Mental Mistakes

Chapter 5
Tending the Fern

Here's the fern seller at the flea market trying to convince prospects to buy the fern she wants to get rid of: "This is a valuable fern! As you can see, it is fully mature, with a good root system and so many fronds that pruning is needed."

"Or in other words," says a skeptic, "It's old and straggley."

"This fern is like a member of the family! I've tended it so long that it's painful to part with! I've pruned it, and cleaned it, and repotted it, and fertilized it, and watered it, and worried about it. My love is in every frond of this dear old fern."

This produces consensus that it would be cruel to separate her from the fern. Her arguments have a fatal flaw: they pertain to nobody but her. Her valuation of the fern is purely subjective. She thinks that if only others could grasp how much she likes the fern, then they would like the fern. Because her focus is on her own attitude, she does not notice the contradiction in offering this greatly loved value for sale.

Focusing on her own attitude also makes her think that she, rather than the market, should set the price for the fern. After all, the fern is hers. If anybody has the right to set a price for it, who but she?

In the real fern case, the seller learned that prices are set by the process of trading. There are no prices set otherwise, but only pretend amounts set by hopes and decrees. The seller learned this lesson because she did not want to go on tending the fern.

Many subjective thinkers, though, do go on tending the fern—for a lifetime. Rather than accept market wages, they accept unemployment. Rather than accept market rents, they accept housing shortages. Rather than accept market roads, they accept gridlock. Solving these problems is not nearly as important to subjectivity as pruning pride, cleaning up intentions, repackaging hope, fertilizing demands, and wiping tears.

The market offers a process of determining objective value. Subjectivity offers intentions, demands, and tears. Many people choose intentions, demands, and tears. They do this because they have learned the habits of mind that make them respect intentions, worship demands, and accept the inevitability of tears.

While passive thinking does not bother to make comparisons, subjective thinking makes comparisons compulsively, and makes them wrong.

Imagine one of those split screen TV commercials. On the left is Smartman, preparing to open a can with a can opener. On the right is Subjectiman, doing the same. On both sides, the can opener balks. It refuses to open the can. Both of our heroes compare the result with the desire, and find it wanting. Then their reactions diverge.

On the left, Smartman is curious. Why would such a simple mechanism fail? Let's see, in order to open the can, it has to cut the metal. In order to cut the metal, it has to have a lever that pushes a blade through the metal. Aha! The blade is a sharpened wheel. So when you close the handle like this, the blade is pushed through the metal, and then you can make it roll around the can, cutting the metal all the way.

On the right, Subjectiman is furious. He compared the result obtained to the result wanted, and then got stuck. He thinks of his desire to open the can as a demand on reality. This silly gadget is resisting that demand unreasonably. It is not, after all, a big difficult demand; just opening one little can, for God's sake! Doesn't anything ever just meet a reasonable demand? The principle in operation here is that nothing ever quite works right!

Smartman discovers what's wrong: the cutting wheel gets through the metal, but then this other wheel with teeth on it does not turn the can as intended, because the teeth have got worn. The thing to do is sharpen those teeth. Probably a little work with a nail file would make enough traction to get this can open. But "can opener" better go on the shopping list.

Meanwhile, Subjectiman has thrown the can opener to the floor violently, and is rummaging through a drawer for another one. Why the hell would any decent kitchen have only one can opener in it? I'll get a hammer and pound the damn can open! And I'll complain to the store! If I go hungry, people will pay!

Smartman's method was analysis: comparing parts to other parts and to the whole and to the principle of operation. Subjectiman's method was wishing: comparing what he wanted with what he got, over and over. Smartman felt himself confronted with choices: file those little teeth, or eat something else, or make enough little cuts around the can that you can get inside, or look for another opener, or try cutting the metal another way. Subjectiman felt thwarted. It seemed a personal affront to him that the opener failed. He does not like that he feels everything so personally, but he does. He does not like that he is stuck at the center of the universe, but he is.

The question is: why on earth would Subjectiman confront daily life with mental methods that keep him in a tizzy over trivialities? Why would he not use methods that work?

The answer is that he is using methods that he thinks do work. After all, back when he was forming mental habits, they did work. Back then, when he wanted something, he demanded it. When he demanded things, Mommy and Daddy hustled their buns to provide. At that time, his entire focus was on finding ways of handling reality. He was taught that making demands works. So making demands became an automated habit in his subconscious: "To handle things, demand things."

