Mental Mistakes

Chapter 16
Scared Subjective

Overheard at the market: "You don't have to buy me a sweater, Mom! I can take care of it. I'm grown up now, and I can buy my own sweater, and you can leave it to me. Just give me the money, and I'll take care of it."

There's childhood: the consciousness of potential, and the attempt to fulfill it, without yet having the means. We tend to assume that raising kids consists of helping them to acquire the means. Kids have plenty of "want-to", but little "how-to". Parents are expected to limit the wants, while teaching the methods. But what if they don't?

What if parents were to teach a child that all wants were justified, but all methods were useless? That is what is happening when a parent says, "Well of course everyone has a right to be fed—not that there's any way to do it!" Would the child believe that, or would the child try to figure out some way to satisfy wants? Since parents satisfy young wants on demand, the obvious thing would be to decide that the way to satisfy wants is to demand them.

Everyone must learn a method to stay alive. When a child tries out a method, and finds that it works, that method is learned. When parents satisfy demands, but point out that they will not do so forever, the child learns that this method is temporary. What may also be learned is dread of the day the temporary method stops working. The young adult might try to put that day off by transferring demands to a government.

If parents are rich, or try to act rich, a child might decide that making demands is not a temporary method but a lifelong method. This does not get rid of dread, however. The young adult is aware that others make choices. Some method is needed to make people meet demands. One might try to put off the day of discovering that method by transferring demands to a government.

If those who run a government want to live by making demands, they take the position that government's function is to satisfy demands. They take on this burden. They feel it only fair that others share this burden. They consider taxes a way for all citizens to shoulder their part of the burden. As the burden increases, taxes must go up. At some point, taxpayers object. The day of reckoning has arrived. A method is urgently needed to make people meet demands.

That is the insoluble problem of living by making demands: people have free will. To get what you want, you must earn it in trade, or take it by force. You must enter the market, or become an outlaw. The subjective lifestyle consists of doing a little of each.

Everybody who tries it complains that it does not work. They express this most often by insisting that it should work. People should be less selfish; demands of the downtrodden should be met; markets should be fair; investors should be protected; businesses should be responsible; wages should be raised—and on and on and on.

Suppose that you are a young adult who has been taught to live by making demands. You vividly feel the frustration of seeing the world through a veil of shoulds. You decide to give up the wish list, and earn your living by honestly producing and trading. You are ready to overcome the problem of learning to live by wishes. You are braced for the problem of what you learned that was wrong.

The real problem turns out to be what you did not learn.

You did not learn how to sort things out, because that is not needed to live by making demands. You learned words, and thought that was learning how to think. Since you did not learn an objective way to use words in making concepts, you find that your understanding of what words mean is personal to you, and not shared by others. When you think you are communicating, you are really using a private language. It seems to you that precise communication is impossible, and you must accept approximations for everything.

You did not learn to identify objective essentials, because you learned preferences instead. The veil of shoulds conceals from you the basis of a situation, the heart of a statement, the kernel of an argument. When you need to know the essential of an idea, you find instead what is important to you about it. The objective essential connects this idea to all other ideas; your "essential" connects the idea only to you. Since you learned to expect the world to connect to you, you did not learn to connect to the world.

You did not learn a moral standard to guide your choices, because you learned a wish list instead. Others are to be guided by this wish list, so you let them know what it is, and watch in dismay as they ignore this moral standard. If they use the objective moral standard of man's life, all you see is that their standard is their life instead of yours. You are intellectually and morally isolated from them.

The tragedy of subjective thinking is isolation. Subjectiman's ideas do not mesh with other's ideas. His words do not convey what he wants them to. His grasp of what people tell him is approximate. In society, he is perpetually off center. Others puzzle him, and he puzzles them. The older he gets, the more desperate he becomes to make a connection.

That's why young adults try to give up subjective thinking, but go back to it. "There's no way to deal with people!" they say. "My only hope is to make them satisfy my demands. The only way to live is to be in control."

At that point, control moves to the top of the wish list, not as a value to be earned, but as a defense against the threat of helpless isolation. A child openly proclaims the wish list. An adult wish list is a guilty secret. A child is subjective as a phase of growing up. An adult is scared subjective.

Mixtureman can see this by introspection. If his mind is in gear at the office, he feels at home there. When he speaks to fellow workers, they understand him. He feels connected to them by a common purpose and common methods. But as he goes home, fear takes over. The cold, impersonal methods of the office work well at the office, but he cannot use those methods with people he loves. He must give them a chance to be moral, by telling them his wish list. He must listen to their wish lists. But he feels like an alien in his own house. He says things to his wife that are perfectly clear to him, but that she misunderstands. He wonders why she makes such confusing complaints. What does she really want? Why did he once feel connected to this woman?

