Saturday, March 16, 2013

Further thoughts on Mises and the line "you are inferior"

If you're going to defend him, do it how Jonathan Catalan did in the comment section, not the way Current did.

There is an inherent ability distribution. It is augmented by the acquisition of human and social capital during a person's life, largely as a function of the wealth of that person's family and society but also as a function of the initial inherent ability distribution.

Together, that creates a skill distribution. And it is a distribution (i.e. - some people have more than others and indeed there get to be some very thin tails for some skills). Granted, there are a variety of skills we can talk about and few people are unusually good at a whole lot of things.

People in the tails of these distributions clearly enrich our lives.

This is all fine.

However, to the extent that I am talented in this sense, if I ever talk about people who are to the left of me on a given skills distribution where I excel (remember, there are many distributions) as "inferior" people, somebody please take me aside, give me a good walloping, and talk some sense into me.

When you go from talking about skills distributions to talking about whole groups of people being "inferior" then something is very, very wrong - at least in my opinion (and I happen to think that opinion is right, otherwise I wouldn't be holding it).

This, of course, doesn't even get into the question of how much value is generated by comparative rather than absolute advantage. A lot of the value we enjoy is generated by people that are rather to the left of the skill distribution relevant to the skills they are applying to production.

17 comments:

  1. Dk wrote: "However, to the extent that I am talented in this sense, if I ever talk about people who are to the left of me on a given skills distribution where I excel (remember, there are many distributions) as "inferior" people, somebody please take me aside, give me a good walloping, and talk some sense into me."

    yes, I agree this is problematic. But it need not be indicative of malicious feelings on Mises's part. it could also simply be a result of English not being his native language or a just a crudely, hastily worded comment. Unless there are other parts of Mises's work that also seem to indicate some similar less than wholesome feelings I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

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    1. From the Wikipedia article on von Mises:

      "At the age of twelve Ludwig spoke fluent Yiddish, German, Polish, and French, read Latin, and could understand Ukrainian."

      True, he did not speak English yet, but he was no dummy as far as languages were concerned. He knew what he was saying. (Besides, English "inferior" is virtually the same in French and Latin.)

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  2. It's a horrific comment and Current just restated it in slightly more amicable terms.

    But it seems to me Mises was simply trying to make an ally of Rand, who herself was actually that malicious.

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  3. Rand probably was, yeah. As well as a horrible writer.

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  4. Obviously, Mises and Rand fell into the 'inferior' category.

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  5. "However, to the extent that I am talented in this sense, if I ever talk about people who are to the left of me on a given skills distribution where I excel (remember, there are many distributions) as 'inferior' people, somebody please take me aside, give me a good walloping, and talk some sense into me."

    It's not very polite certainly, I would never say it. But, is it actually wrong? Mises says similar things in more acceptable ways in his books.

    I think what Mises is talking about isn't so much about skills distributions within specific fields. What he's thinking about is overall contribution to society. Some people contribute vastly more than others. Some of that is luck. Inherited wealth and opportunities play a huge part too. As Daniel says, people are not born with equal ability.

    Anyway, however talents are acquired the fact remains that some people contribute far more than others. Social Determinists may say that if Napolean (for example) hadn't being born then someone else would have served in his place and history would have been similar. That argument is very difficult to make in modern market economies though. We live in a world where very many people can start businesses in their garages, and many do. Only a few of them succeed though. Suppose that Elon Musk hadn't being born, does that mean that someone else (or many people) would have done the things he did? It's not likely because taking the case where he exists we would expect to see those people doing the same things anyway. But, we don't see many Paypals, many electric car companies or many space companies. Of course, a good deal of success in business can be luck, I'm not denying that but we can't write it all off that way.

    Taking contribution to society as a benchmark, none of us want to think of ourselves as "inferior". Rand and Mises would be the first to say that thinking that way isn't good for personal development. But we have to admit that there is a "spectrum" of contributions, which is just putting things more politely. We have to put this fact to ourselves politely. To do otherwise is just to deny reality to make ourselves feel better.

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    1. "Social Determinists may say that if Napolean (for example) hadn't being born then someone else would have served in his place and history would have been similar. That argument is very difficult to make in modern market economies though. We live in a world where very many people can start businesses in their garages, and many do. Only a few of them succeed though."

      I do not subscribe to that theory, but I would have thought that modern market economies would support the idea, because it facilitates competition. In almost all races, the second best is almost as good as the first, and is similar in a number of ways besides performance. Switching winners is not likely to make much of a broad difference. If Microsoft had not bought CPM from IBM, somebody else with similar expertise and attitudes probably would have.

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    2. To begin with that's an huge mangling of the history of personal computing. Microsoft did not buy CPM from IBM, IBM didn't even own CPM.

      Secondly, operating systems are an unusual case. An OS become popular in large part because of the set of applications written for it. It's not a product that stands and falls on it's own.

      But, most products and services aren't like that. Yet, in most pioneering market sectors we don't see huge numbers of businesses that push profit rates down quickly.

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  6. Continued....

    Asking "where do geniuses come from", brings up the obvious problem with this line of thought. Mises says somewhere that the cause of the improvement in the living standards of the masses are two relatively small groups, he names entrepreneurs and "technical experts", as far as I can remember. There are three problems here.... Firstly, we could all name other groups that are important too, though that doesn't change the principle much. Secondly, in some cases the Determinists are probably right, and if person X didn't exist then person Y would have taken their place, roughly speaking.

    Lastly, even to the extent that Mises is right, those important people often come from the masses themselves. Mises is labelling them differently because of what they've done. Mises doesn't talk about this mostly because it's tangential to his point. He's not saying "yah, boo, sucks, common man, you're inferior", he's not saying they're stupid (uncreative maybe), he points out that they aren't in dozens of places in his books. He's not arguing for giving up on Democracy. We can all agree on the limitations of ordinary voters (in which I'd include myself), without thinking that Autocracy or Aristocracy would be superior. Other types of government don't really depend on merit. Whoever the government are they have to do what the masses want for important decisions or risk revolution anyway. The point Mises wants to draw out is that exceptional people must be free to act so that they can contribute. In one of his books he gives as an example the better standard of retail stores enjoyed by Americans compared to Europeans. He points out that it's doubtful that Americans are better workers, and America may not have better entrepreneurs. The difference in his opinion was the regulations which limited how businesses operated in Europe (limitations on chain stores for example).

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  9. Shorter Mises, shorter Rand:

    "The poor man is the DEVIL!"

    We might go on to observe that, prior to Frederick Douglass, there were very few slaves in America who made much of an individual contribution. So, clearly, slaveholders had picked the right people to be slaves -- they were obviously inferior people who had nothing better than hard labor to contribute.

    Blech.

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    1. That's a fair complaint about the age of slavery, but it says nothing about the modern age.

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  10. Daniel

    Where is the line between Mises and Nixon?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21768668

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  11. DK,

    You're responding to the tone of Mises which puts you near the bottom of Paul Graham's Disagreement Hierarchy. Work harder.

    http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/michael/blog/images/disagreement-hierarchy.jpg

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