Heraclitus v. Parmenides – Flux v. Stasis

I gave the opening lecture at Freedom Week at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge last week.  My theme was “Flux versus Stasis,” and I contrasted the views of Parmenides and Heraclitus, two of the Presocratic philosophers.  Parmenides took the view that nothing changes in reality; only our senses convey the appearance of change.  Heraclitus, by contrast, thought that everything changes all the time, and that “we step and do not step into the same river,” for new waters flow ever about us.

I divided the world between those who seek permanence (the stasis of Parmenides) and those who embrace change (the flux of Heraclitus).  Those who prefer stasis resist change and innovation, and try to keep society following traditional practices, using social pressures and, if necessary, the force of law to sustain conventional norms.  They include people who resist technological change and the changes it brings to employment, as well as those who urge subsidies and tariffs to sustain domestic markets against foreign competitors.

Those who accept that change happens and try to adapt to its flux follow Heraclitus.  Their societies allow experiment and innovation, even knowing that some will be upset by the disturbance they bring to traditional ways.  They allow markets to pulse and flow, reacting to inputs, and adapting to and coping with those changes.  

Stasis societies value order and tend to entrust government to maintain their status quo.  Flux societies value new ideas and look for progress toward their citizens’ goals.  It is the flux societies, the ones ready to embrace change and develop its positive aspects, which are most friendly to liberty and the right of people to pursue self-referring goals unimpeded by arbitrary restrictions imposed by others.

The full text of my lecture can be seen here.

George Monbiot is entirely correct here

This will shock some, that we agree with George Monbiot on any subject more heavyweight than whether kittens are cute or not. It will also shock others that George Monbiot is actually correct about something more heavyweight than whether kittens are cute or not. But it is so, he is right and we agree with him:

No progressive party can survive the corporate press, corrupt party funding systems and conservative fear machines by fighting these forces on their own terms. The left can build only from the ground up, reshaping itself through the revitalisation of communities, working with local people to help fill the gaps in social provision left by an uncaring elite. A successful progressive movement must now be Citizens Advice bureau, housing association, scout troop, trade union, credit union, bingo hall, food bank, careworker, football club and evangelical church, rolled into one. Focus groups and spin doctors no longer deliver.

We’re not, to be honest, sure that this is either left wing or progressive. For it is exactly the classical liberal vision of society. Yes, certainly there are some things that must be done by the State. For there is some small group of things that both must be done and can only be done by said State. We are not anarchists. But beyond those things that can only be done in that manner and also must be done there’s vast areas of human life that do require some amount of organisation and coordination.

And who are the best people to do this organisation and coordination? Why, obviously, the people themselves in whatever manner they decide suits them to do such organisation and coordination. Let a thousand, a million, organisations of voluntary cooperation bloom across the nation. The Friendly Societies, the Churches, advice bureaus, sporting associations, however and whatever the people decide themselves that they wish to do in such voluntary cooperation. This includes any form of business organisation anyone wishes, a workers’ coop, a customer one, a producer one, a capitalist firm, not for profits, for profits and every conceivable variation thereof.

Our agreement here with Monbiot does not prevent us from being just a little sharp clawed, as with those cute kittens. For of course all Monbiot has done here is rediscover Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”. Something that the rest of us didn’t forget in the first place, not since he first pointed it out in 1790.

So why is it that everyone hates libertarians?

The easy answer of course is that libertarians are hateful people. But when you translate “libertarian” from American into English you get “classical liberal” which means us. And we’re lovely, cuddly, people so that cannot be the right answer. Over in the US they’re trying to answer this question (Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan) and there’s a variety of reasons given. None of which quite explain it all to our satisfaction.

So, we’ll put forward two more, the first not entirely serious. Which is that we’re right, they know we’re right, we know we’re right and everyone hates smug gits who know they’re right and who everyone knows are right.

The second, entirely serious, reason is that we’re the only people not telling people how to live their lives. On the right, the conservatives, want to insist that everyone keep it in their pants until married, don’t ingest things that make you feel good, work hard and if you conform to our prescriptions then maybe we’ll let you be. On the left we’ve the usual hodge podge but the same urge is there. Live your life according to the manner in which we demand you live your life. Don’t be greedy, don’t be too successful or we’ll take it all off you, you must respect everyone’s decisions about how they live their lives and don’t, whatever you do, blame anyone for creating their own bed that they’ve now got to sleep in.

