Monday, April 29, 2013

Shall We Crucify Mankind on a Cross of Austerity?

My post on the 17th Amendment got me thinking about William Jennings Bryan. What a character that guy was. He enjoys lingering fame for his efforts to force a newly-strengthened Washington DC to acknowledge and reflect the Will of the People. But most interestingly, he's also possessed of his fair share of infamy thanks to his participation in The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes and the embarrassing drubbing he got on the stand at the hands of Clarence Darrow: "We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States." Ouch.

It's not my purpose here to dredge up the ugliness of the early Progressives. Instead, consider Bryan's approach to free exchange between consenting adults: those exchanges against which he bore enmity were to be the subject of control by the state. He did not champion for the virtue of temperance, he championed for the vice of wrath, channeled through the iron truncheon of the 19th Amendment.

In retrospect, we look back at the moral shortcomings of Bryan and men like him and chortle at their bucolic, benighted values, smirking and patting ourselves on the back at our obviously superior morality.

Yet still we turn to the unremitting power of the state to ossify our evaluations of euvoluntarity, expecting the eschaton ere long. Scott Sumner tries to sell monetary policy as a free lunch. Paul Krugman says that anyone who disagrees with him is a liar, a fool, or worse.

W.J. Bryan's arrogance did a lot of damage. Apart from being a prohibitionist, he was a war hawk. Sumner and Krugman probably won't be responsible for the rise of a large criminal underclass or the deaths of hundreds of thousands of young men in the cold Continental mud, but is it at least possible that history will judge each of us poorly? Is it possible that our grave certitude is inexact? Is it possible that we're wrong?

Therein lies the comparison: what are the relative consequences between a) being right and failing to act and b) being wrong and acting. This is a hardheaded question that deserves clear, hardheaded thinking. The euvoluntarity of future generations depends on it.

What are your null hypotheses?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?