It is a very common clever device that when anyone has attained the summit of greatness, he kicks away the ladder by which he has climbed up, in order to deprive others of the means of climbing up after him. In this lies the secret of the cosmopolitical doctrine of Adam Smith, and of the cosmopolitical tendencies of his great contemporary William Pitt, and of all his successors in the British Government administrations.
Any nation which by means of protective duties and restrictions on navigation has raised her manufacturing power and her navigation to such a degree of development that no other nation can sustain free competition with her, can do nothing wiser than to throw away these ladders of her greatness, to preach to other nations the benefits of free trade, and to declare in penitent tones that she has hitherto wandered in the paths of error, and has now for the first time succeeded in discovering the truth.
When Friedrich List wrote these paragraphs in The National System of Political Economy in the 19th century, the U.S. was a newly industrializing nation. Today, it is at the pinnacle of technological achievements. Here are the hard truths about national economic development: climbing your way up requires unorthodox tools; staying on top takes hypocrisy to deny latecomers those very same tools.
Fanatical experiments cannot be sustained without creativity. To paraphrase a wise man from the last century, the way the Nazis or the Communists sell their holy causes is no different from the way capitalists advertise their Gucci bags or cigarettes. The techniques we found in the imperialistic tendencies of the Nazis and the Communists are in fact based on the methods of industrial enterprises.
Today, when theorists in Beijing talk of socialism with Chinese characteristics, they are perhaps admitting that the success of the authoritarian experiment will always depend on the creativeness proceeding in the outside non-authoritarian world. If there were no free societies outside of China, they might have found it necessary to establish freedom by coercion.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses two criteria to filter ideas and books. First, the Lindy Effect: the more the book has been around, the longer its future life expectancy. Second, the more skin in the game, the more convincing the idea is. In practice, I am attracted to books that look ancient, and look at how far the author is prepared to pursue his/her ideas.
In most Chinese cities, I seldom find bookstores where you can buy the Book of Lord Shang (商君書) and Guiguzi (鬼谷子) together, except in Beijing. I think the only reason is that readers in Beijing have skin in the game as they rub shoulders with Leviathans and Machiavellis every day.
Shang Yang (商鞅) and Guiguzi (鬼谷子) predated Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli by over 1,500 years. And unlike today’s members of the “intelligentsia”, they have real skin in the game, more so than their rival Confucians. Shang Yang was literally torn to pieces for executing his reform ideas which paved the way for Qin’s universal rule. Guiguzi bred Su Qin (蘇秦) and Zhang Yi (張儀), two preeminent rhetoricians that are rivalrous yet mutually-reinforcing in the Warring States period. In the end, one was (again) torn to pieces, the other died in exile.
Therefore, their books are great, per Lindy Effect and skin in the game. The same principles apply to other fields. Among Republican China’s men of letters, I think Wang Guowei (王國維) is the best. He was a rarity by drowning himself in Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace in 1927. Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) personally experienced the fall of his illustrious family from its height, dying in poverty. Hence, I think the Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢) is infinitely better than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. I too love Nietzsche, who died of insanity, and Yukio Mishima (三島由紀夫), who committed ritual suicide.
Skin in the game is something to aspire to.
Büro Ole Scheeren took the needle of the tower and bent it back into itself to create a loop. There is no beginning or end. Walk around the base of the tower, and you see it go from strong and imposing to unstable and fragile. It’s the perfect symbol for a post-truth world.
In Richard Dawkins’ conception, human being is the medium through which information and ideas, or memes, spread. However, we constitute a poor medium which favors the spread of untruth rather than truth. As pointed out by Curtis Yarvin, human beings find nonsense as a more effective organizing tool than truth. To believe in truth is easy, but to believe in nonsense is an unforgeable demonstration of loyalty. History is full of examples of this phenomenon in action: all organized religions (such as Christianity), Soviet Union, China’s Cultural Revolution, and today’s mainstream media and academia (what Nassim Nicholas Taleb called the Intellectual Yet Idiots).
We can also reinterpret the tale of the emperor’s new clothes. For kids, the moral is honesty and courage in speaking the truth. For adults, it is that the best proof of a cadre’s loyalty is her dedication to the absurdity and stupidity of the leader.
Charlie Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
Reading chapters from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and Trump’s press conference, you will conclude that a nation’s decline is the reverse – it is a close-up comedy and long-shot tragedy. Trump has turned White House into reality comedy shows.
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Prince Andrey enumerated the factions within the Russian high command during Napoleon’s invasion. You usually see the full range or a subset of these dynamics as a group responds to situations.
- Rigid military theorists
- Non-planners favoring spontaneous actions
- Courtiers reconciling the first two groups
- Advocates of surrendering to Napoleon
- Adherents to Barclay de Tolly
- Adherents to Bennigsen, calling for Barclay to be replaced
- Devoted worshippers of the Tsar
- Place seekers chasing crosses and promotions (the largest group)
- Older politicians who can withdraw from conflicting opinions and take an objective view