By contrast we’re the only people saying that we don’t give a damn how you live your life. As long as you’re not harming others, nor their ability to live their life as they wish, why on earth should we even pay attention to how you live let alone control, or even respect, how you do?

Which is why they all shout at us of course. For if you’re running around with a set of rules that everyone must live by it’s OK to have another group running around with a different set of rules about how you must live. But it’s disconcerting, discombobulating even, to have a group insisting that there is no such list so would everyone shut up please? What merit in gaining control of the State in order to force everyone to follow your prescriptive rules if the libertarians (or classical liberals) have got there first and removed the power of the State to insist upon everyone having to follow any set of such rules?

To put it very simply, those who fight to insist upon vanilla flavoured cake are quite happy to battle those who fight for chocolate flavoured cake and vice versa, but they’ll unite in hatred against those who say the cake is a lie.

Debating the death of capitalism

I took part last Friday in a debate at Durham University Union on the motion that “This house welcomes the death of capitalism.” I opposed it, of course, arguing that capitalism has not died, is not dying, and probably will not die. I argued that two of its central elements went with the grain of human nature: investment and exchange. I suggested humorously that the first caveman who fashioned a bone hook invested time he could have spent happily hunting mastodons in order to gain greater rewards in future. This is like the child who chooses two chocolates tomorrow rather than a single chocolate today, or the investor who forgoes the pleasures that spending £100 might bring in order to have £105 to spend next year.

Investment is one way in which people better their lot. Another, I said, was exchange. When the caveman swaps one of his bone hooks for a fur offered by a hunter, both gain something they value more in exchange for something they value less. Each gains value and wealth is created. It was these two elements, I remarked, that had enabled capitalism to generate unparalleled wealth for humanity, the wealth that has lifted billions out of starvation and subsistence, and has paid for medicine and sanitation, the arts and education. It has doubled life expectancy within a century, and has meant that far fewer children die in infancy, or mothers in childbirth. Capitalism survives because of what it enables us to achieve.

I dealt with two things that capitalism is not. The first is cronyism, where big business gets into bed with government to secure special measures that enable it to exploit the public instead of competing fairly for their custom. The second is fraud, where bankers illegally fiddle interest rates, where Enron swindles its shareholders out of billions, or where Bernie Maddoff steals from his clients. This is not capitalism; it is criminality, and both of these practices need vigilance to thwart them.

People have asked “What will come after capitalism?” I replied, “Capitalism,” pointing out that after each crisis it is modified so the same mistakes are not repeated. It evolves and learns, as humans themselves do. We should not applaud its death, I said, but celebrate its continued life.

The students came down on the side of capitalism by defeating the motion.

The Ayn Rand Institute Europe

Today in Copenhagen is launched the Ayn Rand Institute Europe. Its mission is to promote awareness and understanding of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, and to spread awareness of her life and work, including her highly influential novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

Heading up the programmes is Annie Vinther Sanz, originally Danish but now living in France, who has spent two decades in international business and now heads up her own consulting firm. And she is fluent in six languages (don’t you hate people like that?).

Lars Seier Christensen, CEO of Saxo Bank, is chairing the new Institute’s advisory board, and the event takes place at Saxo Bank’s impressive headquarters. Some 300 people are expected at the launch, which includes short talks by Christensen, the head of the Ayn Rand Institute in the US Yaron Brook, and our own Eamonn Butler.

Eamonn admits that he is not an earnest devotee of Ayn Rand, though he shares some of her conclusions – like the importance of free-market capitalism, the rule of law, property rights and a robust system of justice. But that, says Yaron Brook, is exactly why he has been invited to give the main talk. Eamonn is strongly aware of Rand’s importance to the intellectual right and her ability, through her novels in particular, to win people over too it.

Many young people, in fact, have been won over to the ideas of capitalism, and a belief in individuals as ends in themselves rather than mere cogs in some collective, by reading Rand. In the words of Jerome Tuccille, ‘It usually begins with Ayn Rand.

Rand, Eamonn will say, has many supporters in the United States, where she lived for most of her life. The former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, was a member of Rand’s inner circle. And her work influenced many other notable people, such as the former head of BB&T bank and of Cato, John Allison; Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and PayPal creator Peter Thiel. Entrepreneurs, indeed, still name their children after her or her fictional characters.

She has, perhaps, less traction in Europe. That may be because the American right is more concerned with the protection of individual liberty, while the European right is more about conserving existing institutions. But as a result of today’s launch, there is no doubt that Rand is about to become even better known, and much more influential, in Europe too.