"the blogger whose youthful effusions have won him bookmarks all over Whitehall ... horribly compelling" - The Guardian
Monday, January 03, 2005
Books of 2004 (II)
Here goes with Part II. It occurs to me I am being very positive on the whole, so sorry to anyone who wants a better mix. Bear in mind that a book is not like a film, which one tends to finish having started it. If you really think a book is bad, you tend just to stop reading. Those I review here are those I finished.
Why Government Is the Problem - Milton Friedman
(My favourite T. E. Utley anecdote: Denis Thatcher was talking to Utley's wife, and asked him at what age he went blind. She then told him that her husband had been unable to see since the age of nine. At this point when others had asked her this, people would normally exclaim: "Then he can never have seen you!". But Denis Thatcher immediately exclaimed: "Then he can never have seen Margaret!".)
In Age of Consent, George Monbiot advocates a new global government, and sets out the steps on the way to get us there. Unfortunately, it doesn't make sense. The whole idea that the world is on an inevitable course towards global unity under one government is itself touchingly naive and typically rationalist (in the philosophical sense; I don't mean that as a compliment). He lists all the other steps, from city-state to nation and so on, as if the growth of bigger and bigger bodies is something people and governments desire for their own sake. But anyone who understands human nature will know that large groups of people only unite successfully when they conceive of their interests in opposition to another group. American college football teams are a picture of ethnic diversity, white and black working together so successfully as to put ordinary college relations to shame. But it's precisely because the other side will crush them that they do work so well together. Ordinary campus race relations don't run nearly so smoothly because there is no other to work against. Maybe alien invaders will solve that one for Monbiot, but their arrival would, I think, present bigger problems than it would solve.
I found Age of Consent just weird, to be honest. The long passages explaining why anarchism wouldn't mean a non-violent utopia, for example, suggest he wasn't really aiming at a very down to earth audience. There were whole pages on anarchism that would be too obvious to need saying to anyone who hadn't pot-smoked away their critical faculties.
The critique of international trade was central to the book, and at its basis was the idea that importing goods and services is about the worst thing that could possibly happen to a country, exports the route to riches. This rather popular notion is of course exactly the wrong way around - imports are the benefit; exports the cost.
Of course, the main suggestion of the book - that the third world threaten together to default on all its debt in return for a new world structure - would only futher impoverish their countries for at least a generation. Secure property rights are an absolute prerequisite for any economic progress. If governments are willing to jeopardise that for the sake of playing politics, no one in their right mind would dare risk leaving their capital lying around to be seized by these crooks in suits, nor loaning it to them at anything but the most punitive interest rates. Cutting off your nose to spite your face doesn't begin to describe the folly of such a move.
Perhaps the best innovation of the whole book is his simple test for a state intervention: the trendline test. Take a problem government is aiming to solve, and graph the trends, and see if there really is any noticable difference in those trends after government gets involved. What a great tool for examining policies, it being an utterly objective way to test various claims and counter-claims. Indeed, I recall David Willetts - who I'm sure has read Murray - using the trendline test to devastating effect at the 2003 Tory Conference in explaining why the New Deal has done nothing to reduce unemployment.
Why sex? Surely there are features of human nature other than this one overexposed and troublesome procreative pasttime. True enough, but reproduction is the sole goal for which human beings are designed ... Those of their predecessors that reproduced passed on their characteristics to their offspring; those that remained barren did not. Therefore, anything that increased the chances of a person reproducing was passed on at the expense of anything else. We can confidently assert that there is nothing in our natures that was not carefully "chosen" in this way for its ability to contribute to eventual reproductive success.
Or, to give a practical example:
Why has that man fallen in love with that woman? Because she's pretty. Why does pretty matter? Because human beings are a mainly monogamous species and so males are choosy about their mates (as male chimpanzees are not); prettiness is an indication of youth and health, which are indications of fertility. Why does that man care about fertility in his mate? Because if he did not, his genes would be eclipsed by those of men who did. Why does he care about that? He does not, but his genes act as if they do. Those who choose infertile mates leave no descendants. Therefore, everybody is descended from men who preferred fertile women, and every person inherits from his ancestors the same preference.
There hasn't been a day since I read this book I haven't found it useful in understanding real world motivations and actions. More than the practical side, it is huge in its political implications. Yes, science is (or should be) above politics, but if that's true then politics certainly isn't above science, so if the science tells you a political scheme or view is impracticable, you'd better listen. And what is obvious throughout the book is how imbedded in our natures are enormous sex differences, and a plethora of preferences when one looks for a partner or mate. There is no blank slate on which any social and sexual model can be built, but an entire superstructure of reactionary preferences and inclinations. I cannot imagine anyone of a remotely socially liberal outlook reading this book and not being both infuriated and profoundly depressed.
The Red Queen explains why, in the old phrase, men use love to get sex and women use to sex to get love. It shows that from these scientific realities flow so many implications: male homosexuality being extremely promiscuous and female homosexuality extremely monogamous; men consuming pornography and women romance novels and scarcely if ever is there a crossover; why men make the 'Madonna-Whore distinction' between loose women they will happily sleep with and chaste women they will trust as wives; and the answer to all manner of questions one might not have thought to look to evolution for the answer.
The book is also quite poignant in describing the darker side of human nature, and how sex and love can drive people to brutality. Ridley reveals just how often throughout history whole armies of men have been led to war by the opportunity to rape women and girls after victory as much as by fear or patriotism. Anyone inclined to believe that mating fights are restricted to animals and savage tribes will be shaken out of that by the amazing story of British sailers stranded on the Paitcairn in 1790. After they arrived, there was a slight sex imbalance: fifteen men to thirteen women. When the colony was discovered eighteen years later, ten of the women had survived, and one man. Of the other fourteen men, one had died, one had committed suicide and twelve had been murdered. "The survivor was simply the last man left standing in an orgy of violence motivated entirely by sexual competition." Obviously this latter story does not bode well for those who advocate the redefinition of marriage to allow polygamy and the like, and Ridley appears to view mass rape and social disorder as an entirely plausible consequence of so many men in any society unable to find partners as a result of a fortunate few marrying multiple women.
This is one of those books that gives the reader a new perspective with which to view the world. I can't imagine anyone not benefitting from absorbing its message.
If I have by now persuaded you to check out this book, let me only advise in addition two things. First, some of the opening chapters, entirely on animals, are not essential to appreciating the rest of the book, so if you find them very tedious skip them, but don't stop reading. Second, that if you haven't read Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, then you'll get more out of Ridley by doing so before starting on The Red Queen.
This is basically the sort of book you would expect a lonesome Marxist nerd who supports Sinn Fein or FARC to write, though such fantasists would use the bourgeoisie and the upper classes in place of black and Jewish people. Theoretically, it might be well worth reading for its own sake despite its politics, if it boasted brilliant writing, and a fantastic storyline. I can assure you it doesn't. Of academic interest only.
This book can be read for free online if you Google its title.