Bertrand Russell on complacency

by on April 15, 2017 at 2:14 am in Books, History, Philosophy | Permalink

A great many of the impulses which now lead nations to go to war are in themselves essential to any vigorous or progressive life. Without imagination and love of adventure a society soon becomes stagnant and begins to decay. Conflict, provided it is not destructive and brutal, is necessary in order to stimulate men’s activities, and to secure the victory of what is living over what is dead or merely traditional. The wish for the triumph of one’s cause, the sense of solidarity with large bodies of men, are not things which a wise man will wish to destroy. It is only the outcome in death and destruction and hatred that is evil. The problem is, to keep these impulses, without making war the outlet for them.

All Utopias that have hitherto been constructed are intolerably dull….[Utopians] do not realize that much the greater part of a man’s happiness depends upon activity, and only a very small remnant consists in passive enjoyment. Even the pleasures which do consist in enjoyment are only satisfactory, to most men, when they come in the intervals of activity. Social reformers, like inventors of Utopias, are apt to forget this very obvious fact of human nature. They aim rather at securing more leisure, and more opportunity for enjoying it, than at making work itself more satisfactory, more consonant with impulse, and a better outlet for creativeness and the desire to employ one’s faculties.

That is from Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916.  The pointer is from Alex, our Alex.

1 Steve Sailer April 15, 2017 at 2:25 am

William James’ “Moral Equivalent of War” speech from a few years earlier is quite eloquent:

http://www.constitution.org/wj/meow.htm

2 Mike C. April 15, 2017 at 6:17 am

+1. Thoughtful, eloquent, and strongly anti-complacency.

3 Extreme Strawman April 15, 2017 at 2:26 am

>the sense of solidarity with large bodies of men, are not things which a wise man will wish to destroy

So are we all in agreement that feminism is destroying civilized society?

4 Captain Obvious April 15, 2017 at 4:31 am

Evidence A: Afganistan is full of feminists.

5 Extreme Strawman April 15, 2017 at 7:26 am

Correlation is not causation. Inject feminism into Afghanistan, and you’ll have even more poverty there.

6 Thiago Ribeiro April 15, 2017 at 8:55 am

The Taliban, Afghanistan’s shield against poverty and barbarism.

7 Axa April 15, 2017 at 2:33 am

Sports?

8 Axa April 15, 2017 at 3:30 am

Alternative perspective.

British gentleman: war is good for the plebs.

British plebs: politicians hide themselves away, they only started the war. Why should they go out to figth, they leave that role to the poor…

9 tjamesjones April 15, 2017 at 6:34 am

One of the great myths, thanks to Alan Clark and then the British left. In fact the death rates for public (i.e. private) school boys in WW1 (20%) exceeded the average for the army (13%). And 200 generals were killed. The British PM Asquith’s son was killed in action, in 1916. Facts, eh!

10 Bullshot Crummond April 15, 2017 at 7:27 am

And I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Bolsheviks were responsible for the rumours that the Military Subscription act of 1916 required conscription, eventually of most able bodied men from the ages of 18 to 51. Couldn’t be further from the truth. What it did allow for was a subscription, to Beano, But the damn Bolshies with their misinformation got us all confused and the next thing you know we had 2.77 million extra soldiers we had to accommodate instead of distributing some funny pages to keep people’s spirits up. It was a right old balls up, I can tell you.

11 dearieme April 15, 2017 at 8:55 am

Very true.

But on the other hand “politicians hide themselves away, they only started the war. Why should they go out to figth, they leave that role to the poor…” seems a pretty fair description of the US system of the last couple of generations, so perhaps Axa was just projecting.

12 Thiago Ribeiro April 15, 2017 at 9:04 am

“The British PM Asquith’s son was killed in action, in 1916.”

So were Mao and Stalin’s children (well, not in 1916 actually! and Stalin’s son was actually war prisoner – like John McCain). Hurrah for Communist invasion and totalitarian conquest! How many children did Bush and Obama lose in Iraq? How many children will Trump risk in Syria? The Anglo-American world is dominated by a cabal of selfish oligarchs who do not hesitate to order their goons to take a passenger off a plane nd have him beaten for not kowtow properly to his masters.

13 Troll Me April 15, 2017 at 10:45 am

Too lazy to explain the ways in which that is an inappropriate comparison, and obvious sources of bias.

East enders and Canadians were cannon fodder. Don’t believe me? Try and explain how anyone actually thought Vimy Ridge could be won.

14 Axa April 15, 2017 at 4:08 pm

I just quoted a fragment of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs.

15 prior_test2 April 15, 2017 at 3:28 am

‘from Alex, our Alex’

Not my Alex, dreamboat that he is. (On a related note, how did that money order to help out a GMU student go, msgkings?)

16 Ivo April 15, 2017 at 3:31 am

I’m sure this is true for Russell and Cowen, but is it true for the Midwest Trump voters being interviewed so much right now?

17 Dzhaughn April 15, 2017 at 8:22 am

According to “Hllbilly Elegy,” as I read it, yes. (I can’t speak to the “ones being interviewed,” however.)

