Unwarranted fallacies and delusions

The Trades Hall at the corner of Victoria and Lygon Street has a book fair this weekend which I went along to with everyone else at ten to eleven just as it opened. On again on Sunday if you’re in Melbourne.

But the real reason I mention it was because I picked up an 1873 first edition of Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology for $4 which is a bargain but nothing exceptional. They are on Abebooks for around $US50. But really, what was fascinating to me was found on the very first page which I here quote. He is discussing how even the intelligent and educated end up holding absolutely ridiculous opinions:

Now, as then, may be daily heard among other classes, opinions just as decided and just as unwarranted. By men called educated, the old plea for extravagant expenditure, that ‘it is good for trade,’ is still continually urged with full belief in its sufficiency. Scarcely any decrease is observable in the fallacy that whatever gives employment is beneficial: no regard being had to the value for ulterior purposes of that which the labour produces; no question being asked what would have resulted had the capital which paid for the labour taken some other channel and paid for some other labour. Neither criticism nor explanation modifies these beliefs. When there is again an opening for them they are expressed with undiminished confidence. Along with delusions of this kind go whole families of others. [p1-2]

What words he uses! “Unwarranted”. “Fallacy”. “Delusions”. Yes, yes. All that and more. And do I not know for myself that “neither criticism nor explanation modifies these beliefs”. You just cannot stop people believing that extravagant expenditure is good for trade and jobs no matter how often reality shows them it is a belief that is simply untrue. He goes on:

People who think that the relations between expenditure and production are so simple, naturally assume simplicity in other relations among social phenomena. Is there distress somewhere? They suppose nothing more is required than to subscribe money for relieving it. On the one hand, they never trace the reactive effects which charitable donations work on bank accounts, on the surplus-capital bankers have to lend, on the productive activity which the capital now abstracted would have set up, on the number of labourers who would have received wages and who now go without wages—they do not perceive that certain necessaries of life have been withheld from one man who would have exchanged useful work for them, and given to another who perhaps persistently evades working.

And the same paragraph continues:

Nor, on the other hand, do they look beyond the immediate mitigation of misery. They deliberately shut their eyes to the fact that as fast as they increase the provision for those who live without labour, so fast do they increase the number of those who live without labour; and that with an ever-increasing distribution of alms, there comes an ever-increasing outcry for more alms. Similarly throughout all their political thinking. Proximate causes and proximate results are alone contemplated.

But this is the bit I like the best. Just think of blaming recession on a deficiency of aggregate demand and you will see why this appeals to me as much as it does:

There is scarcely any consciousness that the original causes are often numerous and widely different from the apparent cause; and that beyond each immediate result there will be multitudinous remote results, most of them quite incalculable.

By coincidence, there was a resurrected article yesterday on the Mises Daily website that had been written by Henry Hazlitt in 1969 which was posted under the title, From Spencer’s 1884 to Orwell’s 1984. I will merely repeat two of the quotes from Spencer that Hazlitt had chosen but the entire article is quite worth the read. Firstly Spencer in 1884 complains about the increasingly intrusive regulations that are becoming worse by the year:

Regulations have been made in yearly growing numbers, restraining the citizen in directions where his actions were previously unchecked, and compelling actions which previously he might perform or not as he liked; and at the same time heavier public burdens … have further restricted his freedom, by lessening that portion of his earnings which he can spend as he pleases, and augmenting the portion taken from him to be spent as public agents please.

And then he note that governments are reducing self-reliance by inserting themselves into what had previously been left to individuals to deal with on their own:

The more numerous public instrumentalities become, the more is there generated in citizens the notion that everything is to be done for them, and nothing by them. Every generation is made less familiar with the attainment of desired ends by individual actions or private agencies; until, eventually, governmental agencies come to be thought of as the only available agencies.

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