Friday, 16 March 2018

On Business and the Economy

Business – honest business, that is – is beautiful. For it isn’t just being busy; it’s being busy with a purpose. And that purpose is to create well-being. There is no nobler human activity than delivering what others are voluntarily willing to pay for.

In my earlier essays, I’ve deliberately kept away from economics. This is the first of a new set, in which I plan to rectify that.


I’ll begin with the context, in which all economic activity takes place. All of us have needs and desires – for food and other basics, for goods and services, for pleasant experiences. And we all have resources too. Our time and energy, our skills and knowhow, our possessions and tools, our savings, are all resources we can use to get our needs and desires satisfied. And the mechanism, through which we exchange resources for satisfactions, is trade.

For trade to go beyond barter, some form of money is necessary. Money offers three benefits to trade. First, as a generally accepted medium of exchange. Second, as a unit of account, to measure the market value of goods or services. And third, as a store of value.

One further thing is necessary to support trade between disparate individuals and groups. That is, a system of objective justice, which at need can hold to account those that cause damage to others, try to cheat others, or dishonestly fail to keep to their side of a bargain.

In such conditions, honest individuals will seek to create and to offer a flow of wealth to others. And, in return, they will receive a corresponding flow of wealth from the honest people they trade with. From any such trade, as long as there is no fraud or coercion involved, each party will expect to gain a nett benefit. For if not, why would they have agreed to the trade in the first place? Thus, an economy based on honest trade increases the overall well-being of all parties. And it provides for good people not only satisfaction of needs and desires, but also incentive to develop their talents further, and opportunities to create more well-being.

The economic ideal

I’ll describe how the human economy ought to be, by means of a thought experiment. Picture, if you will, a rolling, grassy plain at dusk. And, standing on that plain, many human beings. A few hundred, or a thousand, should suffice. Now imagine that some, or several, or many, of those human beings are emitting, like great candles, a glow of bright light. Watch, now, as that light reaches other human beings on that plain. Each absorbs some of the light which reaches them. And, in their turn, they start to emit light, and to glow; some more brightly, some less.

Imagine, for a moment – only – that each of the human beings in this chain gives out only half as much light as they take in. What will happen? The light will slowly fade and die. If there is to be more light, it must come from outside.

But now imagine that each human being contributes at least as much as he or she takes out. What happens? The light grows gradually brighter and brighter, until it’s as bright as day. Imagine the people on that rolling plain, all creating well-being and fulfilling themselves. See them happy, smiling and bathed in light! Now that’s what I call a sustainable economy.


So, how can each of us produce light? The productive careers, which we can follow, are of many kinds. But I classify the avenues, by which we can create wealth, under five headings: Business, Genius, Science, Improvement, Support.

The biggest group in numerical terms are Business people. Business is the provision of goods or services, for which other people are voluntarily willing to pay. And the productive people in this category divide into several types. First, there are the workers or producers. These are the people at the sharp end, who directly deliver the services or make the goods. Second, there are the skilled workers, who apply their skills and creativity to productive tasks which others cannot do. For example, accountancy, quality assurance, or designing new products or services. Third, there are the entrepreneurs and managers, who take on the task of making things happen, and who organize themselves and others to produce.

I find honest entrepreneurs to be especially valuable to the economy. Now, many seem to think that the value of a piece of work depends only on the amount, and perhaps the quality, of the labour put into it. Yet this Marxian “labour theory of value” is an obvious crock. For, as the proverb has it, beauty is in the eye of the beholder; and thus, value is in the mind of the buyer. But what an entrepreneur does is create an environment, in which people can live their economic lives as if the labour theory of value was the truth. He takes on himself the lion’s share of the risk in his projects. And so he enables his workers, at much reduced risk to themselves, to share in the benefits of business.

Genius is the second, and the rarest, of the ways to create wealth. Among people of this category in the past, I might name Archimedes, or Mozart, or Henry Ford. Geniuses come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have three things in common. They’re creative. They’re ahead of their times. And they change for the better some aspect of the world, just by doing what they do.

The third of my headings is Science. Science, in a nutshell, is the use of reason to investigate reality, and so to add to the store of objective human knowledge. Those who create wealth through Science include many who are called scientists. But they also include those who seek understanding in other disciplines, for example archaeology or economics.

