The Fluctuating Intellectual

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The
popular and widely admired English philosopher Bertrand Russell
was famous for constantly changing his mind. From one book to the
next, he would switch opinions. And this was, by many, considered
a great virtue of his approach to philosophy.

Yes,
it is often important to be flexible, but perhaps there is a limit.
Supposed you believe stealing is bad one week but then the next
you change your mind. Is this a virtue? Suppose you believe supporting
your children is the right thing for you to do but then switch you
outlook and become a deadbeat dad. Is this to be admired?

It
is nowadays thought to be so, if one is to go by who is getting
all the accolades among contemporary thinkers. In fact, those positions
various labeled post-modernist or deconstructionist or, again, multiculturalist
all propound the idea that nothing much is stable in the world and
the wise people among us do not hold on to the illusion that some
things are of lasting importance, value or truth.

A
good case in point is someone I once knew pretty well. John N. Gray
used to be a fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, in Great
Britain and he was at the time a pretty good friend of the free
society. He wrote admiring books about John Stuart Mill and Frederick
A. Hayek, both champions of individual liberty and free markets.
I recall having Gray to a seminar I arranged where he gave a talk
along these lines and most people believed then that he is someone
who has come to appreciate that freedom is superior to serfdom or
slavery.

Alas,
there was one aspect of John Gray's thought that always struck me
as problematic. He was what is called a Pyrrhonist, a skeptic about
the human ability to know anything at all. This is one of the many
views philosophers have propounded throughout human history, all
the way from the ancient Chinese Lao Tzu to today's Professor Peter
Unger (at least the last I read him). The basic idea is this: people
always see things in their particular way, which gives them a distorted
understanding of how the world is. Thus we are always basically
ignorant of the world. OK, so the position is trouble by self-contradiction:
if you know that what it says is true, then some things can be known,
and then why couldn't other things be known as well. But this has
always struck the people who championed skepticism as a cheap shot
and they rarely pay attention to it. They continue to insist that
it is true that we know nothing.

Back
then, when John Gray was but a young Turk at Oxford, I was always
arguing with him about this basic element of his thinking. And I
also didn't trust his endorsement of anything. For consider: if
we know nothing, why should we stick to any opinions we have, about
anything? Whatever is convenient to believe is probably just as
easy to believe as anything else.

Sure
enough, John Gray has proven me right: over the last two and a half
decades he has moved from being a libertarian, a champion of a fully
free society, to endorsing, instead, the British Labor Party and
denouncing capitalism and, especially, its extension over the globe.
His latest pronouncement goes as follows: "The free market
has produced a mutation in American capitalism, as a consequence
of which it is coming to resemble the oligarchical regimes of some
Latin American countries more than the liberal capitalist civilization
of Europe, or of the United States itself in earlier phases of its
history." Gray maintains that "the confluence of ethnic
and economic divisions and antagonisms in the United States is not
found in any other First World country." And his book False
Dawn is devoted to denouncing globalization, that is, the exportation
of free market institutions across the world.

OK,
why bother with this particular egghead? Well, there is a lesson
here. When you believe nothing is knowable by us, you can say anything
you want. It cannot be shown to be either right or wrong, it is
just there for whatever personal purposes it may serve.

In
higher academic circles being against the United States of America
is very popular – it pays with good positions. Gray is now a bigwig
at the London School of Economics, writes essays for all kinds of
prominent publications – the last being Harper's. Wherever there
are good tidings, Gray can adjust his position to make out like
a bandit. What is to stop him? Truth doesn't exist, no one can know
anything, so surely no one can launch any valid complaint against
the man, at least as he must see things. But consequences do follow
from such dilettantism. One's own integrity is the first victim.
It is impossible to be consistent within oneself if one has no starting
point. So for all we know a person like Gray could switch tomorrow,
if that becomes trendy, and start supporting globalization. And,
of course, principled thinking and public policy also suffers under
the influence of such opportunistic thinking. Why complain about
some politician or public policy that is helter-skelter, topsy-turvy,
irrational, pointless? No standards can be found to indict any of
that. The citizenry then can have no way to check whether those
in power are making any sense or simply indulging their own fancy.

As
to the substance of Gray's claim about the USA, what is interesting
is that the central difficulties of American culture arise precisely
from its earlier violation of the principles of free market capitalism.
Take the worst in American history, slavery. In a free market capitalist
system everyone is a sovereign citizen, no one may own anyone else,
no one may force anyone to behave in any way without the person's
consent. Slavery is in direct violation of this capitalist position.
A slave no only isn't permitted to own things. A slave is forbidden
to be his or her own master, which is fundamental to capitalism.
America's lingering ethnic and racial difficulties then arise more
from having failed to be consistently capitalist, rather than the
other way around, as Gray claims. Globalization, in turn, is the
movement around the world that aims to abolish restrictions on individual
freedom of trade. Involuntary servitude, which is so widespread
in Third World countries and still has some traces in Europe, would
have to be completely abolished. There could be no entrenched upper
and lower classes, no unchallengeable political, even intellectual
elite.

Resistance
to globalization, as to capitalism itself, comes from those who
wish to hang on to their legally secured special status in society.
American capitalism gained its major boost when slavery was finally
abolished and had it not be for the influx of anti-capitalist intellectual
trends – mostly exported from Europe to the USA via the influx of
European academics – America would have been a shining example of
a free society. Instead, it is a confused and mixed-up system, with
fascist, socialist, welfare statist and capitalist elements in every
corner of the place. But never mind that – when you begin with the
premise that nothing can be known, why worry about historical accuracy
at all? It is all deuces wild.

January
10, 2002

Tibor
Machan [send
him mail
] is
Distinguished Fellow and Professor, Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship
& Business Ethics, Argyros School of Business & Economics,
Chapman University, and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution,
Stanford University.

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