Mental Mistakes

Chapter 8
Subjective Demons

One relaxing thing about the flea market is that the stakes are not high. Shopping and bargaining can be done for fun. If you get cheated, it's not a big loss. If you cheat, it's not much of a gain. Bargainers do not hold themselves to a high standard of truth, but rarely do they try elaborate schemes to steal money.

Rarely is not never. The advantage of a flea market over a garage sale is that it has entry requirements, set by the proprietor. One who is dishonest can be excluded. Reason and rights can be protected. The question is: how do you decide who is excluded?

Can the proprietor of a market exclude whomever he pleases? Not if he wants to stay in business. His profit comes from renting space and charging admission. The more people he keeps out, the less he makes. On the other hand, if he lets crooks in, eventually no one else will come. His biggest danger is to use a subjective method—to keep out people because he doesn't like their looks. To stay in business, he needs an objective method for keeping out the crooks only.

That is the problem of regulation. If it is done subjectively, nobody can make plans or count on approval. Trading becomes difficult. Since people cannot figure out the regulations, they try to ignore them. Then the regulator increases his zeal. Soon, the regulation is a tyranny. It is the rule of should.

The rule of should is experienced as tyranny because the shoulds are determined by fiat instead of by objective reality. The reason that subjective thinkers are not happy with themselves is that this is also true on the personal level. To see why, examine the origins of the subjective wish list.

Subjective thinkers are those who form the wrong habits, so that:

In short, instead of a focus on "what is," the focus is on "I want." But where in all this is a method for deciding what I want?

Subjectiman has no method for deciding what he wants. He does not think he needs a method. "I just know," he says. "I always just know what I want."

The irony is that this claim is not true. Subjectiman is only guessing at what he wants. He does not know what he wants, because the mind does not work by magic. Unless he knows how he came to a conclusion, that conclusion is a guess.

Suppose you ask me, "How high is this ceiling?" "Eight feet," I say. Does that mean that I "just know" the height of the ceiling? No, it means that either I found out the measurement, or that I guessed. Passive minds might accept a guess as fact, but active minds want to know the method, so they can judge the conclusion.

Subjectiman guesses at what he wants, because his whims let him down. The older he gets, the less patience people show when his whims change from moment to moment. When he finds himself wanting opposite things at once, he realizes that he has to decide what he "really" wants. Lacking a method for that, he guesses.

That raises two questions: where do the guesses come from, and what makes them persuasive to him? Both questions, it turns out, have the same answer.

When an infant feels unease, it cries. It does not know if it wants feeding or cleansing or cuddling. Parents identify those wants by satisfying them. A child must learn to identify what he wants for himself. He must learn the difference between wants and needs. He must learn to independently choose values by comparing to a standard of good and bad.

But what if he doesn't? Then he uses what is in his mind. It may be a whim of the moment, or something Mom taught him, or something he picked up at school. But it is there, in his mind, at the center of things, so it must be right. Wherever it came from, it is an item on the wish list. It is not to be measured against some standard: it is the standard.

That is the fundamental inversion that rules the subjective mind—the basic thing it got backwards. Wishes are not to be measured against a standard; they are the standard.

That is also the basic difference between the mental mistakes of passivity and subjectivity. Passivity measures against no standard; subjectivity measures against the wrong standard.

Since a child's active mind is constantly making comparisons, it has no trouble finding a standard of good and bad. Some things feel good, others feel bad. Some actions are called good, some bad. Some things are called "life threatening", others "life enhancing". When you put it all together, you come up with a scale that has "life" at the good end, and "death" at the bad end. In maturity the scale gets refined, and connected to reason at the good end as against unreason at the bad end. That way the standard evolves into "life according to my true nature as a reasoning human."

A child may go through a stage where the standard is "my life". That does not work, because "my life" is what I am trying to measure against a standard, to see how I am doing. I want to compare the narrower context of my life against a broader context of life, but not so broad a context that it could not be comparable.

What provides the standard is the observation that humans survive by the use of reason. Man does not find food; he grows food. He does not survive by lucking out, but by figuring out. His standard for good and bad has to insure he can figure things out. Passivity and subjectivity can be fatal mistakes because they destroy the ability to figure things out.

A child who gets stuck in the stage of "my life" as the standard has taken the first step toward subjective thinking. The next step is to narrow it down farther: "me." The step after that is to realize that "me" as a standard of conduct is hopeless. So rules of conduct are learned. A subjective thinker may follow the rules set by parents, or by a church, or by a cult. The rules will be followed reluctantly, as a concession to those who are not "me."

Wherever the rules come from, they will be a big disappointment to both the passive and the subjective mind, because they will not felicitate figuring things out. They may keep me out of trouble, but they will not provide me a method of thought. So I will regularly encounter situations not covered by the rules, and feel lost. I will need a method to figure out which rule applies, and how it applies. The method starts with comparison, but my passive mind does not have the habit of doing that, and my subjective mind has the habit of doing it wrong.

