Wednesday, August 21, 2002

In the April 26 issue of the New York Review of Books K. Anthony Appiah reviewed Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. Ronald Dworkin is an author I respect, but the degree to which apparently he bends to justify the moral imperative of economic freedom, and the degree to which Appiah follows him, is mind-bogglingly absurd. Dworkin has taken for granted, and Appiah solemnly agrees, that any effort to rein in a drive to acquire is at best a necessary evil. And Dworkin spends most of the book making an apologetic and incredibly convoluted argument for how to do it while not limiting some notion of freedom. I mentioned the article to my mother, the Lutheran anarchist, and she had already read it. She had an absolute fit. I think, "Fucking idiots!" was the first thing out of her mouth.
Why the need to defend the 10% (or is it 15%?) of the population who actually want to be wealthy?

In the summer of 1997 I spent a few weeks on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean. On the weekends I would visit a friend living in a summer condo by the sea. Xavier lived with his wife Natalia upstairs from her parents, her younger brother, her sister's two children -Pablo age 5 and "The Terrible" Cassilda, age 7- who were living next door to a family consisting of an old friend of Xavier, his parents, and his sister, who was Natalia's brother's girlfriend. Each apartment was about the size of a small 2 bedroom hotel suite. The whole place in fact was designed like a hotel. When I was there I slept on the couch.

At night, even at 1 AM, there are about 40 people of all ages by the swimming pool. The old men are smoking cigars; the middle aged men are working out chord changes to a song by Lou Reed or Bob Marley; their wives are either working or watching the children, depending upon whether you ask the women or the men; the adolescents are flirting with each other, which also here seems to happen in groups.

One afternoon I'm sitting watching an absurd and very funny game show on TV Two small towns compete against each for prize money. One contest is an obstacle course that the contestants race over while wearing inflatible fat suits. Barely able to walk, one person after another, each looking like a fully inflated beach ball with four stubs and a padded helmet would have to make it up and down a ramp and over a rapidly moving treadmill over a fence and then step, left-right, through a set of tires. I watched a middle aged woman, who may well have been the mayor's wife, literally roll and bounce almost a foot off the ground while a live audience of 500 people from both towns roar with laughter. Next they set the winners from each town on pedestals while a member of the opposite team played torreador trying to guide a young bull with (padded) horns to knock them off. Between the bull's strength and balloon's air one man made it a meter off the ground, did a full flip with a one and half twist before landing on his head and rolling away.

After the show ends I sit on the couch with Natalia's brother watching him be harassed mercilessly by Pablo and The Terrible Cassilda. "Aren't you ever alone?" I ask.
"No, I have no privacy"
"Doesn't that bother you?"
"Why should it? This is my family"

Economists, even ones I respect seem more often than not to see their subject in some sense as their goal. Their defense of their position reminds me of the defensiveness Steven Weinberg has about science. Ask Weinberg why he became a physicist and he gives an answer based on physics.* But such an answer is circular. One cannot defend a choice by using the terms of the choice. You only can answer by stating the questions that such a choice answers.
"Why did you become an economist?"
"Because I like the way things and events and social relations can be quantified"

The quantification of the world is not the world. The quantification of human experience can never be the definition of human experience, while a work of art is such a definition, always. But that's doesn't make it a true one does it?
The contradictions of a poet's love...

*Where I got that I don't know. Weinberg very specifically and to his credit says the opposite: science can't justify science.

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