Condorcet and Malthusian essay relevant to Social Security and the problem of too much kindness
by Dale Coberly
Condorcet and Malthusian essay
relevant to Social Security
and the problem of too much kindness
[note, important sentences in the following are quoted from another author because it’s easier for me to write that way. Credit will be given at the end of the article.]
Goetzman: “In 1794 as the Reign of Terror raged the Marquis de Condorcet penned one of the most optimistic tracts of the eighteenth century. He wrote hurriedly and in hiding…evading an arrest warrant that would surely mean his death. Condorcet was a brilliant mathematician—a major contributor to the development of calculus—…He was one of the most enlightened of Enlightenment figures: an abolitionist, a promoter of women’s rights, an advocate of democracy, and a deep believer in the power of rational thought as a means to solve the problems of mankind. Despite these liberal views, he was in trouble for advocating imprisonment rather than the execution of Louis XVII [sic]. After completing his book, the marquis was caught escaping from Paris… His book was published posthumously in 1795. It celebrates the progress of science as a means to knowledge. Finance and probability play a major role in his vision. Condorcet believed the same financial architecture [as the French system of annuities]could be used to provide universal old-age pensions:
Condorcet: “Inequality, however, may be in great measure destroyed, by setting chance against chance, in securing to him who attains old age a support arising from his own savings, but augmented by those of other persons, who, making a similar contribution to the common stock, happen to die before they shall have occasion to recur to it…”
Goetzmann: “In 1798 Thomas Malthus, a minister in Surrey who had studied mathematics at Jesus College, Cambridge, took exception to the rosy future portrayed by Condorcet…
Malthus: “By the application of calculations to the probabilities of life and the interest of money, he proposes that a fund should be established which should assure to the old an assistance, produced in part, by their own former savings…such calculations may appear very promising on paper, but when applied to real-life they will be found to be absolutely nugatory…were the rising generation freed from ‘the killing frost’ of misery population must rapidly increase..”
Goetzmann: “in Malthus view…in good times the population would expand and ultimately compete for limited resources…A social system that eliminated the normal depredations suffered by humanity would reduce the death rate…and eliminate the incentive to work, which would, in turn, slow the production of food and economic growth…”
“Although the debate between Condorcet and Malthus was never consummated…it would frame one of the greatest challenges of the modern world==universal provision for an uncertain future.”
Coberly: The last bit is from the author I have been heavily quoting…William N Goetzmann, Money Changes Everything. By saying this it seems to me he has implicitly endorsed Malthus’ position.
Malthus’s error is first…his appeal to “real life” is in fact an appeal to his own theories about human life without realizing these are not the same thing. Moreover, he relies heavily on the idea that Condorcet’s proposal must solve every problem forever. It turns out that Malthus’ projections have not been realized (yet), while they have become the basis of the Right’s eternal argument against any kind of public “welfare” at all: “the people must die in misery or there can be no progress or incentive to work.”
It happens that FDR and his Economic Security Commission improved on Condorcet’s initial design…and it must be stated here that there was never a debate between Condorcet and Malthus. Condorcet had been dead for three years before Malthus wrote…ironically, killed by French progressives for advocating relative kindness to one of “the rich”.
FDR’s improvement over Condorcet’s original idea was to tax the worker enough so as not to depend on the early death of many of them, but simply to pay the retirement out of the normal growth of wages and population. Note that contrary to Maltus, a growing population provides a growing economy: the means to pay retirees more than what they paid in. And It turns out that even a non-growing population will provide enough, and even a nongrowing level of production will provide enough. The workers just have to save more of their present income toward their retirement…which they can do as long as their current wage is enough for them to live on as well as set aside enough for their old age.
If we ever fall below that threshhold we may have a problem Social Security cannot solve, but it would be stupid not to do what we can do now and for the foreseeable future because of what “might happen” sometime in the future of someone’s imagination.
“…Note that contrary to Maltus, a growing population provides a growing economy:…”
[This is true and also the basis of welfare economics that is based on fiscal deficits. Fiscal deficits are in turn the twin sibling of trade deficits. However, Malthus’s vision does not come up empty when accounting for shrinking glaciers, deforestation, or the dwindling sea life. I have never encountered a model indicating what the impact of responsible growth might be like. I gather that such has never been considered a realistic alternative. So, the principle thesis of Malthus, that there would be too many people to be fed might not be that far off from current reality although timed centuries later than his predictions. That said, then misery plays less a part of any solution than realistic limits. Life’s end should entail reward for past good behavior since people work better for rewards than for inevitable punishment. It is that good behavior that is so difficult to come by though.
I believe that the sci-fi writers have been correct all along. For things to change then there must first be a huge learning opportunity to enlighten the few survivors in their next attempt to develop civilization. That should be no surprise given this time around we just layered technology on top of a culture of rape, pillage, and plunder.]