The fourth category is Improvement, the process of advancing human capabilities. One form of Improvement is education, leading out and elevating individuals’ talents. Another is engineering; that is, designing things which can benefit human beings, and making them work. A third is technology, which in the broad sense is making things possible which weren’t possible before. Those who create wealth through Improvement include those with a yen to make individuals, or humanity as a whole, more capable. Or who seek new, better ways to do things.

The last of my five categories is Support. This is an indirect means of creating wealth. A good example of Support is what a housewife does in a traditional marriage. By providing a comfortable, loving and supportive environment for her husband and family, she enables him to be more effective in his own wealth creation. But Support is common in the economy as well. An internal company accountant, for example, does not directly create any wealth. Yet he contributes to the success of his company, by analyzing and providing information valuable to others in that company.

To be effective in creating well-being in these ways, individuals must act in good faith, with honesty and integrity. They must avoid lies, cheating and deception. They must always do their best to fulfil their freely made promises. They must strive to give out, over the long term, at least as much value as they take in. These people are the truly productive, the nett emitters of light.

Co-operation and Competition

Two important facets of honest business are co-operation and competition. These are not opposites, as some would have it, but two sides of the same coin.

In co-operation, people work together, with each participant supplying his or her own skills, energy and work ethic. The result of such teamwork is, frequently, greater than the sum of its parts. For individuals have different, and often complementary, skills and abilities. Some, for example, find it easiest to work on one job at a time; whereas others can more easily switch between tasks. Some are creative, or can think “outside the box.” Others are more structured and focused in their thinking. And some have a natural ability to lead others.

The second facet is competition. Some like to pooh-pooh competition, framing it as something negative, like beating off rivals. But true competition is about striving to make ourselves more effective at whatever it is we do. I’ll summarize competition in four imperatives:

  1. Do it better.
  2. Do it quicker.
  3. Do it cheaper.
  4. Do what others can’t.
And the last of these is the most important. For it unlocks the key driver of economic progress: innovation.

The economic reality

To return to my earlier thought experiment. Everyone knows that the world economy, as it is today, isn’t like a spreading light. Far from becoming bright as day, such light as there is stutters and sputters; and sometimes seems about to go out. Many people find their work no longer fulfilling. It becomes a chore or a boring grind. Better opportunities, which ought to be there, aren’t. And some people become sidelined entirely. So, why isn’t the economy as it ought to be?

One possible reason presents itself. Look closer at the individuals on that rolling, grassy plain. Among the producers of light, you will find dark figures. These are people who are too young or too old to produce, or who are ill, injured, or mentally or physically disabled. These dark figures consume light, but they can’t generate light. Could these people be the reason why the light doesn’t spread as it should?

Look closer yet at those who generate the light. Many of them, you will find, produce far more than they consume. If they do enough, their extra productivity can make up for the presence of the dark figures. These productive individuals can and will support the load, as long as they have confidence that, over the long run, they themselves will at least break even. For no-one can reasonably grudge re-paying those who have helped them in the past, or investing in those who will help them in the future. And as to the disabled: “there, but for the grace of god, go I.”

But look closer again, and you will find, mixed in with the radiant producers and the dark non-producers, a third kind of individual. Like the others, they consume light. But instead of adding to the economy by being productive in their turn, they seek to damage or even to destroy it. It is as if they are trying to douse our light with some foul substance.

These “dousers,” as I call them, act in bad faith. Some of them scheme to take out of the economy far more than they put in. Some use their technical or communication skills to present a false picture of reality. Some feed off a gravy train of tax money, but bring no benefit to the people who are forced to pay that money. Some engage in political schemes, including fanning wars and raising trade barriers. Some steal other people’s resources for their own pet projects. Some seek to make economic life difficult for people they don’t like.

But perhaps the worst of the dousers are those that seek to undermine the very foundations of the economy. They raise alarms about scarcity of resources. Yet they ignore the natural mechanism of market price, which encourages better ways of producing scarce resources, or at need the development of alternatives. They raise scares about pollution, global warming, health or safety, problems or other bad side effects of economic activity. Yet, instead of proving their case and seeking to make perpetrators compensate their victims, they want to douse the whole economy in a foul sea of taxes and red tape. Some of them even pooh-pooh the entire idea of a productive economy, giving it pejorative labels like “injustice,” “inequality” and “consumerism.”

