Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity…
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done
there is nothing new under the sun.
Part of my job is to come up with new ideas to address issues that everyone else in my industry is also trying to address. And having spent some time in that space I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever come up with a completely original idea that wasn’t followed quickly by dozens of other people arriving at the same conclusion. Oh I’ve thought of lots of things that were pretty unique, and they certainly seemed original to me at the time, in fact thinking outside the box is one of my really great strengths. But even when I’m at my best, I’m usually conceiving of something just minutes ahead of a huge mob of other people, who arrive at the same conclusions as me, albeit taking a slightly longer route to get there. The simple fact is that logical steps lead to logical steps, and when you start in the same place as someone else, there are only so many possible next steps that are reasonable so many people make them pretty close to simultaneously.
But that isn’t just true of the reasonable and logical conclusions. It’s always seemed ironic to me that many illogical and ridiculous conclusions are simultaneously reached as well. Its so prevalent in fact, that I’m quite certain that the guy out there who believes the best route to world peace is for us all to abandon our homes and go live in holes in the ground, covering our bodies only with caked on mud, has probably already gotten a small group of followers. It’s my experience that no idea is so ridiculous or insipid that you can’t find at least a few people who are willing to believe it’s the truth.
But for the most part, it’s the logical paths through the field of ideas that receive the most traffic. In fact, that’s sort of how we define “reasonable and logical”. The most reliable thought process will continue to accumulate supporting evidence. That’s why the works of Socrates, Augustine, Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton (along with uncountable others) have all been so heavily referenced by thinkers across the centuries. More recently its people like Hayek, Friedman and Sowell whose ideas are laying the basis for future consideration, while the thoughts of others are along paths, which get quickly overgrown.
The poorly reasoned ideas turn out to be dead ends. Communism for instance, is probably the ultimate bad idea of politics so far, but it still drew quite a substantial crowd in the front half of the 20th century. And although its popularity has recently waned, it still continues to attract a “dim bulb” follower or two who are attracted to it’s Utopian promise and are un-persuaded by the 100 million or so dead civilians it’s left in its wake. Like I said, there is no idea so foolish that someone won’t follow it, and communism is no exception.
There are some bad ideas on the political right too. And while they don’t compare with communism in terms of the scale of human misery they create, they are just as easily identifiable as ideological dead ends. For instance, I got into a little disagreement with some college kid from Czechoslovakia over on Oleg Volk’s website about my essay: The real opiate of the masses. It seems this kid, (I call him a kid but the truth is I only assume he’s a kid because his ideas seem so adolescent) has gotten it in his head that we would all be better off if “just the people who know something about politics were allowed to vote.” He looked at modern politics and decided that Democracy was the most important component of a free society, (rather than say… the checks and balances of the American system) and he figured it could be improved if we could just find a way to ditch the “stupid people”, otherwise known as “the people who don’t agree with him”.
To be fair, you can’t really blame an eastern block undergraduate for not knowing much about American history. I guess he’s never been taught about those stories from the post civil war era where they would manage the voting “literacy test” by having white men read a memorized page from the bible, while black men would have to read a newspaper published in Cantonese. But if the kid is clever enough, we can assume that he would eventually get to some of the important questions about his “new idea”; like “If there is a test for political entitlement, who is it that gets to decide what’s on the test?” or “If it’s the government deciding, then how is it that you can manage to keep it from is becoming a political issue?” or “If you can’t keep it from being politicized, then how can you at least keep it from becoming partisan?” Any of those questions will eventually reveal the ideological dead end that he’s running down.
And while his specific point was sophomoric, the fact that he’s able to raise it at all bodes really well for western society. Technology has now made learning about other peoples mistakes into a much more egalitarian endeavor. These days it’s down right easy for this kid to learn that he isn’t actually thinking of something new at all, but instead, he’s just making the same old mistakes that were made in America 150 years ago. And that’s a good thing because he’s going to learn it without accidentally empowering some European green party thug to demand that he quote the inanities of the eco-movement in Farsi, in order to determine if he should be allowed to vote or not.
It’s become so easy to learn which ideas continue to show promise and which ideas are demonstrated foolishness, that for much of the classic silliness, the smartest people have already moved on. In the 60’s the most respected intellectuals in the world all thought that communism was inevitable and that we would all be better off if we just sped the process along. But today, the only people who still believe that believe that are much further to the left on the intellectual bell curve. To fully embrace communism these days, you have to be willing to admit in polite society that you are either very young and naive, or that you aren’t very smart. We’ve moved beyond that now because technology has allowed us to “grow up” as a culture. And it’s my thinking that it will eventually end the “permanent adolescence” that the west has experience as a holdover from the 60’s and 70’s.
But even with that said, it can be pretty frustrating to see these new kids making the very same set of mistakes that everyone has made before them, but it’s important to keep it in perspective. Years ago, it would have taken them decades to learn how “full of it” their university English department was, if they learned about it at all. There are still plenty of geriatric “left side of the bell curve” hippies out there who believe that no political philosophy is worth a damn unless it can be made to rhyme with “hey hey, ho ho”. But with today’s students, the Internet will let them learn things so quickly that it will probably only take them a few years to get over that phase. Everyone starts life naive and innocent and can be easily misled, but these days they gain wisdom so quickly, that they will almost certainly live long enough to get much further down the path to truth that we will.
I have a friend who was riding the subway to work a while back, and looked across the car at a ragged “hippie looking” kid who was sitting there reading a book. His hair was long, his beard unkempt and his Birkenstocks atypical for the winter NYC weather. He was obviously a college kid who was in the process of “finding himself” by rebelling against the established order, and you could tell because he looked exactly like every other kid who was rebelling. (The irony of that would have been wasted on him) His type has been a fixture on the urban scene for 4 decades but there was something about this kid that was different. He wasn’t reading “Das Kapital”, or some pretend history by Howard Zinn. He was reading “"The Road To Serfdom”. If this were the 60’s, he’d have been laughed out of the “peoples revolutionary committee” meeting for reading that book. But these days, it just means he’s going to get hired before everyone else.
That’s my kind of revolution.