He knows that something is wrong at home. He even grasps that he is handling it wrong. Why does he not see that he is using one method of thought at work, and another method of thought at home? The answer is that he does see it, and knows that the home method is the right method. It is the one he learned growing up, and reaffirmed as the only method possible to him. His office method does work there, but it is cold and inhuman. To be a really good man, he must figure out how to make the home method work.

To put it another way, this man's greatest fear is not that he will use the wrong method of thought, but that he will fail to show that he can make all methods effective. His methods at work are efficacious, so he takes them for granted. His methods at home are not efficacious, so he feels that his moral duty is to make them work.

When you think about it, there is nothing irrational about a fear of not being efficacious. There is nothing more vital to life than the ability to stay alive. If one has learned to survive by making demands, it is highly rational to be afraid that this will not work. To see if this is the essential source of Subjectiman's fear, make comparisons. Compare this to Subjectiman's fear of isolation, and to his many other fears. In each comparison, which explains more about subjective behavior?

In the context defined by this fundamental fear, subjective behavior is seen as controlled by fear. Lack of control is a threat because it means inability to enforce demands, which means inability to live. Lack of control is death. Isolation is a threat because it makes control irrelevant. Isolation is death. Mistakes are a threat because they show the inability to live. Mistakes are death. Making corrections threatens because it gives away the guilty existence of mistakes. Corrections are death.

Mixtureman loves his work, because at work, if his mind is active there, he does not feel afraid. At home, if his mind is subjective there, it is different. He cannot enforce his perfectly justified demands on his wife. He cannot control his kids. He cannot shake the conviction that even though what he does at home does not work, still it should work, and he should make it work.

Try telling Mixtureman that his troubles at home result from bad mental habits, which can be changed. See if he will agree to try his work methods at home. Probably, he will hear you accuse him of being a quitter, a wimp, and a cold-hearted Scrooge.

Subjective habits can be changed, but not from outside. By their nature, subjective habits of thought must be identified by introspection. Then they must be corrected at the fundamental level, by studying epistemology—learning how to make concepts, how to form definitions, how to identify essentials. The disadvantage is that the learning must be done by an adult, while earning a living. The advantage is that the learning can be done right.

Is there something from outside that can he used to check progress? It would need to be something that revealed subjective thinking and rewarded objective thinking. It would need to be something that sparks introspection.

Consider money. Subjectively, it is legal tender issued by the government so it can be earned and saved and spent. If there is a shortage of it, the government can issue more. Objectively, it is a valuable commodity used as a medium of exchange. Since it is independently valuable, it cannot be issued, but must be produced. Since it is a commodity, government has no legitimate role in providing it.

Which view of money is right? Well, if objective money were to become subjective money, then that would mean loss of the commodity value. There would be no objective value beyond its use as a tool of trade. As people who wanted to save money learned this, they would turn to other methods of storing value. That would mean, year by year, less use for the subjective money, and less value to traders. Having lost its commodity value, it would lose its monetary value.

To find out which is right, one could compare present and past values of the dollar, using consumer price indexes. The American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington, MA, did this, and found that in 1998 the dollar had lost 91% of its 1940 value—20% since 1990. (Economic Education Bulletin Vol. 38, No. 12, 1998) Or, one could compare subjective money to objective money: gold. In 1930, 20 dollars bought an ounce of gold. At present, nearly 300 dollars are required. To demonstrate that it is the value of the subjective money that changed, one could note that in 1930 a gold ounce bought a good suit, and today, a gold ounce buys a good suit.

If your answer to that analysis is, "But government has to control the money," you can use that to aid introspection. What in your thinking gives conviction to that declaration? Is there any evidence? Have governments always controlled the money, and if not, what were the effects?

Attitudes toward money are diagnostic for the same reason that attitudes toward screwdrivers are diagnostic. "Don't expect me to touch a screwdriver!" lets you know my whole attitude toward handyman stuff. "I'm no good with money!" expresses a similar attitude toward trade. An emotional reaction to neutral tools like screwdrivers and money is reaction to a symbol. For introspection, the question is: "What am I symbolically reacting to?"

Subjective thinking about money leads to the money illusion: the idea that money is not a tool of trade but an object of trade. Applied to screwdrivers, this would be the illusion that owning a thousand screwdrivers would assure that you never encountered a loose screw. It is not owning screwdrivers but using them that keeps screws tight. It is not the ownership of big sums of money that constitutes wealth, but the ability to use it in trade. To see this, imagine landing on a South Sea Island with a bag full of money, and finding that all trade is barter, and nobody has any use for money. You might as well try to sell screwdrivers where people have never heard of screws.

If subjective thought would give up the money illusion, it would begin to question the market illusion: the idea that traders get things wrong, but regulators get things right. In questioning the market illusion, one is questioning subjective thought itself, since the market illusion goes against the evidence and depends on declaring how things should be.

As applied to trade, all mental mistakes come together in the market illusion.

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