Now, look at the people in those places, where the dousers have contrived to suppress the light. You will find yet a fourth kind of individual. They are not dousers; they are not evil or destructive. Like the non-producers, these individuals are dark. But they are not dark because they are too young, or too old, or ill, or injured, or disabled. They are dark, because the light does not reach them. They have no opportunity to take part in the world economy. There’s a name for these people; they are called the poor. The world’s poor are the ultimate victims of the dousers.

To sum up

All of us must trade with others to get our needs satisfied. Trade, money and an objective justice system are pre-requisites for a workable economy of many disparate people.

Everyone, who is able to deliver well-being to others, has an obligation to do so. Each of us can do this in many ways. For example: productive work, entrepreneurship, science, or improving or supporting others’ capabilities. We should co-operate with others, and strive to improve our own abilities. And we must always act in good faith, with honesty and integrity.

But among us there are those – I call them dousers – that fail to measure up to these obligations, and seek to damage our economy rather than contribute to it. Dousers are the ones that are responsible for today’s economic troubles, including poverty.

Friday, 9 March 2018


Another offering from the Darn-Poor Rhymer. Hat tips to Aristophanes for his comedy “The Frogs,” and to Murray Gell-Mann who found the word “quark” in James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.”

For we’re elementary Quarks,
We sing in croaks, chirrups and barks;
We first found our voice
In the works of James Joyce,
And we follow the doctrines of Marx.

You’ll never find one of us free;
We’ve only one pronoun, that’s “we.”
Throughout the infinity
We’re found as a trinity;
We’re three in one, and one in three.

We’ve one-third or two-thirds the charge
Of electrons or protons at large;
And our antiquarks fine,
Though of negative sign,
Can reside with us in our ménages.

We come in six different flavours,
And these are the names Gell-Mann gave us:
Down and up, charmed and strange,
Top and bottom. Our range
Is like minims, to crochets, to quavers.

Our colours are red, green and blue;
But we don’t show our colours to you.
We always self-tether
In groups that together
Are colourless. Flavourless, too!

We’re like Aristophanes’ Frogs,
Who inhabit the marshes and bogs.
“Brekekex” is our cry;
We go forth, multiply,
Then we’re everywhere. Even on blogs.

A jocular lot, are we Quarks.
And one of our favourite larks
Is in chorus to shriek
As we holler, in Greek,
“Brekekex! Brekekex! Quarks! Quarks! Quarks!”

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

On Uppers and Downers

Today, I’m going to write about philosophy. I’ll tell you how I interpret the ideas of the sages of the past, and I’ll outline my own views on the subject.

In doing so, I’ll describe the battle between what I call Uppers and Downers. This pits people like me, who build our thinking and our world view from the bottom up, against those whose view is top down. It can also be seen as a conflict between individualism and socialism, liberty and tyranny, or reasonable people and troublemakers. I see this as the battle of our times.


This is the final essay of a set of twelve, which lay out the foundations of my thinking. I’ll briefly re-cap the main points from my earlier essays.

I began with equality. I made the case that all individuals are morally equal, and that all should be politically equal and not subjected to others. I gave my view of justice: the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run and in the round, as he or she treats others. I discussed rights, which are the same for everyone, and come from our nature. And I put forward the idea that rights and ethical obligations are two sides of the same coin.

I introduced Belgian philosopher Frank van Dun’s idea of the convivial order. This is a framework for living, in which people interact without regard to their membership of, or status in, any particular society. I sketched, in outline, a code of convivial conduct, independent of any particular society or culture.

Next, I looked at the idea of community among human beings, and found six levels. From the bottom up: The individual. The partnership. The family. The marketplace. Societies. And at the top, the convivial order or convivial community. I focused in on societies, and concluded that many disparate forms of voluntary society can fit within the framework of the convivial order. But when I looked at political societies, I found that we’re living under a centuries old, failed political system, that isn’t compatible with the convivial order. Most – if not all – of the political ideologies it harbours, except for Enlightenment liberalism, are destructive in their effects. And the sham called democracy, far from helping, tends to make things worse.

