Contemporaneous Living

A recent social media exchange reminded me of one of my favorite anthropological facts: human beings have been in Australia for some 50,000 years, but humans have been in New Zealand for less than 800 years. Just about a thousand miles of sea separate the two nations, but in dozens of millennia, it seems that nobody made the voyage across the Tasman Sea. In fact, when humans finally did arrive in New Zealand, they were Polynesians rather than Australians.

This fact does not tell us much about the cultures of the Maori people or the Aboriginal Australians, but it does help create a larger context for the settlement of New Zealand. A persistent problem in the study of history is the failure to appreciate “the big picture.” Maori settlement of New Zealand happened about the same time as the founding of the Ottoman Empire by Osman I. And although neither event had any effect on the other, knowledge of their coincidence can be interesting and helpful.

This sort of perspective is equally important (and striking) when thinking about historical figures. Many historical figures had famous relationships, such as Thomas More and Erasmus; Aristotle and Alexander the Great; Cicero and Julius Caesar; or Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. But other sets of contemporaries are less obvious. I remember very distinctly my surprise when I realized that Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States at the same time Napoleon was Emperor of France. (I had always thought of the Napoleonic Wars as pre-dating the American Revolution.) Likewise, had never thought of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as contemporaries, but they exchanged letters on the subject of war.

But one of the oddest examples, in my opinion, is Mohandas K. Gandhi. He exchanged letters with Count Leo Tolstoy (whom I would have guessed was dead before Gandhi was even born.) But Gandhi also actually wrote letters to Adolph Hitler (who was only 20 years his junior, and whom Gandhi out-lived by less than three years.)  What makes it so easy to be surprised by these connections is the fact that the Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Hitler are all associated with very different countries and periods. But, evidently, their places and times were not as disparate as they may seem at a glance. In fact, the world is much more interconnected than we often appreciate.

Beer of the week: Breakfast Beast – This imperial stout from Clown Shoes is aged in bourbon barrels with cold brewed coffee. It is very strong, and oily dark. It is also extremely thick and smooth. It is practically a complete breakfast. Delicious.

Reading of the week: Correspondence between Mohandas K. Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy – For additional historical perspective, consider the following: Gandi was murdered 7 years ago next Tuesday. These letters exchanged between him and Tolstoy are pretty special. In his letters Gandhi, a professed admirer of Tolstoy’s writings on pacifism, seeks support for political movements in South Africa (at that time, the Transvaal) and India (then, British India.) Tolstoy replies that “Your work in the Transvaal, which to us seems to be at the end of the earth, is yet in the centre of our interest.”

Question for the week: What is your favorite surprising historical coincidence? Or, if you prefer, what is your favorite historical gap? (For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza was older to Cleopatra than Cleopatra is to us.)

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Rediscovering Ibn Tufail

One of the great debates in the history of mathematics was that between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Newton had invented (or discovered, if you please) calculus, but did not publish any works on the subject. Some time thereafter, Leibniz also invented calculus, but he had his work published. Newton accused Leibniz of having stolen his idea, while Leibniz maintained that he had reached his conclusions independently.

It is possible, of course, for separate individuals to discover or invent the same methods independently. (In nature, an analogous process exists called convergent evolution, and it is freaking awesome.) Perhaps the most important aspect about language is that it allows humans to advance technologically. Because Leibniz was able to write down his method for calculus and share it with others, every future mathematician is spared the effort of inventing calculus herself.

And this is true of more than just mathematics. How many times must the wheel have been invented, lost, and reinvented until it was effectively passed down to enough people that we will never again have to re-invent the wheel? Likewise, beer may have been independently invented at various times around the world, but if every new batch could only be brewed by re-discovering fermentation, how could we ever have achieved the tremendous selections of beers available today?

The fantasy of an individual human in the state of nature (totally outside of society) is a popular notion. It features prominently in the philosophical works of Locke, Rousseau, and others. It also appears in fictional works such as Kipling’s Jungle Book and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. A philosophical and fictional book that is an excellent example of the theme is Philosophus Autodidactus (or Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān) by Ibn Tufail. The main character of that book is a foundling that is nursed and raised by a female deer. Over time, this man outside of society is able to discover a great deal about the world. But while the story is meant to show the capacity of humans to learn from their surroundings, I think that it unreasonably downplays the greatest advantage that we have when it comes to learning: the ability to learn from others so that each individual does not have to re-discover everything that has previously been learned before he can go any further.

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Beer of the week: Carta Blanca – Ibn Tufail’s writing is steeped in the epistemological concept of “tabula rasa”, a Latin phrase meaning “blank slate.” So it seems that Carta Blanca (Spanish for “white/blank card”) should be a good pairing. This Mexican beer is pretty good for what it is. It is a clear, refreshing lager. And, like so many Mexican beers, it really shines with some salt and lime. And home-made fish tacos.