In learning to handle reality, Subjectiboy learns normative concepts. What is the normal way to act with parents, and siblings, and playmates, and teachers? He could learn that children are to be seen and not heard. Or he could learn that children are the most important thing in the universe. If he learns that life revolves around himself personally, then his normative concepts will center on himself as the norm. Instead of deciding how he should behave around adults, he will decide how adults should behave around him.

The usefulness of normative concepts is in making habits out of basic kinds of good behavior, so you don't have to worry about them consciously. But the subjectivist does it backwards, with the result that he spends a lifetime worrying about the way everybody behaves. Since his idea of norms centers on himself, and others don't have the same idea, nobody ever behaves the way a subjectivist finds comfortable. To him, acceptance of others means putting up with obviously wrong behavior. Their worst behavior is the way they ignore the perfectly justified demands of the subjectivist.

Subjective thinkers endure a torment unique to themselves: the nagging feeling that they are at fault. Whose fault is it if people are starving in Somalia? Well, if I am the center of the universe, it must be mine. What neglect caused the latest stock market crash? Well, if the market centers on me, it must be mine. Whose inattention let the Washington scandals fester? Well....

What people call "liberal guilt" should be called "subjective guilt". Its origin goes to the root of thinking: to language itself and concept formation itself.

When the active mind compares everything to everything else, it sorts things out. That is, it classifies all of reality, by combining entire ranges of percepts into concepts. The container of countless units subsumed in a concept is a word. The word man, for example, refers to all human beings that do live, ever did live, or ever will live. Since that word can be treated as a unit, it can be combined with other inclusive words treated as units. So you have animals. Then that combination can be combined some more: living things. That is the way thinking fulfills its function of mental integration. It starts with comparing differences, then uses similarity to make combinations, then uses the idea of unit to combine the combinations. If you and I both did this properly, then if I say "universe" in the right context, you will understand that I mean everything that is, has been, or will be.

If I go on to say, "Now as to what is outside the universe..." you will be confused. If universe refers to everything, then it includes whatever is "outside." Or if it does not include that, is there another word that does mean everything? You are thinking of "total inclusiveness" as essential to the concept. I am thinking of another essential: all that is known. You formed the concept on the basis of including absolutely everything, known and unknown. I formed the concept on the basis of including all known things.

As soon as we understand the problem, we can get around it by talking about the "known universe" and the "total universe." For a while though, we were using one word to mean different things without knowing it. That is the result of getting essentials wrong.

An essential, in this context, is a commonality used to form a mental group. If you wanted to form a concept including all round objects of any kind, then the essential would be roundness. You might call them "rounders." If I wanted to figure out what in hell you mean by "rounders," I would have to compare and compare until I found out the one thing common to everything you called a "rounder." Or I could ask for a definition.

A definition states the essentials used to group things into a concept, and also where the concept fits in the integration of everything. Rounders would be "physical objects with the attribute of roundness". That is, to pick out the things you call "rounders", I should look not among states of mind, but among physical objects, and pick out the ones that are in any way round. My complaint would be that most objects are in some way round, so the concept fails to communicate anything in particular to me. It is a subjective concept, thought up by you and confusing to me.

To understand any communication using concepts, you must identify the essentials. You do that by comparing to see what is most fundamental, meaning what explains most about the concept. For example, various markets have different characteristics, and also things in common. They all include communication, exchange of values, protection against force, a medium of exchange, respect for property, price determination, and provision for transport. What is the essential?

"Well!" says a subjective thinker. "Protection is the most essential thing. You couldn't have a market without protection."

But how much about the market is explained by protection? Not much. The need for protection is explained by the fact that values are being exchanged. That also explains the need for a medium of exchange, and property rights, and prices, and transport. So, objectively, the essential of the concept of a market is the exchange of values. We define it as an organized exchange of values.

In other words, to find a market, we look for things being exchanged. Aha! There are two men exchanging insults. Is that a market? No, they must be exchanging things they consider valuable. Okay, there are two athletes exchanging tee shirts. Is that a market? No, we have to look among organized activities. But we do not have to see money being used; only exchanges being made as an organized activity.

"What?" says Subjectiman. "Are you telling me that money is not essential in the market? Wait until I tell that to my grocer!"

