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Some otherwise anonymous commenter named "birdwoman" left a very insightful comment on my article about economics. She said, in effect, that she knew these things before, but had not seen them put into words. This made me, in turn, realize that the purpose I had in mind when writing it was not to teach people something they didn't know, but to "teach" (if that's the right word) something to people that they already did know, but didn't know they knew it.

The thing we humans do that sets us apart from evey other animal is to form concepts. We take concrete things we can see and touch, and make a basic concept our of them. Then we take these concretes and combine them into concepts that we cannot directly see and touch. We call these abstractions.

But it is difficult to hold a lot of abstractions in our minds. There's a lot of detail there, a lot of connections and implications, lots of things to remember as we build up knowledge over our lives. It's too much to remember, it would be impossible except for one thing.

We have words.

Words are like wrapping a complex idea up in a neat little package. Words let us carry these ideas around in our heads without having to keep every little detail separately. We unpack these packages when we need to, but for the most part we carry them around as words that stand for a whole lot of little pieces that would get lost if they were banging around loose in our heads.

I'm sure you've seen news video of a community threatened by flooding from a river about to crest over its banks. These videos often show lines of people passing hundereds of sandbags along, bucket-brigade style, to the river to raise the bank to a level where the flood crest can pass safely by.

Imagine they didn't put the sand in bags. They'd look pretty silly tossing around handfuls of loose sand. They'd never get anywhere. They'd make little piles here and there, but they'd never build that wall against the flood that they need to save their town.

Yet this is just what many people do with ideas. They toss around the pieces without ever putting them in a bag that lets them toss the idea around to other people, or even to carry them around in a way that's useful to themselves. It's words that let us build one idea on top of the other, to form a structure that can do something useful.

Even if the townspeople did manage to construct a pile of loose sand big enough to top the flood crest, it would do them no good. The rushing water would erode their pile of sand and pour over the banks in minutes. But sand in bags can hold back the flood indefinitely. It's the sand that provides the force to resist the water, but its the thin layer of paper of the bag that keeps the sand in place.

When we let our ideas remain unnamed, we leave them vulnerable to erosion, to being washed away by a flood of new information and ideas. We can't use them for anything. You don't really know something until you've put a word to it.

If we toss around words that don't really mean anything, that could mean this or could mean that based on the expediency of the moment, it's like piling empty sand bags on the river bank. It's a pile of trash that amounts to nothing.

Ideas by themselves do not allow us to build up knowledge, nor is it words alone. Unnamed ideas are just clutter, piling up in an undifferentiated mass, as impossible to deal with as an attic full of loose junk thrown wherever it will lie, as useless as a sand-castle against a flooding river. Yet words alone, words that don't represent an actual concept, have no strength, no structure.

It is ideas contained in words that have power. The ideas are the substance, the words are the structure. Properly packaged, our ideas are what allow us to create everything we have in human society. From "starting" our "car" in the moring (think of all the details implied by those two quoted words) to the most abstract mathematics or science or philosophy, it is only when ideas are made concrete in the form of a word that we have anything useful to ourselves and to others.

The word that packages up the idea I discussed in that economics article is "capitalism". Voluntary trade and the wealth that is produced by it is the essense of capitalism. All the other ideas about corporations and high finance and industrial production and small shopkeepers are just extension of that one basic idea. They're additional bags of sand piled on top of the one idea that provides the foundation for all of it. The next time somebody argues about capitalism, keep this one basic idea in mind. If you want to argue against capitalism, then argue against the real substance of it, the one basic idea upon which capitalism's truth or falsity rests.

But the opponents of capitalism won't do this. They know it's futile, that one truth is too powerful, too true, too obviously known by everyone, even when they have not put a name to it. Instead, they will try to empty that bag of any substance, by claiming it is about greed, or about monopolistic power, or the distribution of resources. They're tossing an empty bag at you with one hand, and then tossing handfuls of loose sand with the other. They're asking you to build a conceptual edifice out of nothing but trash and loose clutter.


God! That's beautiful! I believe I'll have to quote you on that.

Posted by Old Whig at Wednesday, June 08, 2005 09:49 PM

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