Thursday, February 12, 2009

Messing With Material Gods

Adam Smith’s Hidden Hand, Darwin’s Natural Selection, and today’s Public Opinion are instances of forces ancient people called gods or demigods. What they actually felt about these forces, I’m guessing, was similar to our feelings about, say, being laid off because the Market frowns. Gods give and take away, but we generally endow them with positive values. The invisible hand dispenses the wealth of nations, selection bestows survival, and public opinion, if only we obey it, guarantees collective happiness. Our view simply echoes the Roman saying: Vox populi, vox dei.

Smith’s hand really means that various kinds of feedback loops control human greed so that, if you let people freely trade optimal results will come about. See his own words, along with an early definition of GDP, here. Darwin’s natural selection really means that whatever species survive survive and those that don’t weren’t fit. Extending that concept from biology to social life we get social Darwinism. The rigorous practice of that doctrine suggests a glad embrace of the free markets and manly acceptance of what some call creative destruction. Public opinion is feared and courted not because it’s right in any absolute sense but because, having developed instruments to tap and to decant it, we can use it to do or to prevent what we wish or dread. If we get it wrong, never fear: popular opinion will rapidly change to correct us.

Smith, however, didn’t preach the hidden hand because he saw it everywhere at work. No. He preached it because monopolistic practices were choking off and impeding efficient trade. The eighteenth century was doing its utmost to shake off centralized controls everywhere. The French version, Laissez faire, laisser passer, dates from the same time and was the coinage of François Quesnay. To whom was that saying directed? To governments dominated by hereditary nobilities: Let it be, let it pass—let the people be heard! Well, it happened. In the French Revolution, the people were heard at last, and those displaced from rule departed saying, “Après nous le déluge.” The saying is attributed variously to the Marquise de Pompadour or to Madame de Pompadour, but happens to be an old French proverb, strongly suggesting that what comes around goes around.

Darwin’s core doctrine did not arise because he wished to counter human interference with the gods. Instead, looking for an agency of some sort sufficient to explain changes in the biosphere, he got a hint from human interference. His theory of evolution owes a great deal to studying how people, in raising livestock, fostered the development of varieties pleasing to people by keeping and breeding specific individuals that met the human criterion and simply eating those that didn’t. It then struck him that nature itself did the same—with a single objective guiding the process: survival. The agency, however, was simply anything and everything that happens. A modern phrase comes to mind here…

When the ancients spoke of Fate, they meant something rather absolute, unbendable, beyond human influence. The gods, however, could be cajoled by flattery, sacrifices, and other acts of real or pretended submission. So it is with those who’d use public opinion. It can and must be swayed—hence the prominence of politics and advertising in our times.

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What emerges from all this, as I ponder it, is a dualism or a pairing obscured by our wish to influence that reluctant element, the collective inertia of all and everything beyond but around us. Two forces are at work here: the free action of the human will and the resistant force of nature. Public opinion illustrates this paradoxically. One opinion expresses an individual will. When wills are added they take on a more and more material form.

When I worked at Midwest Research Institute long ago, we once had a project intended to discover ideal highway configurations for various levels of traffic over a 24-hour period. One of our investigators chanced on the bright idea that a model of the roads, made of grooves, could simulate the highway system. That model, lilted up into a slant and covered with glass, could be tested by pouring kernels of rice into the system and observing which particular designs got clogged and which permitted the rice to fall through to the bottom faster. In the collective, tiny objects without any intentionality could easily model masses of people in cars.

Our humanity is submerged by our very numbers in the vast societies in which we live. When Emerson said that “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” he was simply putting this fact in a short phrase. The very weight of this dimension, its massive materiality, submerges an element that is of a radically different character. It is our own conscious reality. Its action, of course, also screws up the machine. Without it no one would ever bite or constrain the invisible hand, interfere with natural selection by genetically modified crops, creative destruction would rage on without cries of woe, and no one would have to court vox populi.

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