Caught in this dilemma, the passive mind quickly surrenders to the family, the church, or the cult. Don't think; just ask. Passiveman becomes a conformist and gives up any personal ambitions. But Subjectiman would not know how to give up the wish list. His conformity is pretense; he still wants to get his way. But "fitting in" is high on the wish list. But "being in charge" is also on the wish list. But "being nice" is there too, along with "being respected" and "being feared."

"Help!" cries Subjectiman. "I'm being pulled apart by demons!"

At the center of the universe, every item on the wish list becomes a demon. There is no objective standard by which to rank the items, so each one is an absolute. If they conflict, so what? Demons do not care about contradictions. Self-regulation becomes not just a tyranny, but a tyranny of unreason.

The subjective thinker is in the position of a small child. Every want is a maximum want, since there is no method of ranking wants. This is not socially acceptable. It has to be concealed. So another demon is invoked: dishonesty. "If only I could just be honest about things!"

Regulators of all kinds, when they are not objective, have the same problem. If they have no method of deriving a standard from reality, then the real standard is the standard of a despot: personal preference. The efforts to conceal this have become so old that they no longer work. When a regulator says, "That is not in the public interest, but the public demands this," we know what he means: "I don't like that, but I do like this." If we share his preferences, we say, "Yes, that's how the public feels." If we object to his preferences, we say, "No, the public does not think that way."

Passive non-thinkers declare that regulation of markets is difficult and complicated, so it must be left to those who know more. They accept that the regulation will be done subjectively, but, "That's better than none." The proprietor of a flea market knows differently. If he stays in business, he has learned that regulation consists of defending reason and rights. If somebody threatens life or property, call the cops. If some drive away customers by unreasonable personal habits, exclude them. Otherwise, leave people free to trade. Then they'll come back.

Since subjective thinkers have a problem with self-regulation, they also have a problem with societal regulation, and market regulation. Without an objective standard, they have no way to imagine what objective regulation would be. All regulation, for them, is whimsical. They complain about it, not as a way to change it, but as a way to adjust themselves to it.

Subjectiman sees the problem of regulation as the problem of keeping demons in check. With his own inner turmoil as model, he sees the market as a chaos of contending forces, on which order must be imposed. To him, a free market is an unbridled, savage chaos. It's a jungle out there.

Notice what this means. If voluntary trading is chaotic by its nature, then humans by nature cannot cooperate. That is, they are not self-regulating, and not capable of self-government. Their only hope of prosperity is to be ruled by a benign elite. Those at the center of the universe will expect to be part of the elite.

The elite could not be expected to stoop as far as attending a flea market. So they will not observe the obvious, that human nature is perfectly suited to trading, and needs no artificial regulation for the purpose. Through history, whenever reason and property were respected, trade flourished. Whenever trade was hemmed in by should committees, it dried up. At present, less regulated markets flourish more. Subjectivists will deny the evidence, not because it is unclear, but because their lack of a standard makes them unable to evaluate the evidence.

Few people deny that flea markets work. "Well sure," is the line. "You can trade things on your front lawn, for that matter. What has that got to do with the financial futures market? They are different things. You can't apply some primitive observation of one to the other. The futures market must be strictly regulated by experts."

That is the denial of economics as a discipline, which seeks to find principles that apply to all markets. It also ignores common sense. Why would a complicated exchange differ in principle from a simple exchange? "I'll give you this stool for that lamp," is a simple exchange. "I'll give you these rights to buy bonds in three months at today's prices, for that amount of money," is a more complicated exchange. But if they are both trades, then they are both voluntary. If they are voluntary, they depend on reason, which means in this case, trust. The more complicated trade will not be made unless the trust level is high. That will be so in a context of rights when both traders are known to be reasonable. In other words, the proprietor of the complex market has the same problem as the proprietor of the flea market. He must guard rights, and keep unreason out. Beyond that, every regulation he adds will drive away customers.

Subjective customers will want more regulations, but not the same regulations. If an objective proprietor is the regulator, he will demand logic, and not try to satisfy everyone. If a subjective politician is the regulator, he will slap on rule after rule until he has killed the market, and then install a phony market with assigned rates in an effort to conceal what he did. Then his phony market will be in competition with a black market trying to fulfill its function.

To find a black market, go to the flea market. Try a booth selling plumbing supplies. "I need to get some pipes replaced, but I can't pay union." You will be able to find a plumber with both a union card and a flexible price. He knows that if he does not take the job, an amateur will. He has grasped that the union's effort to force people to pay more than they want is a failure. It has sparked not one but two new markets: the black market in labor, and the huge market in do-it-yourself plumbing supplies.

Do-it-yourself plumbing, like pump-it-yourself gas, shows that the result of should committees is to lessen the division of labor, decrease efficiency, and prevent useful jobs from getting done. The subjective approach does not work for people, or for markets.

If this is so, then can markets get out of it, and can subjective thinkers get out of it? Markets can get rid of the committees, and people can get rid of the wish lists. It is easier in one case than in the other.

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