Reading for the week: Philosophus Autodidactus by Ibn Tufail – Considering the fact that this book is about an entirely self-taught man, it is somewhat ironic how much of an influence it has been on so many important thinkers in the generations after it was first published in the early 12th century. In this excerpt, the title character learns about fire and performs crude experiments in biology.

Question for the week: Ibn Tufail’s character discovers not only a great deal in the field of natural philosophy, but he also discovers the precepts of natural religion. How far could an intelligent individual get if he had to start accumulating knowledge independently from the beginning?


Marginal Value

A reader recently asked me what price she should be willing to pay for cheap beer by the case. When buying beer at the liquor store (or “beer distributor” if I happen to be in Pennsylvania) I expect “sub-premium” beers (such as Hamm’sPBR, Miller High Life, Keystone, etc.) to be about $15.00 per 30 before tax. When buying slightly better beers, I regard it as a good deal if I can get beers at under $1.00 each. And, of course, one must be willing to pay more for better beers.

But it bears repeating that value is not intrinsic. So I repeat, in the words of Ludwig von Mises: “Value is not intrinsic, it is not in things. It is within us; it is the way in which man reacts to the conditions of his environment.” We may attempt to assign value to something, but those values mean nothing without human action. Either we buy at a given price or we do not. If we say “Pabst is not worth $25.00 per 30” but then still make that purchase, we are clearly mistaken. It is only the act of the sale that tells us anything concrete about value.

What’s more, values change relative to each other based on each individual’s hierarchy of wants. “If a man is faced with the alternative of giving up either one unit of his supply of a or one unit of his supply of b, he does not compare the total value of his total stock of a with the total value of his stock of b. He compares the marginal values both of a and of b. Although he may value the total supply of a higher than the total supply of b, the marginal value of b may be higher than the marginal value of a.” This helps shed light on the classic question of why gold is more prized than water, even though water is essential for human survival while gold is not. The answer lies in the fact that under most circumstances, the marginal value of a unit of water is less than the marginal value of a unit of gold. This is because water is generally plentiful enough to supply our basic needs. But it is equally true that in the severest drought, one would not part with a unit of water for any amount of gold; the marginal value of each has changed with the circumstances.

Beer of the week: Casablanca Premium Lager – Among the many conditions that factor into valuing beer is location. In Morocco one may expect to pay slightly more for a beer than one might expect given the prevailing exchange rates. The marginal value of the stock of beer is somewhat higher for its relative scarcity. (That is not to say that it is hard to get beer in Morocco; it is just a smaller market.) Casablanca, Morocco is one of the largest economic centers of Africa. It is also the source of this aptly named beer. Casablanca lager is clear and pale, with a very faint and dry aroma. It is a very standard micro, but plenty refreshing.

Reading of the week: Human Action by Ludwig von Mises – Later in this, his chef d’oeuvre, Mises writes: “The moralists’ and sermonizers’ critique of profits misses the point. It is not the fault of the entrepreneurs that the consumers–the people, the common man–prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories to serious books, and that governments prefer guns to butter. The entrepreneur does not make greater profits in selling “bad” things than in selling “good” things. His profits are the greater the better he succeeds in providing the consumers with those things they ask for most intensely.”

Question for the week: Do the common people truly prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories to serious books? Is it not simply true that the marginal value of a second Bible is quite low compared to the marginal value of a second drink?


Void Where Prohibited

In the 1860s, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case of McGuire v. Commonwealth. Mr. McGuire was prosecuted and convicted for retail distribution of liquor in Massachusetts, where the so-called “temperance movement” had taken hold. Regardless of his federally issued license to sell liquor, Mr. McGuire was indicted and convicted of selling liquor in violation of state law. At the Supreme Court, his attorneys argued that the federal power to sell licenses for the wholesale of liquor preempted the power of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to effectively nullify those licenses by prosecuting those who attempted to use them. If the states could do so, they would essentially hold the power to excuse themselves from the authority of Congress on any taxation and licensing issue. Their arguments were not availing.

Although the heart of the legal issue was the relationship between federal and state power, Messrs. Cushing and Richardson, the attorneys, were at their best in arguing against temperance laws on their own merits. They argued persuasively (especially to those of us with the benefit of hindsight) against prohibition. Many of their points are worth consideration for how prescient they were and how applicable they remain.

1. It is not true, as alleged, that wines, fermented liquors, or even distilled spirits, are poisons of themselves, otherwise than that everything we eat or drink may be deleterious if used in excess.