BTW, I am all for social security and am glad it can be had without the growth in case we ever get a handle on that. Kindness, OTOH, is not so much how I think of personal relationship as a matter of practicality. Back in our rape, pillage, and plunder days, then a man was still “kind” to the woman that he slept with lest that she murdered him in his sleep.
It’s one of the business secrets of Attila the Hun, don’t sleep with women with long hair.
ask your wife about that. I think kindness proceeds from something more real than fear of retaliation. Louis XVI was unlikely to murder Condorcet in his sleep, and the people who murdered Condorcet didn’t wait for him to fall asleep.
And yees, all that you say about climate change and other disasters flesh is heir to is out there waiting, but meanwhile Social Security as we have it is the best way to provide for our own future needs in face of the disasters that cash is heir to…and will be, at least for a while, if and when those disasters come upon us. Even folks in the stone age discovered that kindness to ones children resulted in kindness from them when they got old, though they probably did not think of it that way. Sometime later, in the Bronze age, some people thouht it necessary to remind themselves that being kind to old people would help them “live long in the land.” And by the iron age, a carpenter’s son had to remind them that, yes, it was all about the money…all pretty much before sophisticated finance allowed the land of the free to develop the same concept without reference to kindness at all.
From Goetzmann’s quotations from Malthus, I get the impression he was not much of a visionary, but merely another spokesman for the “we need the poor to die in misery so we can live in luxury” crowd: if we give them security they will not work.”
In the neolithic tribes that settled near water where food was plentiful, then there was more kindness to one another than among their predecessors, especially living in harsher environments as evidenced by weapon marks upon bones found in prehistoric archaeological remains. The rape, pillage, and plunder culture emerged to dominate the Earth out of the harshness of the Ural Mountains and Steppes, especially during periods of glaciation. These nomads became the Aryans that dominated Europe from Rome to the Norse lands. Other Aryans migrated East to take over India and presumably the warlike spaces of Mongolia, Tibet, and Nepal. Among those largely displaced by the Aryan tribes in Europe were the Picts and Celts. I know there were people in Asia before the Aryans, but my reading never got deep into them as I am a westerner. What became of our own native Americans was hardly new at the hands of Aryan invaders.
In any case, my story of “kindness” was lifted from stories about Viking warriors.
and a good enough story it was. i think you are right about people being lesskind where the living is harder, but it is also possible that people are more kind where the living is harder. they have to take care of each other to survive. they may be less kind to their neighbors, but not to their family. as time goes on the less-kind and more-kind evolve and cross paths.
thing about today is that we are filthy rich, and getting less kind because we no longer have families, and the people who have power are a separate tribe from the rest of us.
(yes, many of us still have families, but not like families used to be, especially in terms of having any power over their own economic fate. Depressions and Empire Wars being no more under their control than droughts and long winters.
SS extends the family idea to the whole nation. the Insane Right and the Rabid Left, or maybe just the impersonal “forces of history” work against the family idea….which was not free of its own abuses. IS a puzzlement!
My conversations about such things are mostly with you now. It has been about fifty years since my life among social work and art students. Now I do recall the semantic though. Kindness is not existential to the social contract, but as in all contracts reciprocity is existential. Sufficient food is handy when old men want to have a place to share the wisdom in society. Old women are useful looking after the young children while the young women do women’s work, which is where the food and clothes mostly come from.
Modern culture has different constraints and fewer honorable stoics that follow the warrior’s creed.
yes, and he kept that secret to his death. i never heard what happened to that lady. she must have been very brave or in cahoots with Atila’s lieutenants who were tired of him.
Most people go through a long stage of their lives when they are completely dependent on the kindness of others. Someone has to provide them with food, keep them safe, teach them basic skills, nurse them when they are sick and otherwise take care of them. This kindness usually includes a level of forbearance allowing them to do things that would for someone less in need of kindness lead to harsh consequences. Kindness is MORE important in harsh environments. Where it is cold, dangerous and food is scarce, more kindness is essential. Societies that don’t provide it cease to exist.
Macho types try to pretend that they never went through this stage even as they demand more kindness from others than their behavior and utility would warrant. As just about every war since the invention of the rifle has shown, wars can be won without macho braggarts.
Economists tend to ignore this stage of life completely since a good deal of the necessary kindness is provided by women who until fairly recently have been considered exo-economic beings.
I guess it is the baggage that kind carries with it. When someone stops to rescue a stranded motorist in Montana snow, then they are more likely to raise hell with them for being unprepared for their circumstances than say a kind word if they speak to the stranded motorist at all. Afterwards then they will go home and drown some kittens :<)
The mortal bond of human reciprocity is possibly instinctive albeit perhaps dependent upon the development of empathy in a healthy personality. One need not be kind or even humane to be an empathetic human.
