Sunday, October 16, 2011
"The Suicide of the West" by James Burnham
A Commentary by Son of Bastiat
“Its author maintains that western suicidal tendencies lie not so much in the lack of resources or military power, but through an erosion of intellectual, moral and spiritual factors abundant in modern western society and the mainstay of liberal psychology”
[James Burnham’s 1964classic, SUICIDE OF THE WEST, remains a startling account on the nature of the modern era. It offers a profound, in depth analysis of what is happening in the world today by putting into focus the intangible, often vague doctrine of American liberalism. It parallels the loosely defined liberal ideology rampant in American government and institutions, with the ebb, flow, growth and climax and the eventual decline and death of both ancient and modern civilizations. Gateway Editions Review].
This essay, the second on the author’s research into societal decline and self-annihilation, expands the themes that were explored in his first essay on America’s welfare state catastrophe (“America’s Suicide Attempt by Paul Johnson”}. It broadens their application beyond America to include entire societies as well (“Suicide of the West by J. Burnham”). Why be preoccupied with morbid topics such as societies in decline? Answer: Because it turns out that a common theme permeates the largely unconscious act of terminating country and societal existence: moral cowardice and inner rot. The implosion of the Welfare State and the decay of Western societies are phenomena with deep moral roots. This essay argues that the RH Bill is but another manifestation of this deeply seated death wish that leads to societal suicide.
Population Control as a Systems Error Tragedy
Controlling population growth is societal suicide? But wait, aren’t the methods of population control (from contraception to abortion all the way down to euthanasia) precisely used to keep society from “eating its seed” in order to ensure its survival and progress, which is the antithesis of self-destruction? It isn’t paradoxical for a society to ensure survival by killing its own. Like the neutron bomb that can kill people while keeping their homes and buildings intact, survival decisions premised on resource intake and outgo calculations are based on a cynical and depraved view of human nature. What looks rational among non-living ecologies such as factories or cities does not apply to human populations and similar self-aware organisms which are at root, complex, dynamic and adaptive. This tragedy that lies at the root of all Malthusian-type analysis is also based on a flawed conceptual understanding of systems.
Complex systems are usually analyzed by simplifying their underlying structure, a process of successive reduction by taking away parts or relationships and variables that a systems analyst considers irrelevant to the goal at hand (in the case of population, some decision rule that maximizes utility under a resource constraint). There is nothing odd with organisms limiting the scope of their efforts to make sense of the complex world, if simplification is done to conserve energy. Where complications arise is when the basic reductive impulse comes from outside so that values external to the system primarily determine which factors are ”extraneous” or which variables are “irrelevant” to a goal that may not be compatible with the system’s own. Known as “the outside observer problem”, such arbitrary exclusions result in models wherein observers’ biases and not members’ values drive the system’s observed behavior. While all representations of reality reflect both the conscious or subconscious biases of their observers, models that are deliberately tweaked by policy incentives in specified directions will tend to reflect less perfect correspondence between internal behavior and external perceptions. The trouble arises when such flawed models are claimed to “objectively represent” reality and employed as basis for policy decisions, here a policy to control population. Few call out such travesty for the intellectual dishonesty that it is.
Far from being mere intellectual dross, the “verifiability” of claims is the stuff of debate between logical positivists (extreme empiricists for whom naked claims that cannot be verified are meaningless); and the modern philosophers of science such as Kuhn (for whom scientific methods cannot verify the truth due to the observer bias and the fact that cultural and institutional factors influence perceptions of what is claimed as truth). Replace “scientific method” with “statistical tests” and one can grasp the enormity of this policy depravity that in the US now snuffs out the life of an unborn child every 100 seconds, at which rate an entire society turns over in less than five years. Ironically a policy promulgated to keep society from “wasting its seed” is self-annihilating itself.
The Harmful Effects of Erroneous Policies
If this is correct then propositions like “reducing population growth is a requisite of economic progress” or positive claims such as “population increases consumption and hence retards growth by reducing capital accumulation”; or “artificial methods of reproduction such as sterilization allows families to raise better quality offspring” all the way to the most sophisticated demographic models that are the basis of official population control policies have to be seen for what they are in essence – incomplete, inaccurate and simplistic expressions of very complex relationships that mostly reflect the biases of their advocates. They produce misleading conclusions about the impacts of population control policies on societies by exaggerating their positive effects on economic variables while underestimating or even omitting their negative long run influences on intangible factors crucial to societal balance and growth.