I looked at how we seek knowledge, and I looked in particular at science. Science is a method for discovering knowledge, but only if it is done honestly and without bias. Lastly, I looked at the environmentalist agenda. I uncovered its corruption of the precautionary principle, and inversion of the burden of proof. And I revealed a mind set, common among greens and their cohorts. They want to impose their agendas on everyone through government power. And they show little or no interest in ethical behaviour, personal responsibility, truth or reason.


Western philosophy springs from ancient Greece. Much of it has its origin in the ideas of Aristotle and his teacher Plato. Philosophy is divided into a number of branches, which have been given daunting Greek names like Epistemology, Ethics and Politics.

Several of my friends have been influenced by the Russian born American thinker Ayn Rand. And I’ve known a number of devotees of her philosophy, which she called Objectivism. But I’m not myself a Randian. Indeed, I’ve found some of her disciples a bit nutty. I’m also unimpressed that her followers have sought to make her philosophy into a closed system; like a church whose dogma may not be changed or even questioned.

Nonetheless, I do think Rand had some good ideas. In particular, she took five of the branches of ancient Greek philosophy, and arranged them like a layer cake, in which each layer builds on the ones below it. I think this model is very good; though I’m not sure how much of it was original with Rand. Beyond Rand, I’ve also been influenced by some of the ideas of an apostate former Randian, whose pen name is Jason Alexander.

In Rand’s model, the lowest layer is Metaphysics. Its subject matter is the nature of reality. Next comes Epistemology. This is about how we know what we know, and how we learn it. Third is Ethics, which is about how we as individuals should act, and the nature of right and wrong. Fourth comes Politics, which Jason Alexander has re-interpreted as Civilization. This is, or ought to be, about the institutions we should build to enable people to live together in a convivial manner. When done right, the result will be order. That is, Frank van Dun’s convivial order.

The fifth and highest layer was originally known as Aesthetics, and was about beauty and art. But clearly, it’s a lot more than that. Jason Alexander, rightly I think, has named it Creativity. I regard this layer as being about how we should use our natural creativity to maximum effect. Thus I include in it, not only beauty and art, but also business and other ways in which individuals, and associations of individuals, can bring benefit to each other.

My own philosophy

I call my philosophical system Honest Common Sense. Four years ago, I wrote and self published a short book describing it. But unlike Objectivists, I regard any system of ideas as always provisional. Any philosophy worth the name must be able to evolve, and to absorb new ideas and new understandings. And my own system, over the last four years, has done just that.

I now base my system more closely on the five-layer model of Ayn Rand and Jason Alexander. But I add a condition that the hierarchy must be strict; each layer must build on those below it, not depend on the layers above it. You can only work upwards through the layers, never downwards. So, half tongue in cheek, I now give my system an alternative label: Upperism.

In particular (and contrary to what I said in the book), I now see that you can’t build a decent civilization unless and until individuals relate to each other according to a decent ethics. And you can’t make creativity work fully until you have built a workable civilization to underpin it.


I’ll start with the bottom layer, Metaphysics. The difficulty here is that there is no direct access to this layer through our senses. As Werner Heisenberg put it: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Because of this, nothing in metaphysics can be proved. Ideas can only be judged by the conclusions they lead to in higher layers.

For me, metaphysics must seek to answer three sets of questions. First, the nature of the physical universe: “What’s out there?” Second, the nature of consciousness and humanity: “What am I?” And third, the big picture: “What’s it all about?”

Here’s my take on the physical sub-layer. There is only one reality, even though different individuals have differing views of it. Although many statements can’t be easily tested for truth or falsehood, and some are neither true nor false, truth exists and is objective. And that is so even when particular truths are unknown, or poorly understood, or wrongly apprehended, either by one individual or by many. As an Upper, I find the idea that truth is objective to be key. And I contrast it with Downer ideas such as that truth is relative to a culture, or that there are no facts.

