December 15, 2012

An Insect Speaks Up!

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. -- Robert A. Heinlein
I'm going to try unfurling the Ricardo flag one more time as it seems my work here is not done. On Facebook today, I find my fundamental beliefs under siege from a diverse coalition.

Two ThreeSources heroes, Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein pay homage to the titans of industry that can dig a mine and grow tomatoes. Yet I remain a Ricardian and a Schumpeterian. I don't want to farm. Nor do I want the CEO of my company, or the lady who's going to cure cancer, or my favorite musicians spending half their day with a hoe wishing for rain. Comparative advantage is counter-intuitive but makes us all richer. In my personal instance it is the difference between life and death.

I wrote an essay long ago on a great speech by former Fed President Robert McTeer. The link to the whole speech is busted, but I found it here. (McTeer's speech is much better than my essay.)

The broken window fallacy is perpetrated in many forms. Most of the time, jobs are invoked. Whenever job creation or retention is the primary objective I call it the job-counting fallacy. Economics majors understand the nonintuitive reality that real progress comes from job destruction. It once took 90 percent of our population to grow our food. Now it takes less than 3 percent. Pardon me, Willie, but are we worse off because of the job losses in agriculture? The would-have-been farmers are now college professors and computer gurus or singing the country blues on Sixth Street.

By all means, put me down for the Heinleinian ideal hog-butcherin', invasion-plannin', poet guy. Always good to know more than less. But I see a luddite coalition that is ready to organize society that way. A frequent ally in the Facebook philosophical soup says:
Never in the history of mankind has the population been so disconnected from the land from which we all come. Christ, 40%+ of the population would starve to death without electricity -- let than damning statement sink in for a minute -- and yet we endeavor to make life easier still?!? really?

Um, yeah. Food comes from the store and the real opportunities to explore the upper bounds of human reason are higher up Maslow's pyramid.

Philosophy Posted by John Kranz at December 15, 2012 10:34 AM

First, I agree with you. I come only to defend the ability and freedom that permit individuals a choice to go "off the grid."

The distinction between the better life afforded by ever greater convenience and technology and the self-reliant life of splitting one's own firewood is in the words "able" and "necessary." Using your Facebook friend's figures, 60% of the population is "able" to survive on their own if "necessary." But taking Rand's point in particular, our "easier" life is made possible by men like Hank Rearden, yet dangles at the mercy of men like Wesley Mouch. When the costs imposed by Mouch exceeded the returns of the easier life, men like Rearden stop trading. If one doesn't have the knowledge and prediliction for self-sufficiency he is hostage to men like Mouch. The more a man knows and embraces survival "off the grid" the less willing he will be to endure the abuses of democracy.

Posted by: johngalt at December 15, 2012 3:48 PM

In fairness, I must share this line I encontered early in Starship Troopers:

Carl and I had done everything together in high school -- eyed the girls together, double-dated together, been on the debate team together, pushed electrons together in his home lab. I wasn't much on electronic theory myself, but I'm a neat hand with a soldering gun; Carl supplied the skull sweat and I carried out his instructions. It was fun; anything we did together was fun.

Heinlein, Robert A. (1987-05-15). Starship Troopers (pp. 22-23). Ace. Kindle Edition.

Posted by: jk at December 16, 2012 1:10 PM

Heinlein really said that? It flies in the face of prosperity that comparative advantage creates.

The quote would have been better stated:

"A human being should be able to learn to..."

But even then it's not entirely accurate. Even with a person's ability to learn new skills as the situation warrants, it's precisely because of my unique confluence of skills, which nobody else could learn, that made me so valuable at my job, while others were relegated to delivering mail and managing portfolios badly.

Am I "hostage" to the grocery store, because they supply me with pork? Or are they hostage to me and other customers?

"The direction of all economic affairs is in the market society a task of the entrepreneurs. Theirs is the control of production. They are at the helm and steer the ship. A superficial observer would believe that they are supreme. But they are not. They are bound to obey unconditionally the captain's orders. The captain is the consumer." - Mises, Human Action

Posted by: Perry Eidelbus at December 19, 2012 7:21 PM | What do you think? [3]