Comprehension: A Primer

     First, a few quotes:

     You say: “There are persons who have no money,” and you turn to the law. But the law is not a breast that fills itself with milk. Nor are the lacteal veins of the law supplied with milk from a source outside society. – Frederic Bastiat, The Law

     ‘A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.’ – Frank Herbert, Dune

[I]f the temperature has risen 10 degrees since dawn today, an extrapolation will show that we will all be burned to a crisp before the end of the month, if this trend continues. Extrapolations are the last refuge of a groundless argument. In the real world, everything depends on where we are now, at what rate we are moving, in what direction, and — most important of all — what is the specific nature of the process generating the numbers being extrapolated. Obviously, if the rise in temperature is being caused by the spinning of the Earth taking us into the sunlight, then the continuation of that spinning will take us out of the sunlight again and cause temperatures to fall when night comes. – Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed

     In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oölitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact. [Mark Twain, Life On The Mississippi]

     I’m sure my Gentle Readers have seen some of those before. They’ve all appeared at Liberty’s Torch in times past. They’re important comments on the essence of the mental achievement we call comprehension. To grasp their essence and internalize their implications is to take and pass Comprehension 101 with flying colors.

     Far too few persons – Left or Right – are willing to undertake the prodigious amounts of serious thought and study required to comprehend socioeconomic and political phenomena. This has given rise to a “Fix it!” peremptory-demand-oriented mentality in political discourse.

     Well, as it happens, I’ve been seriously studying this shit for forty BLEEP!ing years. And while, pace Socrates, I must admit that what I know is trivial compared to what I don’t know, I do know this much:

Demanding that government “solve problems,” regardless of the specifics, is on a par with demanding that a dog have kittens – and a male dog, at that.

     If I have one contribution to make to the body politic, it’s that bit of knowledge.


     Today’s tirade was triggered by this piece at Doug Ross’s place:

Here is what confuses me about San Francisco.
We have the most liberal, left-wing government & population in the country.
And we have 8,000 people sleeping in the rain this week.
Can someone please explain this to me?
What do progressives stand for, exactly?
I thought it was about making things more fair.
About standing up for the little guy.
About human rights, equality (equity?), compassion.
San Francisco (to me) looks like the least compassionate city on the planet.
The slums of Mumbai look cleaner than the streets of downtown SF.
This isn’t just the Tenderloin – it’s SOMA, parts of the Mission, Dogpatch…
We have thousands of people wandering around – looking like they are on the brink of death.
This is why ppl use the term Zombie. I’ve been a registered democrat for 18 years.
I grew up in a Progressive family and went to a Progressive school, and have mostly Progressive friends.
Yet what I see in SF – if this what Progressive stands for – I want the opposite.

     I must assume that Michelle Tandler, the author of that Twitter thread, is being honest about her longtime political affiliation. If so, the clash between her politics-to-date and her perception of the condition of San Francisco speaks of a lack of thought and study. She did what Bastiat deplored: she saw a “problem” and expected that the “progressive” city government of San Francisco would “solve” it. But the dog didn’t have the kittens she demanded. Indeed, even if it could have done so, it would have declined.

     I doubt that Miss Tandler is stupid. She may be ignorant. Many on the political Left are ignorant, some willfully so. The Orwellian name given to the politics to which she subscribes might have something to do with it. Far too many people assume without investigation that the name given to a thing honestly and accurately describes its essence. To be maximally gentle about it, in politics that is seldom the case.

     As I said above, the problem exists on both sides of the aisle. Consider national defense. Many a conservative politician orates at intervals about the need to “strengthen our national defense.” Some have been raised to high office for that position alone. But ask yourself plainly: What can Congress do to strengthen America’s national defense? Think about it for a moment.

     As I don’t want to embarrass anyone, the answer to that question is in small font:

Not one BLEEP!ing thing.