If this is not devastating enough, the coup de grace is delivered by nonlinear dynamical systems theory: the fact is that statistical correlations are little more than exercises in ferreting out significant (p<0.05) reduced form relationships from historically sampled data. But live systems like human populations are not only dynamically reactive but anticipatory, meaning that they are capable of purposeful adjustment to varying stimulus in un-anticipatable (or even contrarian) ways that are rarely reflected in historical data used by correlation models. It is this adaptive behavior of dynamic living systems, especially their unpredictable non-linear responses to stimuli, that makes statistical models so woefully inadequate in establishing cause and effect relationships. The effects show up in “irrational” and “outlier” behaviors that are filtered out as atypical data: savings-poor families that find ways to send all children to school, rich taxpayers that bust up revenue forecasts as marginal tax rates rise; countries whose GDPs increase as their informal sectors expand, welfare programs that nurture low productivity and anti-social values. It is these “atypical” system behaviors caused by the arbitrary exclusion of unknown factors that renders ludicrous the claimed power of population control policy failures in explaining the relative disparities in economic performance between the Philippines and its neighbors; such simplistic models could never have foreseen the grave disaster that aggressive population control could have brought the Philippines to if 30 years later it had no skilled labor to export. Policy technicians are better served by reading less econometric books and more philosophical tracts by philosophers such as Popper who believed that rational methods cannot validate the truth value of models and propositions involving human beings whose decisions are intertwined with reason and motivations that can never be satisfactorily captured by such weak models. [Incidentally Popper also offered the same “falsifiability” thesis as basis for claim testing which econometrics deals poorly with, being about hypothesis testing but not about decisions].
The Ideology that Underpins this Intellectual Error
Statistical methods that do not adequately capture the irrational quirks of dynamically adaptive systems merely probabilistically model traits that dispose individuals towards potential behavioral tendencies; as such they capture traits that dispose, but not sufficiently explain why they actualize specific behaviors. The set of beliefs, philosophies and world views that prime such observed behaviors is at its core an ideology that traces its roots to a fundamental way of thinking about reality that descended from Post Renaissance thought. It goes by the term Rationalism, and its modern offspring called Liberalism.
In contrast to the traditional (Aristotelian/Thomistic/Augustinian) view of human nature which had a permanent and unchanging essence; where man is corrupt and limited in potential, so that his fate is tragic unless saved by Divine Intervention, Rationalism/Liberalism, (to quote Burnham) – “holds that there is nothing intrinsic to the nature of man that makes it impossible for human society to achieve the goals of peace, freedom, justice and well-being which liberals define as (the accoutrements) of a “good society”. Burnham elaborates on Liberalism by quoting Oakeshott – “Liberalism is confident that reason and rational science, without appeal to revelation, faith, custom or intuition can both comprehend the world and solve its problems”. . . “free from obligations to any authority save for the authority of reason . . He is at once skeptical (because there is almost no opinion, habit, belief, nothing so firmly rooted and so widely held that he hesitates to question; and optimistic (because the rationalist never doubts the power of his reason to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or propriety of an action”.
What follows from such a mistaken view of human nature is obvious (again quoting Burnham) – “the peaceful, just, free, virtuous, prosperous society is inevitable or scheduled to come on condition that human beings behave rationally by accepting the liberal ideology, program and leadership” (emphasis and italics supplied by the author). Policies to keep population in check, whether through preventing conception, abortion, passive deprivation or euthanasia, are examples of programs that liberals want to impose on societies (especially its vulnerable members) as way to achieve the “good society” outcome. As explained above such conclusions are both methodologically flawed but epistemologically unsound, and now are shown to be the product of an ideology that seeks to remake societies in its own vision regardless of what the consequences to overall society are. Such is the death wish that ideology buys.
How Western Societies Really Die
“What they are saying to us today is that if you want to keep the Federal government open you have to throw women under the bus” is how Sen. P. Murray (D., Wash) depicted the contentious budget debates among Republicans and Democrats in which funding for Planned Parenthood (a pro-abortion group) came close to shutting down the US government. The terrible fact is that the economic future of the US is held hostage by a flawed issue that doesn’t even represent 0.15 % of a budget that liberal policies have larded with entitlements so that cuts of 1-2 % are now called “draconian”. If the US economy does implode it will not be from wars or alien invasions, it will be from a tragic decision to kill unborn babies.