealing with this, might we not profitably reconsider those ancient statutes which protected peoples' stomachs by restricting the expenses of their tables; or, remembering how injurious are our fashionable late hours, might we not advantageously take a hint from the old Norman practice, and (otherwise prompted) fix the time at which people should put out their fires and go to bed; or might we not with benefit act upon the opinion of M. Beausobre, a statesman who said it was "proper to watch during the fruit season, lest the people eat that which is not ripe"? And then, by way of making the superintendence complete, would it not be well to follow the example of the Danish king who gave directions to his subjects how they should scour their floors, and polish their furniture?

* See Address to the British Association at Edinburgh, in 1850.