A barter exchange excludes money. Grocers in small towns do make trades without money. Money is essential to our prosperity, but not an essential of the concept of a market. A better argument could be made that prices are essential to the concept, since every exchange implies a price. Nevertheless, prices do not explain the exchange of values, while exchange does explain prices. The objective fundamental is exchange.

People who are mentally passive do not bother to make the comparisons needed to identify essentials, so they have only a vague idea of what they are being told. But they are generally in the ballpark. When told the essential of a concept, they don't argue. Why would they bother? They can see, more or less, that getting essentials wrong could really mess them up.

Alas, subjective thinkers have an automated habit of getting essentials wrong. Since they make comparisons as personal evaluations only, the process of identifying essentials becomes a process of deciding on preferences. Subjectivists identify the essential of trade as money, not because they have asked what explains the most about trade, but because they want money in order to trade.

The flea market fern seller learned that trade depends not on money but on value. Since nobody valued her fern, no money changed hands for it. Trade is defined not as the exchange of money, but as the exchange of values.

One might expect passive minds to get things wrong more often than subjective minds, which are more active. But passive minds copy everything. If they copy from the right people, they luck out, until that unexpected problem. It is subjective minds that get things wrong the most, because of the habit of getting essentials wrong.

If the essential of markets is exchange, then the essential of a market economy is freedom of exchange. Subjectivists say the essential is fairness. If the essential of trade is values, then the essential of business—production for trade—is the creation of values. Subjectivists say it is the creation of jobs. If the essential of a society is rights, then the essential of a trading society is property rights. Subjectivists say it is exploitation.

When subjectivists talk about the market, every concept they use needs a special definition, since it uses special essentials. "Free competition" may, for them, have as its essential "fair," or "regulated" or "allowed" or even "free." The essential is chosen not according to objective comparisons, but according to the preference of the moment. There is really no way to know what is meant.

And there is no way for the subjective thinker to know what is meant by a description of the market. Explanations, for him, are all the same: frustrating exercises in guessing. With no way to determine objective fundamentals, true meaning is hopeless. A good understanding is just a good guess. Besides, the only real interest is in what something should be, not in what it is.

Since the subjective thinker compulsively compares everything out there to what he knows in here it should be, he lives by what is effectively a wish list. "What is the essential of this concept?" becomes, "What should the essential be?" "What do markets do?" becomes, "What should markets do?" "What is the role of money?" becomes, "What should the role of money be?" "Does this operate according to a principle?" becomes, "Does it do what it should?"

That is the origin of the constant subjective evaluations that drive objective thinkers crazy. "How can you hate it," they cry, "when you don't yet know anything about it?" An honest answer would be: "Because hating it is my method of getting to know something about it." That answer is not given, because the subjectivist has already found that the method does not work. It is just a habit that persists. Since the first comparison is always to the wish list, something not on the list is suspect even before it is identified.

Because of such habits, subjective thinkers do not experience their minds as controlled by themselves. "That's just me," they say. "That's just the way I am. I was made that way, and there's nothing I can do about it." If the entire universe centers itself around you, personally, then how could you think of changing? It would change everything! You are the norm. Other things are supposed to change in conformity with you. You could not change yourself any more than a toddler could.

In fact, every objective thinker started out as a subjective toddler, who learned better ways to get things than demanding them. That the subjective thinker did not learn better methods is not evidence of demonic possession, but of bad teaching. If parents meet demands in a compulsive way—as many parents say they do—then why would not children learn this as the norm? The habit of regarding oneself as the norm is a hard one to change: giving up norms is not evolution but revolution.

Free will, like mental capacity, develops with maturity. Because they think of themselves as the norm, adult subjective thinkers have trouble seeing that why they automated the wrong habits is of no consequence now. Whether on purpose or by mistake, the habits are there. It is a habit to make evaluations before identifications. It is a habit to measure reality against oneself, instead of measuring oneself against reality. It is a habit to find essentials by looking not among fundamentals, but among preferences. The question is not are the habits immoral, but can they be changed?

If you have habits of mind which do not improve your life, and those habits can be changed, then refusing to change them is treason to your life. It is choosing less success over more success. To see how habits can be changed, practice changing your habitual methods of thinking about the market.

Next Chapter Previous Chapter Contents Home