It is always striking how the word “temperance” is always used to mean “abstinence”, while the word itself surely implies “moderation.” And not only is alcohol not an evil in itself, it has health benefits as will be seen later.

2. In view of the example and injunctions of our Saviour and his Apostles, in this respect, it cannot be true that the use of wine is immoral of itself.

Rumor has it that there are actually certain Christian sects that claim that when Jesus turned water into wine that it was non-alcoholic because it did not have time to ferment. As if Jesus’s power was limited to changing water into grape juice and was insufficient for turning sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

3. It is not true, as pretended, that it is our duty to abstain utterly from any object of health or enjoyment because others may abuse it. The effect of this doctrine would be to deprive us of everything desirable, even the dearest of all human relations; since nothing exists for the use of man which some men will not abuse.

This is a very similar argument to the one made in an earlier post on this blog about prohibitions on gambling. Viz. the fact that some people are unreasonable is not a sufficient reason to ban reasonable people from X.

4. It avails nothing to make war on the sale of distilled spirits; for spirits may be distilled in every man’s kitchen, by means as cheap, as accessible, and as manageable as the preparation of a cup of tea or coffee; and if it were not so, other anaesthetic agents exist, which the law cannot reach, such as opium and bang, the familiar means of intoxication used by more than half of the human race, to say nothing of the professed anaesthetic medicaments.

There are two arguments here, both of which are commonly advanced regarding the prohibition on hemp. 1. Despite the insane amount of money spent on the “war on drugs”, hemp is still easy to grow or otherwise obtain, and 2. cracking down on any given drug drives people to other drugs, often more dangerous ones. Many people have observed that if hemp were more available and accepted, that would be a tremendous step toward overcoming the current opioid crisis.

5. The universal prevalence of the use of one or another object of this nature, in all ages, all countries, and all states of society, serves to show that they satisfy a physical exigency of man’s organization as imperative as that of food, and of course laws cannot eradicate, although they may regulate, such use.

Ah yes, the biological imperative to get impaired. People have always self-medicated for depression, anxiety, and all of the other conditions for which we have only lately had names. Wine may not be the best medicine for these maladies, but it is also far from the worst.

6. It shocks the sense of mankind, to prohibit absolutely by law the use of wines, fermented liquors, and distilled spirits as a healthful beverage in moderation of use; and the effect of such laws, if rigidly enforced, would only be to introduce by the side of the vice of drunkenness, the worse one of universal hypocrisy.

Again, the parallels with arguments over legalized hemp are stunning. Several states have decriminalized hemp specifically for medicinal use. Those who would impose a total ban on hemp “for the public health” are surely hypocrites in this regard.

7. It confounds all distinction of right and wrong, in the acts of instructed men, and in the conscience of the less instructed, to seek to elevate the use of wine to the dignity of an illegal and immoral thing, for the suppression of which all the energies of society should be tempestuously exerted.

There is a lot going on here. In the first place, there is an important misrepresentation of the law. The laws of prohibition (be they alcohol, hemp, opium, etc.) traditionally do not criminalize the use of the product. It is not illegal to consume hemp, it is illegal to have hemp. This distinction is important because laws properly curtail actions rather than things. One should always remember that when a law purports to ban a thing, it is actually banning you from doing something. All bans are essentially limits on personal freedom.

Secondly, they touch on the amount of government effort that would be required to actually suppress the consumption of alcohol. The combined effect of alcohol prohibition and the “war on drugs” set back society immeasurably, if only because of the tremendous waste of money and manpower on the (attempted) enforcement of these laws.

The so-called temperance agitation has effected no abatement, in the whole, of the use or abuse of intoxicating drinks, and in the end will probably produce, by recoil, a state of things worse than that which existed before the agitation. No superiority then over the nation is due to those legislators of Massachusetts, who pretend to be “more powerful than Nature, wiser than Truth, better than God.”

Hear, hear!

Beer of the week: Lakefront IPA – It is a new year, but not a new beer. I’ve had this Milwaukee brew several times, and occasionally on-site at the Lakefront Brewery. The head leaves plenty of good lacing on the glass. The flavor is quite balanced, with a solid malt body layered with plenty of juicy hops. Lakefront are certainly doing good work.

Reading of the week: McGuire v. The Commonwealth, 70 U.S. 3 Wall 387 (1866) – There are some people who think that government regulation is the solution to every societal problem. But positive law is extremely limited in what it can accomplish. As the learned counsellors argue: “English and American society has been floundering along from one folly to another in the paths of false theory and unphilosophical legislation, under the influence of the idea that statute law is the all-sufficient remedy of every sort of human infirmity; an idea which is itself the special human infirmity of the well-intentioned people of New England.”

Question for the week: The temperance movement was led by Christians. What is the strongest scriptural basis for a policy of teetotaling?