18 Edgar April 15, 2017 at 4:10 am

So all right thinkers do not condemn “nationalism” and “populism”? Or at least not that of one’s political allies? Or is “complacency” only when of those bugbears to be decried when one’s own preferred political regime is out of power?

19 prior_test2 April 15, 2017 at 6:34 am

See, Prof. Cowen is a libertarian, so of course he is opposed to war, populism, and using the power of the state to keep ensuring (or is that ‘insuring’ after our recent age of bailouts?) that the rich keep getting richer.

If he wasn’t, then he could be confused for a well paid columnist at a mainstream publication like the NYT or a news service like Bloomberg.

20 Dzhaughn April 15, 2017 at 8:30 am

Business is a competitive activity, and free markets provide an answer to Russel’s problem. The State, which is existentially bound by a story about its authority, cannot sustain support of dynamism.

21 Captain Obvious April 15, 2017 at 4:30 am

“A great many of the impulses which now lead nations to go to war are in themselves essential to any vigorous or progressive life” -> really? Is the author a Satanist or something? Does he understand what war is?

22 Ari April 15, 2017 at 6:05 am

“The problem is, to keep these impulses, without making war the outlet for them.”

Here exactly is the problem.

23 Thanatos Savehn April 15, 2017 at 6:19 am

All in all, Bertrand was just another brick in the wall. Too bad about his fat, psycopathic wife. Yes, I give him props for pricking set theory and anticipating Kurt Godel; but the whole “man found himself cast out, circling a small inconsequential star far beyond the universe’s center – and one rather less ordinary than most and in the bargain doomed to an early death …” thing was overwrought and the product of the buggy whip which his wife wielded with alacrity when laying waste to his scrawny backside.

24 Dzhaughn April 15, 2017 at 8:31 am

Yeah, there is no record of him commenting on Marginal Revolution, so he is relegated to the dustbin of history.

25 Jim April 15, 2017 at 7:22 am

Aren’t we critical! What a dumb comment.

26 Alan April 15, 2017 at 7:38 am

So progressives, and social justice warriors, just take things too far? Could they be the cause of their own downfall?

27 Troll Me April 15, 2017 at 10:48 am

Do you have something concrete to say?

28 Slocum April 15, 2017 at 7:49 am

“Conflict, provided it is not destructive and brutal, is necessary in order to stimulate men’s activities, and to secure the victory of what is living over what is dead or merely traditional. The wish for the triumph of one’s cause, the sense of solidarity with large bodies of men, are not things which a wise man will wish to destroy.”

Ah, BS. Does conflict and “sense of solidarity with large bodies of men” sound like the recipe for success in Silicon Valley? No. The impulse to imagine, the desire to innovate and excel seen there do not derive from or require tribal groupishness, which is one of human nature’s worst features. It’s not just the source of shooting wars but also my-team-above-all political partisanship we seem mired in.

“the greater part of a man’s happiness depends upon activity, and only a very small remnant consists in passive enjoyment.”

OK. But group solidarity and inter-group conflicts are certainly not the only (and far from the best) kinds of human activity. As far as possible, let’s confine that to the sports stadium and otherwise be done with it.

29 Dots April 15, 2017 at 7:53 am

Different impulses seem to motivate different wars

We r well set by his standard. We have rival nationalisms, civic and white. We have low builder productivity for decades of growing quantity demanded in housing, concurrent solar wind and shale revolutions with long wires and pipes to b built, two or more great power rivalries, a space race, the numerous and important needs of old people and the odd small war to keep us busy. Plus this gig economy stuff generated tens of thousands of crumby jobs in the recession. Maybe that gets better

30 Bradley P Calder April 15, 2017 at 8:06 am

Tyler and Alex, thank you for sharing Russell’s view on complacency. I’ve thought about your book over the last few weeks. First off, as always thank you for taking the time to write it. Following Erik Hurst’s papers over the last 10 years on labor markets post-crisis hinted at an underlying complacency, but you managed to bring together a large number of disparate data into a related whole. Having lived and worked in Shenzhen for a few years after college, the dynamism present in that city and others like it in China is not easy to describe to Americans. Further, when you see China with 200 cities with a population greater than 1 million (the US has about 10) and taken together with Glaeser’s work and Hidalgo’s work (Why Information Grows), I suspect you will see a great increase in economic growth in densely populated areas, and those countries that lack many densely populated areas will continue to stagnate.

31 rayward April 15, 2017 at 8:22 am

War, huh, good god / What is it good for. In the Beckworth/Cowen podcast, Cowen mentions something in the interview that he didn’t describe in the same way in his book, namely the “positive” effects of war in Europe, positive in the sense of spurring innovation and economic growth. What Cowen doesn’t mention is that inequality in Europe was “corrected” by the physical destruction of capital in the two world wars (the wealthy owned most of the assets, so the destruction of capital “corrected” inequality). In America we were spared the physical destruction of capital, but we weren’t spared the destruction in the value of capital: the financial crisis of 1929 and the depression that followed destroyed the value of capital, and thereby caused inequality (which was about the same level as today) to plummet and remain low for decades. Cowen subscribes to the cyclical view of history, but he downplays the importance of inequality in history. In his book, he predicts a Great Reset without providing any specifics. What he is likely predicting is another crisis, but this time the Fed either won’t or can’t stop the value of assets from plummeting, thereby “correcting” inequality and setting the economy on a path of growth and shared prosperity.

