Friday, January 6, 2012

Can Ideas Have Sex?

John Stossel is an interesting libertarian journalist. He has a weekly television show on the Fox Business Network.

Matt Ridley is a former bank CEO, turned libertarian journalist. He writes for the Wall Street Journal, among other places.

Recently, Stossel and Ridley put their minds together on one of Stossel’s shows and managed to produce a metaphoric muddle. Link here.

If they had just mixed a couple of metaphors I would not waste a post on it.

Yet, these two defenders of free individuals making free decisions in a free market managed to concoct a metaphor that has been used in the past as the rationale for income redistribution, social justice, and even revolution.

Here’s the metaphor, as Stossel reported it. Two ideas walk into a bar. They like each other and find each other to be attractive so, after a few drinks, they go home to hook up. Nine months later a new idea emerges, a synthesis of the two ideas.

Apparently, these libertarians do not care whether the ideas are married or single, whether they are married to each other or someone else, whether the sex is consensual or not. We do not know whether the ideas were of childbearing age or whether they belonged to the same or opposite sexes.

Since ideas do not have bodies, we cannot answer these questions.

We do know that two drunks who meet in a bar and have sex can produce a child regardless of whether they have consented to have sex. That is, I would say, the flaw in the metaphor.

The metaphor works perfectly well without there being free individuals making free choices in a free market. In truth, if the ideas were not drunk then they would probably not be hooking up. 

Moreover, if the new idea born of the sexual encounter between these two ideas was conceived in a drunken stupor, who is going to nurture the idea, help it develop, and implement it?

As metaphors go, this one is lame. Think back to one of the opening lines of Shakespeare's sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.”

The least we can say is that Shakespeare knew how to craft a metaphor. He did not get to be Shakespeare by carelessly tossing around meaningless metaphors.

It makes metaphoric sense to see minds marrying. It does not make metaphoric sense to see ideas having sex.

As Shakespeare knew, and as you know, minds are agents. Ideas are not agents; they are metaphysical objects that are thought by minds.

Marriage requires agency. For that matter, so does sex.

Take any two objects, a rock and a piece of paper. Does it make any metaphoric sense to say that they were having sex? Do you find it enlightening to imagine them doing the beast with two backs?

The metaphor is confused on its face. The confusion gets worse when Stossel suggests that when these two drunken ideas go home to have sex they are participating in something that resembles a free market transaction.

One hardly knows where to begin to correct this confusion.

Of course, the marketplace of ideas is a metaphor. It works as a metaphor because ideas, like rugs and coffeemakers, can be exchanged in a marketplace.  Ideas are not be physical objects; they are metaphysical objects. Still, we can conceptualize debate and discussion by thinking that ideas are being exchanged in a marketplace.

Of course, a marketplace is a public place. It is the prototypical public place.

When people have sex, however, they mostly do it behind closed doors, in private.

Unless Stossel is trying to turn society into a pornotopia, his comparison confuses public and private space.

If the marketplace is based on barter, an object is exchanged for another object. The two objects do not do anything that resembles copulation.  

Nor for that matter do the two agents of the transaction. Both buyer and seller are trying to get the best deal. That involves compromise and negotiation.

It is only when one party feels that the other has taken advantage of him that he might say that he was screwed.

Couples coupling in private might produce a child, but that is not what happens when you buy a vase from an antique dealer. It seems truer to say that sexual relations are like a negotiation than that negotiations are like copulation.

In the marketplace you negotiate the price and try to arrive at a middle ground between what you want to pay and what the merchant wants to charge.

That middle ground, that golden mean, as Aristotle called it, is not a third person. It is a mean between two extremes. It does not emerge out of the heat of passion or lust; it is produced by temperate emotion.

It is not a synthesis of the bid and ask; it is a middle ground between them.

I do not know whether Stossel or Ridley know it but their clumsy metaphor has a provenance. A more cogent version comes to us from Plato’s Symposium.

In the famous dialogue on love each participant is called upon to define love. When it Socrates has his turn he chooses to present the ideas of a wise woman named Diotima.

According to Diotima love is born of the union of Poros and Penia, alternately, Plenty and Penury.

According to Diotima, Poros and Penia hooked up one night after Poros got blind drunk, but their union was not exactly consensual. After the male Poros entered a drunken stupor the female Penia had her way with him.

Out of their union was born Eros, the god or demon of love. In principle, Eros contains the good qualities of both Poros and Penia. Eros is both resourceful and needy.

Note well that we are not talking about a free market relationship. We have one person who has too much and another person who has too little. The person who has too little takes what the other has without his consent, without any negotiation, without any compromise, without respecting his free choice.

If a drunken stupor is also a metaphor—why not?—then the story would work as well if Poros is seduced into giving up something that he does not want to give up.

In another context this interaction is called income redistribution, aka social justice. It’s the Robin Hood mentality that allows the poor to take from the rich. It is the antithesis of the free market that Stossel and Ridley pretend to be defending.

We are not talking about finding a middle ground. We are talking about a fiction that is also the basis of the Hegelian dialectic of the master and the slave, where the abused and oppressed slave rises up and takes what the master has.

What gives the slave the right to take what the master has earned? It is assumed that the master has exploited the slave, and thus that his gains are ill-gotten.

In the Marxian version the proletarian worker is within its rights to overthrow his capitalist master because the capitalist’s gains are ill-gotten. They have been earned by exploiting the worker’s work.

Again, we are not talking about a free market. We are talking about a world drawn in in extremes where there is no real middle ground. Thus, an inevitable conflict between predatory capitalists and exploited workers, not any allowance for the market to work out their differences. 

Extremes contradict each other. If you see the world in terms of copulation, you are assuming that men and women are contradictions. If they can never resolve or negotiate their differences, they must act them out.

The notion that something positive derives from this acting out is one of the greatest of philosophical illusions.

Even copulation, the kind that produces children, is a negotiation. I am not saying that no one has ever had a sexual encounter that has felt like strife and struggle. I am saying that that is not really the nature of the beast.

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