Quote of the Day

Via commenter Gilbert, who manages to tweak two League contributors in one fell swoop:

The materialist theory of history, that all politics and ethics are the expression of economics, is a very simple fallacy indeed. It consists simply of confusing the necessary conditions of life with the normal preoccupations of life, that are quite a different thing. It is like saying that because a man can only walk about on two legs, therefore he never walks about except to buy shoes and stockings. Man cannot live without the two props of food and drink, which support him like two legs; but to suggest that they have been the motives of all his movements in history is like saying that the goal of all his military marches or religious pilgrimages must have been the Golden Leg of Miss Kilmansegg or the ideal and perfect leg of Sir Willoughby Patterne. But it is such movements that make up the story of mankind and without them there would practically be no story at all. Cows may be purely economic, in the sense that we cannot see that they do much beyond grazing and seeking better grazing-grounds; and that is why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading. Sheep and goats may be pure economists in their external action at least; but that is why the sheep has hardly been a hero of epic wars and empires thought worthy of detailed narration; and even the more active quadruped has not inspired a book for boys called Golden Deeds of Gallant Goats or any similar title. But so far from the movements that make up the story of man being economic, we may say that the story only begins where the motive of the cows and sheep leaves off. It will be hard to maintain that the Crusaders went from their homes into a howling wilderness because cows go from a wilderness to a more comfortable grazing-ground. It will be hard ‘to maintain that the Arctic explorers went north with the same material motive that made the swallows go south. And if you leave things like all the religious wars and all the merely adventurous explorations out of the human story, it will not only cease to be human at all but cease to be a story at all. The outline of history is made of these decisive curves and angles determined by the will of man. Economic history would not even be history.

– G. K. Chesterton

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31 thoughts on “Quote of the Day

  1. G. K. Chesterton that is simply one of the best arguments I have ever read. I have attained nirvana today – the meaning of life is summed up with your words:

    “… and that is why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading.”

    Well put, I still can’t stop laughing. Very profound.

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  2. I would no sooner turn to Chesterton for a clear understanding of economics as I would turn to Milton Friedman for a sonnet. And yes, I do see markets in everything – even in the Crusades, even if many men who fought in the Crusades had noble intentions. Even if the Crusades were wars taken on behalf of God, they were none the less wars taken to capture supposed godless lands and turn them over to Christendom. How that can be seen as anything short of plunder – even spiritual plunder (though there was, if I recall correctly, a ‘land’ component to the spiritual plunder) – these were still wars of conquest. And conquest is plunder. Or, if you prefer to view them as protecting lands rightfully belonging to Christendom, you could justify them as wars of defense. You could easily do this at the time, less so now.

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    • @E.D. Kain, Ah, nothing like word dilution. It’s a bit slick equating plunder to the spirit. I’ve been told the start of an immoral world is moral relativism, and that moral relativism is rooted in the destruction of words’ meaning and concepts to the point that the spirit can be compared to plunder, that Mao can be compared with Mother Teresa, taking equated to giving and in the end game life is seen as equal to death. Even as an atheist I see the folly in trying to claim “spiritual plunder” as being the same motive as hitting a man on the head and taking his wallet.

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      • @Rob, Will –

        So if a bunch of people threw together some armies today, and took them over to say – Jordan – to conquer that country and overthrow its government in order to restore it to its natural state as a part of Christendom, all because they were religious zealots, what would you call this? Because of its religious nature, would it somehow no longer be a war of conquest? Would the taking of that land not be plunder?

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    • @E.D. Kain, I would no sooner turn to Chesterton for a clear understanding of economics as I would turn to Milton Friedman for a sonnet.

      Chesterton wasn’t opining on economics in the cited passage; he was opining on being human. Human motivation is more multi-faceted than your philosophy appears to permit.

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      • @John Henry, He was opining on both, and was basically saying you can’t understand what it means to be human through the study of economics. But really – what’s the point of that? You can understand a great deal of what it means to be human through the study of economics – but no field can encompass every aspect of what it means to be human. I’m not sure anyone (at least anyone here) is saying that.

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  3. E.D. — When you have to stretch definitions to win an argument, you might want to revisit your premises. Human motivations are too rich to reduce to basic desires, although these basic desires might be heavily present in human interactions. This is why Keyenesian economics can never match Austrian economics, and why Marxism fails to be a valid theory — they miss the richness of the human mind.

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    • @Katherine, I haven’t moved leftward at all in my foreign policy views actually. And I don’t think I’m taking a Marxist view of history here either. I think armed conflict is always about power – either exerting power to take or lay claim to something or exerting power to prevent something from being taken. Whether this boils down to actual treasure being plundered, or whether we are talking political domination, spreading Christ by the sword (or Allah for that matter) is immaterial. These are still forms of plunder. In any case, there are obviously a myriad different reasons each individual actor in a conflict chooses to join. But the wars themselves all still end up falling into these broad categories in the end in spite of good or ill intentions.

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  4. Many wars of old were fought for glory and domination — it’s been established that economic reasons which originally fueled imperialism were quickly refuted by the reality of incalcitrant natives and the costly maintenance of domination. Most imperialist countries quickly relinquished control of conquered territories the first chance they got to save face. We can question stated motives, but the motive to “civilize” certain groups of people, claimed by the British, makes more sense than any profit they gained. They could have eliminated the people they conquered, and it would have been easier to plunder the resources of the land and create more opportunties for people of their kind.

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