     Congress can vote military appropriations in ever-increasing amounts. Indeed, it has done so ever since the U.S. entered World War II. Yet by any objective measure, the ocean of funding the military has received has had at best no positive effect on our national defense. The money’s been spent, but Americans are no safer from the world’s multifarious threats today than we were in 1940. If we extend “national defense” to include our military commitments to our various allies and client states, we’re weaker today than we’ve been since the Spanish-American War. Feel free to look into it yourself. I came by my opinion by spending thirty years in defense engineering. Choose your authorities as you prefer.

     What else could Congress do to strengthen our national defense? I can’t think of a single thing, which would mean: if more money doesn’t do the job, then in this matter of our national defense, Congress is powerless. As for the executive branch, any Army drill sergeant has more power over the readiness and efficacy of our national defense than the President of the United States.

     All that having been said, don’t expect to stop any politician from nattering on about our national defense. They do it because it works to win them the votes of a fraction of the electorate – and as long as it achieves that aim, they’ll keep at it.

     The process is determined by the objective, and the objective by the motive.


     Many years ago, a certain Charles Peters, who at that time edited the Washington Monthly, gave the game away:

     The Library of Congress recently studied federal agencies’ compliance with the Sunshine Act of 1976, which was supposed to open government to the public. The study found that of a group of 1,003 government meetings listed in the Federal Register, 627 were either partially or completely closed to the public. One closed meeting was held by the Federal Reserve Board to consider the design of its furniture; it was closed on the grounds that “matters of a sensitive financial nature were being considered by the Board.”

     The military is a master of this kind of subversion. When the navy was ordered to conserve fuel during the energy crisis of the early seventies, it reported that it had reduced its ships sailing time by 20 percent. What it actually did was redefine sailing time to exclude a ship’s journey from the port to the fleet at sea.

     What is this if not make-believe? Laws are passed, orders are given, compliance seems to occur, but nothing changes. Bureaucrats don’t like real change, only the appearance of change. That is why they are so fond of reorganization. Reorganization gives them something to do: redrawing charts, knocking down office walls—but nothing outside the agency, such as poverty or hunger or disease, is affected in the slightest. What does happen is that new jobs are created, almost always with higher grade classifications, which of course means higher salaries for the reorganizers.

     The reason bureaucrats like internal reorganization better than external action is easy to understand. Suppose you work in an antipoverty agency and you do your job so well that poverty is eradicated. Or suppose you work in the Department of Energy and the energy problem disappears. What will happen to you? The bureaucrat can figure that out. If he takes real action, if he’s truly effective, he’ll be out of work—he won’t survive. If, on the other hand, his action is make-believe, poverty will not disappear, the energy problem will not be solved, and his job will be safe—he will survive. Now you understand the fundamental Washington equation:

Make-believe = Survival

     That final paragraph is the key to the matter. The motives of the government employee are not yours nor mine. His central objective is to stay employed, and if possible, to rise in the hierarchy. That motive gives rise to his behavior, which in turn gives rise to the characteristic ineffectiveness of government bureaucracies. As I wrote specifically about the State Department:

     [The] young bureaucrat will profit from deliberate ineffectiveness to the extent that he can get himself viewed as an asset by his superiors and a non-threat by his peers. His superiors want him to produce justifications for the enlargement of their domains. His peers simply ask that he not tread on their provinces.

     To justify enlarging his sub-pyramid of the bureaucracy, a manager must represent his efforts as vital and his resources as inadequate. This can put peers in a bureaucracy into conflict with one another, but the budgetary constraints on the bureaucracy as a whole will often give way even if every sub-bureaucracy within it demands more people and funds simultaneously, provided only that Congress can be made to see the alternatives as unacceptably worse.

     How does one engineer the required perceptions? By a combination of techniques, the most effective being the partial suppression of information, both about the nature of the problems one addresses and one’s labors to solve them.

