[ExI] Impressive book: Farewell to Alms

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Tue Feb 5 06:37:55 UTC 2008

Damien writes

>>The English aristocracy had not advanced too far beyond the
>>credo of its recent Viking ancestors, and they earned their
>>wealth the old-­fashioned way: by stealing it.
> EGGzackly! Thanks for digging out these excellent critiques, Bill.

Yes, I wanted to join the applause for Bill too---but then I carefully
read http://geneticsandsociety.org/article.php?id=3886 which
was suggested, and was appalled.  I haven't read Bill's other
piece (Economics as Eugenics by Philip Jenkins) which I hope
will be better.

The URL above points to an article by Jesse Reynolds, a
biotechnologist.  Here are excerpts of his article (with my

    Why did northern Europe, particularly England, grow rich
    while the most of the rest of the world remained in poverty?
    And why haven't other areas caught up?

    The answer he proposes is both beautifully simple and
    excessively reductionist. By essentially ignoring institutions
    such as government and religion, major developments, and
    power relations, his analysis is shackled by historical myopia...
    Clark's proposals have both explicit and implicit consequences
    for current political and economic debates.

This is so very sad.  At the very *beginning* of the argument, the
author asks us to evaluate the possible political *consequences*
of Clark being right or wrong. This is hardly the way to go about
wrestling against your own biases!

And by "reductionist", as he uses it here and several other places,
the author basically means "clearly explained".  Now, of course,
many clear explanations indeed are simplistic. Alas, the world is too
complex for simple solutions, yet we must applaud---not decry
---those who attempt to shed *some* light on the situation with
clear and plausible stories that can be followed.

   The author would have us embrace a retrograde social Darwinism,
   [Oh! That would be.... let me guess... bad??] in which the wealthy
   of the world are on top of society's ladder due to superior culture
   and genetics.

As with most kneejerk analyses, this vastly overstates the case
Clark is trying to make.  Now if it so *happened* that at a particular
point in history one people or another did have a culture more
conducive to technical progress, so what? Are we to immediately
cast as "social Darwinism" any analysis, say, of Japan in the late
19th century when they expanded across northern Asia?  And so
what if at some point in time some people did happen to have
better genes---so the conjecture goes---for technical progress?

A typical device to dismiss conjectures out of hand is to find a
handy emotionally laden label with which to stigmatize them,
so that the politically loyal know which side to take (and to take,
of course, before looking at any evidence). In this case "social
Darwinism" is the scare phrase.

Another example:

    Perhaps the most notable aspect of Clark's theory is its radical
    "economism." He reduces major institutional or political
    developments to simple quests for greater economic efficiency.
    Slavery, for example, is presented as merely an economically
    inefficient allocation of labor resources,

and the reader is wondering what the "merely" is leading to. Just
what other aspect of slavery is going to be relevant to the thesis
under investigation?

    as it prevented slaves from seeking the most productive use of
    their labor. Like other suboptimal institutions, it was only a
    matter of time before the economic advantages outweigh the
    benefits of oppression. So much for abolitionism's moral sway.

WHAT??  So this was what the "merely" was leading up to!  Instead
of any kind of historical or economic argument, this condemns Clark
as failing to mount the podium and spend pages denouncing the moral
evils of slavery!  For God's sake.  And this passes for intellectual
criticism?  Not on this list, I hope.

                   *                        *                          *

Again we must all try to overcome as much as we can our own
natural and perhaps inevitable biases. Indeed, yes, you'll either
cheer or moan inwardly when data arises that either supports
or confounds your present worldview. But if you don't care
enough about the truth to *try* to overcome your own biases,
so much the worse for you.  But to *parade* your biases, and
your "arguments" that we can't believe so-and-so because of
its political implications, is more than mere internal laziness.
It's an insult to intelligent discourse.


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