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November 17, 2010

J.S. Mill on the heuristic benefits of trade

From Principals of Political Economy.

But the economical advantages of commerce are surpassed in importance by those of its effects which are intellectual and moral. It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Commerce is now what war once was, the principal source of this contact. Commercial adventurers from more advanced countries have generally been the first civilizers of barbarians. And commerce is the purpose of the far greater part of the communication which takes place between civilized nations. Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress. To human beings, who, as hitherto educated, can scarcely cultivate even a good quality without running it into a fault, it is indispensable to be perpetually comparing their own notions and customs with the experience and example of persons in different circumstances from themselves: and there is no nation which does not need to borrow from others, not merely particular arts or practices, but essential points of character in which its own type is inferior. Finally, commerce first taught nations to see with good will the wealth and prosperity of one another. Before, the patriot, unless sufficiently advanced in culture to feel the world his country, wished all countries weak, poor, and ill-governed, but his own: he now sees in their wealth and progress a direct source of wealth and progress to his own country. It is commerce which is rapidly rendering war obsolete, by strengthening and multiplying the personal interests which are in natural opposition to it. And it may be said without exaggeration that the great extent and rapid increase of international trade, in being the principal guarantee of the peace of the world, is the great permanent security for the uninterrupted progress of the ideas, the institutions, and the character of the human race.

When I have seen this quoted, the noxious bit about 'civilizers of barbarians' has usually been suppressed by ellipses. Even so, this passage at least provides the beginnings of a theory of the pacific side-effects of trade.

November 03, 2010

A Sociology of Jack Vance II - The Columns at Tustvold

Again, discussed in the first part of Cugel's Saga. The villagers of Tustvold, sprung from the dubious stock of fugitives from the Rhab Faag, have a curious social structure in which the women do all the work, and the men spend their days at the tops of columns whence they "absorb a healthful flux from the sunlight."

"The higher the column the more pure and rich is the flux, as well as the prestige of place. The women, especially, are consumed with ambition for the altitude of their husbands."

In Vance's description, the innate virtues of the flux are less interesting to the villagers than the more earthly pleasures of superior social position.

"Dame Petish, for instance, is annoyed that Dame Gillincx's husband now sits on the same level as Petish himself. Dame Viberl fancies herself the leader of society, and insists that two segments separate Viberl from his social inferiors.

Access to the flux of the higher altitudes is a very nearly perfect example of what Fred Hirsch dubs a 'positional good.' The benefits of the good to its consumers depend on its limited availability. If all the columns were raised by magic far into the upper atmosphere, but their heights were equalized, Dame Petish would be very unhappy. Hirsch argues suggests increased supply of positional goods is self-defeating, since the more readily they are available to the vulgarity, the less valuable they are.

Vance's book discusses a less-widely noted corollary of the concept. To the extent that the benefits of these goods are purely positional, they are likely to involve considerable waste. In Veblen's terms, they are a kind of conspicuous consumption. People's dynamic pursuit of relative status will likely compel them towards ever more costly extravagances as they try to catch up to their social superiors, or alternatively to accentuate their distinction at the expense of social inferiors. Cugel proposes to mitigate some of this waste (and, more to the point, fill his purse) by abstracting the lowest segments from all the pillars at once, and then selling them back again as purported new segments.

"I have watched the men climbing their columns. They come out blinking and half asleep. They trouble to look at nothing but the state of the weather and the rungs of their ladders.'

Nisbet pulled dubiously at his beard. "Tomorrow, when Fidix climbs his column, he will find himself unaccountably lower by a segment."

"That is why we must remove the 'One' from every column. So now to work! There are many segments to remove."

Unfortunately for Cugel and Nisbet, the scheme is discovered, and the women of Tustvold,being unacquainted with the niceties of social theory, fail to appreciate its efficiencies. As is often the case in these books, Cugel is forced to flee precipitately, with a crowd of outraged villagers in pursuit.

Further sociological readings.

Fred Hirsch (1977), Social Limits to Growth . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.