The Great Ideas are Simple
I almost titled this article “Cut the Crap,” but I decided at the last minute it was just a bit too undignified.
I found myself in an Internet flame war yesterday with Kevin Carson who had written a blog called “Libertarians for Junk Science.” Carson and I had crossed swords in the past when he attended a Yahoo Group I moderated for the Movement for the Libertarian Left.
The MLL had been started by Samuel Edward Konkin III who thought there could be libertarian outreach to leftists by teaching them how their revolutionary anti-ruling-class values could best be achieved by first understanding how the Austrian School of Economics, through Konkin’s theories of counter-economics and Agorism, destroyed what they called Capitalism and what Sam called State Capitalism.
After Sam passed away in 2004 J. Kent Hastings took over as list moderator, and got to a point where he wanted me to take over the moderator’s duties. What I found when I started paying attention to the list was that instead of being an outreach of libertarian ideas to the left, the list had become doctrinaire leftist and any attempts to reintroduce libertarian ideas resulted in typical leftist tantrums.
So I set up rules to keep posts courteous and on topic, deleting posts which failed to meet those standards … and a war started against me, calling me an authoritarian fascist. As I said, typical leftist tactics, and the reason Sam — who observed how the SDS had been taken over by doctrinaire Marxists during the Vietnam War — had set the MLL list up to be moderated in the first place.
Kevin Carson was one of those unhappy with the way I was moderating the list. Apparently allowing libertarian ideas on a libertarian list was displeasing to the leftists who had — when Kent was simply allowing anything to be posted — taken the list over.
It’s not my purpose here to reignite those flame wars — either the one on MLL or the one that took place yesterday in the comment section of Carson’s blog.
But I did find in that discussion yesterday a theme worth coming back to my own turf to write about.
It’s this. If an idea can’t be expressed simply and elegantly, it’s bullshit.
Take, for example, the central theme of Christianity: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Five words. If you need to make it a bit more explicit, it doesn’t add very many more words: “Whatever excuses you make for your own faults, give those same breaks to everyone else.”
Or how about Marxism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” It’s an easily understandable idea. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea — but you need to understand the simple idea that “People won’t work if they don’t feel they’re getting the benefits of working” before you understand why putting it into practice has severe unintended consequences.
The ideas that Kevin Carson and I were flaming each other over had to do with the source of “value” — a fairly abstract concept to begin with.
Adam Smith and Karl Marx held to the idea that the value of a thing was dependent on how much labor went into making it. That idea is called the labor theory of value. That simple idea is the basis of both classical economics and Marxism.
A later economist, Ludwig von Mises, contended that the value of a thing comes from an individual’s desire for it at a particular instant in time, as compared to other objects of desire. That’s called the subjective theory of value. It’s the basis for the laissez-faire economics promoted by libertarians.
Kevin Carson has a theory which attempts to “subjectivize” labor theory of value. To me, that’s like trying to go north and south at the same time. Two simple ideas that lead in different directions can’t be combined, and the trick of making it look as if you have done so requires a magician’s sleight of hand.
We live today in a country filled with sleight-of-hand artists selling bullshit.
The President and Congress of the United States are trying to put forth an improvement on health care, by moving funding and control of it from health-care-providers to the government. In doing so they are trying to replace one simple idea — health care is a marketplace good just like food or clothing — with another simple idea: something as important as your health is too important to be left to the marketplace. The assumption of this second idea is also simple: the government is better at making important decisions than you are.
The thousands of words of argument and the legislation being debated all depends on these simple ideas, but special interests — both private like pharmaceutical manufacturers and insurance companies, and public like politicians addicted to aggrandizing wealth and power for themselves — work hard at hiding how simple the real questions are.
Or take global warming. It’s a simple idea: What human beings exhale — carbon dioxide — is a poison that is destroying the earth.
Makes it real easy to take sides on that one once you realize that the fact that you’re alive is their problem, doesn’t it?
Or even more directly, “Having babies is destroying the earth.”
Sort of starts to make a pattern, doesn’t it?
How about, “Being rich is unfair to the poor — so make the rich poor and the poor rich.”
How’s that again?
Yes, it comes down to ideas that when you peel away the layers are that simple.
The people who want to run your life want you to feel stupid. They want you to regard them as the experts.
If they can make you feel stupid enough to regard them as experts, they’ve won — and winning in this case means they’re the master and you’re their flunkie. When they whistle, you’d better hop to.
I don’t trust anyone who can’t express their “great” idea in a few words. That, to me, is the signature of a bullshit artist.
And we’re up to our waist in such waste these days, aren’t we?
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