32 chuck martel April 15, 2017 at 8:37 am

” tribal groupishness, which is one of human nature’s worst features.”

The tribe is the logical extension of the family and the second most basic organization of human beings. It’s a problem for statists, however, in that it compromises the mandatory knee-jerk obsequiousness that the nation-state demands. The more sophisticated states have nearly eliminated tribal relationships and are now feverishly working on making the family itself obsolete. Their idea that each individual have no meaningful allegiance other than the state is the ultimate goal.

33 Troll Me April 15, 2017 at 10:59 am

There’s a risk there, but I think you’ve got the cart before the horse.

34 Jeremy April 15, 2017 at 9:18 am

A core feature of capitalism (which people seem to miss) is that it turns our darker nature into higher living standards instead of war.

Our sports teams are also helpful, turning our dark side into mere entertainment.

Our elections also redirect the dark energy, towards something negative but better than war. I try to remind myself of that when I’m complaining about how awful they are.

35 leppa April 15, 2017 at 10:17 am

May be the quote is a little out of context and doesn’t capture the pacifist Bertrand Russell.

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.————————————————
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.”

( Autobiography)

36 Troll Me April 15, 2017 at 10:32 am

You don’t need war to have imagination and adventure with regard to the wider world. How about get a passport first? Then you can get on a plane and make your first every trip overseas. Too much of an adventure? Or are you lacking in imagination.

There are many ways to experience adventure and use imagination without killing a bunch of people or fucking up their entire lives or entire countries.

So, as for lesser travails … I fear the possibility of psychologicla manipulations which will be the equivalent of getting shit shovellers super happy and exciting about their shit shovelling jobs. Some things are just work. They help to contrast with other stuff. While it’s “obvious” that it would be better if people generally liked their jobs more, or at least hated their jobs less, the words in the post, re-presented in the present day, could almost suggest that things would be better if we looked forward to work in the way that we look forward to a trip to an amusement park (or any particular thing you find fun or exciting).

So, in 1916 I think those words are very cool. In 2017, I would what they could mean when paired with neurotech. An 8 hour data of data entry should be dreary and dull until there is a way to pass it off to some robot. The interesting bits should be the breaks where you interact with people, unless there is some particularly interesting type of puzzle that arises from the process.

Work should be effective, not exciting. Or one day someone will have some serious work for you (e.g., “rule” the USA), and people will be too focused on what is exciting instead of what is effective.

37 bellisaurius April 15, 2017 at 10:32 am

This is part of the basic enjoyment behind team sports, no?

38 Philo April 15, 2017 at 10:46 am

Here we have Russellian paradox. In part, a person has the personal objective of feeling good, and acts so as to achieve that objective. But he is also aware of his own activity and circumstances, and is concerned about his prospects for future success; this is a *second-order* concern. At this second level he feels the better the better his prospects for future success. Thus, in addition to the sources of enjoyment that were in place at the first level, he enjoys the awareness of himself as *acting efficaciously (*ex ante*)*, for such activity bodes well for his future success; and if the activity turns out also to be successful *ex post* there is an additional second-order increment of good feeling. But if there is a second (“meta-“) level then in principle there must also be a third, fourth, and so on *ad infinitum*, though the limitations of the human mind would probably prevent the levels beyond some point from having any practical effect. The infinity of levels is an example of Russellian type-theory, though he seems not to have noticed that circumstance. (For simplicity I have focused on egoistic motivation, ignoring the altruistic.)

39 Ray Lopez April 15, 2017 at 11:37 am

You might want to model that using Russellian math symbols, otherwise it sounds like gibberish.

As for Russell, he’s got nothing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principia_Mathematica#Consistency_and_criticisms

And Russell had no patents either. An intellectual masturbator, who got his praise from the public, not from money, as is common with many ‘great men’. Not unlike most of us here in the comments section actually. Thus Russell favors, as you imply, war as a stimulus, since it costs him nothing and makes him feel good short term. Arguably the Wright brothers advanced society more, or Pasteur, or any obscure inventor of something worthy, now forgotten.

40 TMC April 15, 2017 at 11:47 am

This starts in school. On some playgrounds you are not allowed to run, in case someone gets hurt. The same for many of the games we used to play at recess.

Boys need this time to release their energy so they can concentrate better in class, but we’d rather diagnose them and drug them into submission. There needs to be more male teachers in schools who would understand this, or less feminizing of the school system.

41 Thiago Ribeiro April 15, 2017 at 2:24 pm

They are probably not being “drugged into submission” (maybe it is all the fluoride in the water instead) enough. The USA is the most violent rich country in the world, much more violent the European ones, not to mention. Lots of Asians and African countries. It is sad.

42 Jim April 16, 2017 at 3:12 am

Ray, that’s the lamest thing you’ve said in quite some time. You can do better, try to be a cut above.

43 Butler T. Reynolds April 17, 2017 at 11:14 am

David Brooks agrees eagerly.

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