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Anyone Can Make a Difference

Michael Shermer reviews Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything in The Wall Street Journal

excerpt of the review

Examples abound in Mr. Ridley’s analysis. To cite a few: “The growth of technology, the sanitation-driven health revolution, the quadrupling of farm yields so that more land can be released for nature—these were largely emergent phenomena, as were the Internet, the mobile phone revolution, and the rise of Asia.”

Such examples are obvious once they are explained (which Mr. Ridley does exquisitely), but our intuitions lead us to overemphasize design and direction. “Thus, it seems that generals win battles; politicians run countries; scientists discover truths; artists create genres; inventors make breakthroughs; teachers shape minds; philosophers change minds; priests teach morality; businessmen lead businesses; conspirators cause crises; gods make morality.” Sic semper tyrannis.

Mr. Ridley’s opus will not be well received by those who believe they are smarter than the masses, who think that most people are not capable of self-governance, who fancy themselves as intelligent social designers, or who simply have a hard time imagining non-command-and-control solutions to problems. Yet there is something profoundly democratic and egalitarian—even anti-elitist—in this bottom-up approach: Everyone can have a role in bringing about change regardless of intelligence, education, family background, socioeconomic class, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or any other category by which we are wont to divide ourselves. In self-organizing emergent systems anyone can participate and make a difference. What will you do?

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Qualitative Liberalism


From Never Enough by William Voegeli

“The broader social problem was that the alleviation of poverty, whether from government programs or the advance of capitalism, had liberated people to pursue private goals, which, though not necessarily antisocial, were apt to be asocial in ways liberals did not approve of. Echoing The Affluent Society, The Nation editorialized in 1965, “The affluent tend to be mindless, shut off from reality, lost in a surfeit of silly possessions and sillier pursuits.” Galbraith himself was fond of the adage that we should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, “especially when they are comfortably, contentedly, even happily wrong.” The implication of that “especially” is that when the comfortable are not smug, or not even wrong, they still deserve to be afflicted just for .”

“In 1957, Arthur Schlesinger tried to solve both these problems, to give liberalism something to be about in a time of prosperity and to give economically secure citizens a reason to welcome its new reforms. He wrote that the New Deal’s establishment of the welfare state and Keynesian management of the economy heralded the completion of the work of “quantitative liberalism.” Its logical and necessary successor should be “qualitative liberalism,” which would “oppose the drift into the homogenized society. It must fight spiritual unemployment as [quantitative liberalism] once fought economic unemployment. It must concern itself with the quality of popular culture and the character of lives to be lived in our abundant society.”

Excerpt From: William Voegeli. “Never Enough.” iBooks.




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The Understanding of Limits


One of the significant lessons of the 20th Century intellectual history is the limitation of great minds and ideas, the inability and failure of some of the brightest thinkers to comprehend the consequences of their grand ideas, designed with great thought and benevolent intentions.

Perhaps the environment changed faster than their underlying assumptions could adapt, especially when these ideas become embedded in political structure.  Perhaps treating people like inputs in a model or herds of animals corralled and shepherded by intellectual elites is bound to meet resistance or disaster.

The key difference between intellect and wisdom is humility and the understanding of limits.


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To Suffer Together



From Never Enough by William Voegeli

“Etymologically, “compassion” means to suffer together. “Together,” however, is different from “identically.” Compassion is not the same as selflessness, and not really the opposite of selfishness. Rather, it provides a basis for helping other people that is materially disinterested but emotionally self-regarding. As Rousseau wrote in Emile, “[W]hen the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself. . . .” Or, as Jean Bethke Elshtain has said, “Pity is about how deeply I can feel. And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs.”

At the level of moral psychology, the difficulty arises when I can alleviate my suffering, which is brought on by the evidence of your suffering, despite the continuation of your suffering, despite the collateral damage my response inflicts on bystanders, and even despite the creation of new and worse problems for you. Because of compassion we suffer together. I help you in order that I might feel better. But once I do feel better, compassion has done its work—and provides no basis for me to concern myself with all the messy implications of whatever I’ve done for (or to) you.”

Excerpt From: William Voegeli. “Never Enough.” iBooks.


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Decadent Risk


from Daniel Greenfield at Sultan Knish, A Tour of  Our Decadent Civilization


Vigorous civilizations pursue meaningful risks. Decadent civilizations pursue meaningless ones. For a vigorous civilization, adventure ends with an accomplishment. For a decadent civilization, risk is the accomplishment.

The decadent civilization obsessively manages risk. Its layers of government are mainly dedicated to that task. Accomplishment in a decadent civilization becomes a difficult task because of the many lawyers of corporate and government risk management standing in the way of getting anything done.

Fear is the true currency of the decadent civilization. A corrupted fear that is used to expand a vast bureaucracy that claims to manage risk, but in reality manages who is allowed to circumvent it. Groups are stampeded into accepting new tiers of fear government and fear authority based on the risk that something might happen. And yet the source of the fear is never dealt with.

A vigorous civilization rushes out to deal with threats. A decadent civilization imprisons itself out of fear.