Likewise a mother will care for her child including when she beats them with a stick for not minding her. Kind and nice behavior are handy because people crowded in cities have too many guns to be otherwise.
well SS does provide something for women who are at least arguably married to a spouse who worked for wages.
i am not very happy with those who say that being a woman at all is so unfair that SS should provide them a full, enhanced, benefit whether they worked for wages at all, just on their sayso that they provided at-home support to a needy relative.
i understand the cosmic injustice of this, but SS can’t carry on its back all the injustices of the world. the proper recourse for those who do not have a history of paying the payroll tax would be welfare such as SSI, or some other program.
My bottom line on the semantics is that one with a normal empathetic human personality is more reliable and trustworthy than one with nice kind humane behavior.
oh, well, as for all that I am not an especially kind person..at least not in the things I say to people, or think about them, if i even bother to think about them at all. but whilei will stop to help a stranded motorist, i do not go home and drown kittens, and i am currently worrying if not working to help my daughter save a boerbel who is quite dangerous because his previous owners didn’t understand “kind” at all…though i am sure they were kind to each other.
end of sermon: kindness is a deep subject. it is different from reciprocity though that’s a good place to start. it is even different from enlightened self interest..because that is a formula that can lead a person straight to hell (the road to which is paved).
i distrust “kindness” in others..perhaps for the same reason you do. but i worship it when i see the real thing. i wrote somewhere in my SS pieces that caring for your parents is perfectly justifiable for selfish reasons….even if it did not arise out of love or at least lead to love..which “caring for” has seemed to me to be the most reliable path if it does not arise from being cared for….or some deeper reason.
Excellent! It sometimes takes a while to get around to, but we see things roughly the same once we can get past the confusion of words. As an afterthought then I should have started with a personal story about my dad, who defended the weak because it gave him a chance to knock the crap out of a big bully. I grew up around people that were strong, reliable, and honorable for poor folk, but not noted for their kindness.
Anyway, taking care of others is less a matter of kindness than responsible citizenship by those that are strong, reliable, and honorable. Throwing people away is the worst kind of littering. In my experience the nice kind people are the first to cut and run when the going gets tough. For my part it is easier to lift the losers up to where they can stand securely than it is to walk over them to get to where I am going.
yep. agreed. here is a story not really bragging. i didn’t worry much about vietnam, but one day i was riding my bike home from the library and came upon a group of (as it turned out) members of a high-end fraternity at UF roughing up some girls carrying anti war signs, no need to think about that. i flew off the bike and attacked the frats. they were not looking for a real fight so they backed off. moments later vice president humphrey showed up for the talk he was going to give the frat. and i suddenly found myself a war protestor.
nope. not kind. not at all.
YEP. Good story. My Vietnam protest story was that I wore my dress greens with marksmanship and fireguard medals and my Vietnam orders tucked away in an inside jacket pocket to the first Vietnam War Moratorium protest on October 15, 1969 (local – DC march was 11/15/69). My Vietnam war hero story was when I located duct tape at a nearby rotary wing aviation company when our guys had run out of pine boxes in which to put the body bags before stapling the return orders to the dead that we shipped home for burial. Shipping did not want to staple final orders to body bags, but duct tape (called hundred-mile-per-hour tape by chopper mechanics) worked great.
Take care, my brother. We are in for a stretch of decent weather for a change and no other social event until 9/18.
thanks. take care.
yes. that was heroic. most people wouldn’t understand that.
Yep, but the guys that were there got it big time. I was their hero. Mailing home the dead was fraught enough with survivor guilt as it was. Just being alive was a humbling experience.
BTW, this happened during 1970 in the 101st Administration Company which was the personnel department of the 101st Airborne Division, located in Phu Bai outside of Hue in the I-Corps AO. We were shipping and receiving for the arriving newbies (a.k.a., cherries) and the departing, whether living or dead. We also did payroll and the troop strength reports transmitted to the DoA each month. Daily we processed the company morning reports into card file updates. When it got dicey late in my tour then one night I was shocked by the results of a sort that put the K1 codes in a sorter pocket that I lifted out and held understanding that each card represented a KIA. It was the most that we had had during my tour by a lot. So, for me irony really is next to godliness.
Running out of pine shipping boxes and the card sort epiphany both happened in the final month of my tour.
Nothing I can say, Nothing I have a right to say.
Glad you read it. Part of how I got this way with the grim and bare it dark humor. Just made that up, but I like it.
BTW, I am not at the pool because Larry caught a subtropical storm in his back-draft. It appears to have passed now, but it is too late to bother.