As to humanity, Jason Alexander calls us “the Identity who Identifies.” We certainly are that; we are seekers of truth. But, in addition, we are individuals. We have free will. We are moral agents. It is in our nature to behave convivially, to form societies, to build civilization, and to be creative. And for Uppers like me, humans are naturally good, even though some among us fail to develop that nature. This I contrast with Downer notions like the doctrine of original sin, or the idea that we are a blight on the planet.

As to the big picture, many hold this to be the province of religion. But for me, religion isn’t amenable to reason. And therefore the only sane attitude to it is tolerance towards those who offer similar tolerance in return. Uppers generally see religion as a personal choice, and accept that some have different religions from their own. Downers, in contrast, often slavishly parrot someone else’s religion. And many of them like to proselytize, or to persecute heretics.


The layer called Epistemology is about how we use our minds to seek understanding and identify truths. Truths can be physical or scientific; or they can be ethical, political or (rarely) aesthetic.

We build, inside our minds, a picture or model of reality in the area of interest. The way I see it is that, from our sensory experiences, we build up specific thoughts (percepts), then generalize them into more abstract thoughts (concepts). We use logic to combine concepts into a bigger picture. As part of this process, we use our reason to check the results of our thinking against reality, either by testing them, or comparing them with what we already know. And when our model has successfully been through this validation process, we regard its conclusions as provisionally true, and add them to our store of knowledge. We can regard such knowledge as being true, until new evidence leads us to re-examine it.

Uppers seek, whenever possible, to understand the facts of an issue. In contrast, Downers usually start with a narrative, which may or may not correspond to reality. More often than not, their narrative is a pessimistic one. They rarely miss an opportunity to hype a problem. And they are often reluctant to change their narrative, even when the facts contradict it. Those that continue to spew out such a narrative in the face of the facts are, to say the least, mendacious.


Many people think of ethical principles as intimately associated with religion. And, in particular, with the Judaeo-Christian Ten Commandments. But I disagree. I see it as perfectly feasible to set out and to follow a code of ethical obligations, without needing to subscribe to any one religion.

In my view, there is a core of ethical principles, which arise from our nature as convivial beings. I equate this core with Frank van Dun’s “laws of conviviality.” For me, Man is not a political animal as Aristotle had it, but a convivial animal. For more on my ethical ideas, I refer you to my earlier essays on Rights and Convivial Conduct. But I still have a lot of work to do in this area.

Here too, there’s a big difference between Uppers and Downers. Most Uppers think of right and wrong as objective. In difficult or borderline cases, they generally do what they perceive as being right. Uppers know that they are individuals, and that others are too. Further, they apply their ideas of right and wrong to their own actions, as well as to the actions of others. They accept responsibility for the effects on others of their own voluntary actions. They are peaceful, unless attacked. And they value human rights. Uppers, therefore, usually behave reasonably (occasional lapses notwithstanding). And they seek to behave with honesty, with integrity, and with empathy towards those who deserve it.

Many Downers, on the other hand, seem to think – in post-modern fashion – that right and wrong are not objective, but relative to some particular culture. They like to make trouble for others. They condone violence, or other violations of rights, when it suits their interests. And they show little or no sense of personal responsibility. They often tell us that “we” (whatever that means) must take some action; yet they themselves fail to do, or even to contribute to, any such action. Or they condemn those who do something, yet themselves do that same thing and continue to do it. So, many Downers habitually act in bad faith, make trouble, and behave as hypocrites.


Civilization is a framework for living. In contrast to today’s failed political societies, I favour a framework based on Frank van Dun’s convivial order. And the main purpose of the institutions of civilization must be to deliver justice. By that, I mean objective, individual justice; in which each of us is treated, as far as practicable, as he or she treats others.

For me, all the functions of any decent system of government – which I have listed as the maintenance of peace, just resolution of disputes and defence of rights – are aspects of this justice. I see government as like a referee or umpire. It keeps the game of life flowing, and holds those who cause damage to others responsible for their own share of that damage. It has no “will,” and no political ideology. For more about my views on this subject, please see my earlier essays, and in particular those on Justice, Rights and Societies.

As with the lower layers, there’s a big difference between Uppers and Downers in their views of justice and of what government is for. Uppers want the minimum of government, consistent with the maintenance of peace and objective justice. They want low taxes and an economic free market. And they see violence or war, except in self defence, as anathema.

