Saturday, November 8, 2008

Proposed Roads to Freedom, Full Time

My embrace of an asymmetrical approach to time has resulted in but three chapters being consumed since the halftime report – and much of the material in those chapters is developed or hinted at earlier in Proposed Roads to Freedom. Chapter VII, on science and art under socialism, appears to be visionary in at least two respects. One is how political control enervates (aboveground) art and literature – Russell accurately presages Soviet socialist realism. The second concerns the possibilities that lurk in increasing the scope of artistic and scientific freedom and unleashing creative potential in the public more broadly. Russell notes three elements that are needed to foster creativity: (1) the availability of technical training; (2) liberty in creative endeavors; and (3) the potential for some level of public approbation. I see in the widespread availability of computing power and the internet an outpouring of creativity that validates Russell’s perspective. (The ease of computing may have lowered technical barriers to creativity, though educational shortcomings with respect to both writing and mathematics still constrain some people from full participation. Russell believes that, under contemporaneous conditions, economic constraints preclude creative pursuits by most of the population.)

In international affairs (Chapter VI), we have not made much progress in Russell’s preferred direction of rendering war unthinkable – a direction that he believes we might travel in part through the creation of a transnational military force. Russell’s view that the elimination of private ownership of land and capital is a precondition for global peace cannot yet be falsified, though we can hope that it is false. Accepting Russell's contention, however, about the need for communal ownership to ensure peace, and assuming that this precondition is fulfilled, Russell still is skeptical that peace will reign on earth. Human nature night not allow it; Russell provides the wonderful ant colony analogy, where the cooperative ant society nevertheless destroys outside ants that stumble into its midst. Russell seems to hold a view that human nature is malleable via institutions and education -- but not unconstrainedly so. All-in-all, among the developed countries, I guess I would say that the past 60 years give us reason to hope that we can limit warfare, despite the persistence of capitalism and the lack of an effective unitary international military force. Perhaps this hope stems not from improved human nature but from increased destructiveness of weaponry, as Russell discusses elsewhere.

Also in Chapter VI, Russell identifies what came to be known as confirmation bias, the notion that we are much more skeptical towards new information that does not fit with our preconceived beliefs than we are towards similar information that conforms to those beliefs.

As noted at “half” time, many of the reforms that Russell sought have since taken place, though generally not within a socialist or syndicalist framework. Unemployment insurance has somewhat socialized the risk of unemployment. Public measures for child support, and much greater economic opportunities for women, have responded to problems that Russell identified (though his vision that housework would become publicly remunerated has not come to pass). Education in some countries is free of charge all the way through university, though competition for places in the best schools or for scholarships generally remains intense. Consistent with Russell's claims, Malthusian pressures have not undermined the utility of reforms that raise the living conditions of the working class.

As we have seen, Russell thought that a significant expansion in human freedom requires the elimination of private ownership of land and capital. In this regard, Russell appears to have been mistaken, in that the increased wealth and leisure made available to most members of rich countries have produced significantly more freedom without socializing property. Nevertheless, Russell’s chief contention – that individual freedom would be the main force in producing a better future – seems consistent with subsequent events.

Incidentally, following the index in Proposed Roads to Freedom are four pages of interesting advertisements for eight other books published by Henry Holt and Company. Three of the books are by Walter Lippmann -- one of them highly recommended by Theodore Roosevelt. The advertised books generally deal with topics such as labor unions or socialism that are related to the material in Proposed Roads to Freedom.

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