Friday, January 9, 2009

Tolerating The Crooked Timbers Of Humanity

High up in the old library of the Pontifical Gregorian University, founded in 1551 by the first monk of the Catholic Jesuit order, Ignacio Loyola, lurk thousands of tomes in Chinese and Russian. They are not works of theology or literature, but books on political economy. Communist political economy to be precise.

Except in some places in South America, Catholics have not smiled on communism, to put it mildly. Indeed, in the past the Vatican has tended to lean in the other direction and Catholicism is not noted for being a radical religion. So why all the books on a system in this most Catholic of universities, teeming with hundreds of seminarians, monks and nuns?

The answer I was given was something that Sun Tzu or Machiavelli would have understood, namely that it is necessary to study the enemy, or at least those that hold very different beliefs. Now, fifteen years later, I am not sure whether those books are still in the library, but I have never forgotten the idea.

So it is that very often when I find a book, web page or online comment that I find rather unfair or based on false assumptions or even downright obnoxious, I often force myself to read at least some of it. For example, I recently looked at a book on population that blamed those who were worried about the planet's overstressed resources for failed population policies. I have also long been fascinated by texts which chart and praise the rise of the current world economic system - a system which it has suddenly become acceptable to harangue after a long period in which to offer even mild criticism was seen as indicating some kind of incurable mental ailment.

I often think that economic views and religious faith can have quite a lot in common. For instance, it is generally not possible to argue someone out of either. Keynes famously said "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?", but this is rare, and Keynes though apparently referring to monetary policy didn't actually become a monetarist (as far as I know). The quality of being unwilling to change one's mind on core principles can certainly be beneficial, but in the matter of economics it can lead to some great unpleasantness, like this:
"The sub prime degenerate scumbuckets of America caused more damage and have cost more than the terrorist attacks and subsequent war on terror"
This is a quote from a blog, an American one I believe, written by someone who claims to be an economist - he or she doesn't give a name in the blog, but it can be deduced by other means. It makes me wonder if the author had never done anything silly which they had later regretted or been gulled by good or not so laudable emotions into doing something which seemed a bit risky at the time, but which many others were doing and wasn't illegal (indeed in this case was being highly encouraged from the president and Fed chief on down).

Many of the people who bought houses they couldn't really afford were surely just trying to provide a good home for their families and were following a dream which is drilled into people from childhood up - own your own home. It may or may not be a good idea in the greater scheme of things, but most humans need roofs over their heads, by some means or other.

The deeper question for me is one of tolerance and how will the lack of it that is too apparent in increasing areas of life play out in the coming age of severe resource shortages. A whole nation was founded on the idea of tolerance - namely America, and some centuries ago philosophers in Europe, particularly in Britain, worked hard to develop systems of thought that had both structure and flexibility. No system was perfect, but then as Kant said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”.

Reading the works of those one disagrees with, as I saw in the Jesuit Gregorian university, and trying to understand the preoccupations and assumptions of others can lead to all kinds of new insights - maybe one will change one's mind as Keynes said he sometimes did - and maybe not, but it could make it easier to cope with the fact that we are an awkward species with a lot of contradictions, and we're now in a tight spot where more understanding and tolerance of very different views and beliefs would go a long way.

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