Downers, on the other hand, prefer a large, powerful and active government. They see it as an agency for implementing the political policies they favour; including war, when it benefits themselves or their government. They want an economic system that is biased in favour of themselves, their friends and their political supporters. And they like heavy and re-distributive taxation. Moreover, their idea of justice is not an objective, individual one, but seems usually to be some ill defined idea of “fairness” or “social justice.”


A de-politicized framework for convivial living, I expect, will enable not only world-wide peace, but also a flowering of human creativity. Not just in writing, art, music and the like; but also in the economy. In my essays so far, I have deliberately refrained from writing about economic matters. I haven’t discussed business, the free market, capitalism, or what flows from them. I plan to rectify that in the future.

But I’ll give a taster here. In a civilization which maintains peace and justice and defends the rights of every individual, each of us will be free to make of our creativity what we can. We may choose to work on our own to deliver things people want, or to work in teams to deliver them. We may seek to add to human knowledge. We may seek to solve problems, and to open up new opportunities. We may develop, or help to develop, new ideas and technologies. We may seek to improve human capabilities through education and good teaching. Or, closer to home, we may focus on helping and supporting those who devote their efforts to any of these things. In summary, each of us will create as much wealth and well-being as we can. We will build a better world. And each of us will enjoy all the rewards we earn.


I’m an unabashed, unashamed, unmitigated Upper. In particular, for me, thinking must be based on reality, and politics on ethics. But among us today there are many adherents of the opposite way of thinking, which I dub Downerism.

The most virulent Downers have a vision of how things should be; but they don’t want to build their dreams from the bottom up. Instead, they formulate a political agenda, then seek to impose it on others. Some of these agendas are obviously evil and tyrannical. For example: a world ruled over by communism, a world without Jews or non-Aryan races, or a country without a middle class. Even agendas that are not obviously so evil can lead to harmful policies and violation of rights. For example: war on drugs, reducing obesity, or sustainable development. And even a good sounding agenda, like eliminating poverty or preserving wildlife, can still cause much harm to innocent people if badly executed. So, instead of living in a climate in which we can unleash our creativity, we are subjected today to the bad agendas of Downers.

Those that have such agendas will seek political power in order to get them implemented. They will join other Downers that also seek power, but for a different reason; to enrich themselves and their buddies. Today’s politics and party system are magnets for Downers of both types. Thus, virtually all politicians today are Downers. As are the corporate cronies that hang off their coat-tails. And democracy is useless to us; for how can any Downer possibly “represent” us Uppers? So, instead of living in a just civilization, we are ruled over by bad and unjust politics.

Political governments make laws. Such laws have no direct link to the code of convivial conduct. They often violate the rights of innocent people. And they require enforcement. So, the ranks of Downers swell with armies of bureaucrats and other enforcers. And the worst of them use their power to make trouble for people. So, instead of conviviality, we suffer bad laws and hassles.

Any such system requires propaganda to sustain it. The Downers in the media, and their hangers-on like “celebrities,” oblige. Thus we find ourselves suffocating in a mental atmosphere of lies, deceptions, fake or misleading news, and hype. We are bombarded with an incessant stream of politically correct narrative, which makes it hard for many people to identify facts and truth.

At the bottom of the pyramid, the foot soldiers of Downerism operate on faith. Some of them fail to detect the propaganda in the narrative. Some of them think that laws are right, just because some bunch of politicians made them. Some of them feel an attachment to the politics of a particular nation. Some of them are taken in by a particular agenda or agendas. But all of them are Downers; and so, all of them are a down on us. As long as they are blind to reality and to right and wrong, they are a drain on, and a danger to, us and our human civilization.

To sum up

The battle of our times isn’t between the political right and left, but between Uppers and Downers. Uppers are naturally peaceful, respect facts, are tolerant of difference, and try to behave reasonably and with empathy, honesty, and integrity. They want minimal government and objective justice. And they want to build a better world for all good people.

Downers, on the other hand, are intolerant. They want to impose their agendas on others through bad laws and taxation. And they see nothing wrong in violence or war when it suits them. Moreover, they disdain facts in favour of narrative and propaganda. And they often lie, hype problems, act in bad faith, or behave as hypocrites.

Which side are you on?