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Sublime Failure

October 8, 2009

William Gillis posed this question today on his Facebook profile:

A communist with some degree of knowledge on the subject once told me that what defined anarchists and anarchism was a total incapacity for any form of acceptance. In short, our affinity for valiant loosing battles was not indicative of any moral superiority, but rather a strange psychological — and possibly neurological — handicap when it came to surrender. Ignoring the source, what say you?

I’m inclined to take a different angle and agree with Guyau that, far from a handicap, it is “a medium useful for the development of life itself” “raised into sublimity”, that it instead represents what is well and good about being human, a virtue, as long as it is considered in unity with other virtues, such as reason. But the success of the struggle itself is not what makes the goal rational or a sign of flourishing in the individual, I think.

It is rare that real sacrifices present themselves in life as certain. The soldier, for instance, is not certain of falling in the fight; far from it: there is here only a mere possibility. In other words, there is danger. Now, it is necessary to see if danger, even independently of all idea of moral obligation, is not a medium useful for the development of life itself—a powerful stimulant of all the faculties, capable of carrying them to their maximum of energy, and capable also of producing a maximum of pleasure…

Let us note that the pleasure of contest alters its form without disappearing, be it in the struggle with an animated being (war or chase), or in the struggle with visible obstacles (sea, mountain), or in the struggle with invisible things (illness to be cured, difficulties of all sorts to be conquered). The struggle always partakes of the same character—that of a passionate duel. In truth, the doctor who starts for Senegal has decided upon a kind of duel with the yellow fever. The struggle passes from the domain of things physical to the intellectual domain, without losing anything of its ardour or of its fascination. The struggle may also pass into the special domain of morals. There is an inward struggle between the will and the passions, as captivating as any other, and in which the victory brings an infinite joy…


In short, man [sic] needs to feel himself great, in order now and again to have full consciousness of the sublimity of his will. This consciousness he gets in struggle—struggle with himself, with his passions, or with material and intellectual obstacles. Now, this struggle to satisfy our reason must have an aim. Man [sic] is too rational a being to fully approve of the monkeys of Cambodia playing for fun with the jaws of the crocodile, or of the Englishman Baldwin going into the heart of Africa for the pleasure of hunting. The intoxication of danger exists at times in everyone of us, even in the most timid; but this instinct of danger requires to be more reasonably exercised. Although, in many cases, there is only a superficial difference
between temerity and courage, he who, for instance, dies for his country is conscious of not having accomplished an idle deed. The need of danger and of struggle, on condition of it being thus directed and utilized by reason, assumes a moral importance all the greater, as it is one of the rare instincts which have no fixed direction. It may be used without resistance for any social end…

Moreover, danger in endless shades and degrees—from the danger of losing one’s life to the danger of losing one’s money—remains one of the important features of social existence. There is not a movement in the social body which does not imply a risk. And intelligent boldness to run this risk identifies itself up to a certain point with the very instinct of progress, and liberalism; while the fear of danger identifies
itself with the conservative instinct, which, after all, is always doomed to be beaten as long as the world exists and progresses. Thus, in the danger incurred on behalf of somebody (myself or some one else), there is nothing contrary to the deep instincts and laws of life. Far from it; to expose one’s self to danger is something normal in a morally well-constituted individual; to expose one’s self to danger for the sake of others is but going a step further on the same road…


From this side self-sacrifice again takes its place among the general laws of life, from which it at first seemed to completely escape. The peril confronted for oneself or for others—intrepidity or self-sacrifice—is not a mere negation of self and of personal life; it is this life itself raised into sublimity. The sublime in ethics, as well as in aesthetics, at first seems to be in contradiction to the order constituting the beautiful; but this is only a superficial contradiction. The roots of the sublime and the beautiful are the same, and the intensity of feeling which it pre-supposes does not prevent a certain inward rationality.

Jean-Marie Guyau’s A Sketch of Morality Independent of Obligation and Sanction

Ministry of Production

October 2, 2009

At the time of this post, Wikipedia says:

The economic calculation problem is a criticism of socialist economics, or more precisely central economic planning. It was first proposed by Ludwig von Mises in 1920 and later expounded by Friedrich Hayek.

However, Hayek himself would tell you that Mises was not the first to make the argument. In his Collectivist Economic Planning (1935), he published an English translation of Enrico Barone’s paper, “The Ministry of Production in the Collectivist State” from the Italian Giornale degli Economisti in 1908.

Robert Vienneau posted a fun excerpt from this paper that I’m reprinting below. Of particular note is the use of the term ‘anarchist production’ to contrast with the Ministry of Production; not even Mises would go there. Also interesting is the emphasis on experiment, which has a mutualist spirit to it. You will also get a glimpse of what Enrico might have said if asked about firms classed as “too big to fail”.

25. But it is frankly inconceivable that the economic determination of the technical coefficients can be made a priori, in such a way as to satisfy the condition of the minimum cost of production which is an essential condition for obtaining that maximum to which we have referred. The economic variability of the technical coefficients is certainly neglected by the collectivists; but that it is one of the most important sides of the question Pareto has already very clearly shown in one of his many ingenious contributions to the science.

Enrico Barone

Enrico Barone

The determination of the coefficients economically most advantageous can only be done in an experimental way: and not on a small scale, as could be done in a laboratory, but with experiments on a very large scale, because often the advantage of the variation has its origin precisely in a new and greater dimension of the undertaking. Experiments may be successful in the sense that they may lead to a lower cost combination of factors; or they may be unsuccessful, in which case that particular organization may not be copied and repeated and others will be preferred, which experimentally have given a better result.

The Ministry of Production could not do without these experiments for the determination of the economically most advantageous technical if it would realize the condition of the minimum cost of production which is essential for the attainment of the maximum collective welfare.

It is on this account that the equations of the equilibrium with the maximum collective welfare are not soluble a priori, on paper.

26. Some collectivist writers, bewailing the continual destruction of firms (those with higher costs) by free competition, think that the creation of enterprises to be destroyed later can be avoided and hope that with organized production it is possible to avoid the dissipation and destruction of wealth which such experiments involve, and which they believe to be the peculiar property of ‘anarchist’ production. Thereby these writers simply show that they have no clear idea of what production really is, and that they are not even disposed to probe a little deeper into the problem which will concern the Ministry which will be established for the purpose in the Collectivist State.

We repeat, that if the Ministry will not remain bound by the traditional technical coefficients, which would produce a destruction of wealth in another sense – in the sense that the greater wealth which could have been realized will not be realized – it has no other means of determining a priori the technical coefficients most advantageous economically, and must of necessity resort to experiments on a large scale in order to decide afterwards which are the most appropriate organizations, which it is advantageous to maintain in existence and to enlarge to obtain the collective maximum more easily, and which, on the other hand, it is best to discard as failures.

27. Conclusions. From what we have seen and demonstrated hitherto, it is obvious how fantastic those doctrines are which imagine that the production in the collectivist regime would be ordered in a manner substantially different from that of ‘anarchist’ production.

If the Ministry of Production proposes to obtain the collective maximum – which it obviously must, whatever law of distribution may be adopted – all the economic categories of the old regime must reappear, though maybe with other names: prices, salaries, interest, rent, profit, saving, etc…

It is worth noting, as David A. Reisman does in Schumpeter’s Market, that “Barone…wanted market socialism. They should, Hayek believed, have gone for the free market instead.”