     Contrary to what intuition might say, a fully informed superior is usually an unhappy man. Even if things are going swimmingly in his organization, if he knows exactly what’s being done at the detail level, he’ll always see things he disapproves — because he once did those jobs himself, and will invariably contrast his subordinates’ methods unfavorably with his own. The temptation to micro-manage is amplified by the possession of those details. His subordinates will know this, of course, and so will suppress any details below the level required for a broad-brush status report. This is an example of Robert Anton Wilson’s “Snafu Principle” in action.

     So the portrait of a bureaucracy’s operations, as it emerges from the nether depths at which specific tasks are addressed, becomes ever vaguer and less detailed as it approaches presentation to “outsiders”: the president, Congress, and the general public. In a sense, the “outsiders” are lucky to get any accurate information at all. If it could get away with it, a bureaucracy’s status report to its external control authorities would say nothing but: “You need us desperately, and we’re working as hard as we can, but we need more people and money. Send them soonest.”

     Compare the above to the citation from Charles Peters.


     The Left has made citing “problems” and promising “solutions” the heart of its approach to politicking. Oftentimes, as Thomas Sowell has pointed out more than once, the “problem” was itself created by a Leftist policy. This is observably the case in America’s cities, San Francisco most emphatically included. The process this describes suffices to explain the whole of the disaster we call “social policy” over the century behind us. At this point, the motive behind the process “should” be “obvious:” They do it because it gets them what they want: ever-increasing power and status.

     It would not work if the electorate were more attentive, more determined to comprehend. But comprehension is hard. Among other things, it compels one to ask himself “Have I been hoodwinked that completely for that long?” The answer is seldom pleasant. The high probability of an unpleasant answer is a great part of why general comprehension of the political dynamic is so thin. Most of us would rather plead guilty to murder than admit to having been played for a fool.

     But nothing else will suffice. If Americans don’t face the hard truth about the way we’ve been deceived, the deceptions, animated by the motives behind them and produced by a process consistent with those motives, will continue. Governments are not problem-solving entities. They’re good at exactly one thing, and by their very nature will never be good at anything else.

     Happy New Year.

1 comment

1 ping

    • George Mckay on December 28, 2021 at 8:37 AM

    This is a grim prospect but, accurate.  Our governments are totally and completely full of shit.  Glaringly, laughably full of shit.  The problem is that they don’t realize it.  Nobody told them the idea was to improve things – not keep the status quo.

    Eisenhower warned us all of the “Military industrial complex” and the admonition fell on deaf ears….they were full of that money the “industrial complex” was shoving in.

    Our ENTIRE government is full of lunatics, retards, nincompoops, degenerates and every other sort of undesirable grifter imaginable.  I know that, you know that and we all – deep down know that.  The problem is then – what the hell do we do about it?

    For more than a century (began around Wilson’s time) government has been seriously directing it’s focus on the accumulation of wealth.  Not for the country’s benefit but, for their collective OWN.  Grift, theft and lying bastards doing all they could to get theirs before somebody else did has been de reguere.  Don’t get me wrong, people have ALWAYS had one goal in mind as we all do – get mine and the rest of you be damned.  It is the capitalist way.   Does that make it right or wrong?

    For the country as a whole, this mentality is counterproductive and will ultimately result in our ruin.  When enough people realize that some pencil pushing weenie in DC or Albequerque will get fabulously rich at the same time enacting laws and regulations that prevent or prohibit YOU from doing likewise the proveribial shit will hit the fan.  We are at that point now.

    I have been on this earth for 67 years and been all over the country and come to love the United States and it’s people – not only for the good times I share with them but, for their unremitting dedication to doing the right thing at the right time to the right people for the right reason.  The fix is in deep to correct the current malaise – to borrow a Jimmuh Carterism.

    I used to be the eternal optimist and thought that our country and even the world had some hope.  I am coming to the sad conclusion that hope is dying and may not survive the current level of assault.

    Is there hope for the United States?  The World?  Freedom?  I am not prescient nor can I read a crystal ball and tell the future but, I do see glimmerings of hope in some of our next generation.  Some of them actually do not have their heads buried in a video game or moronic youtube videos.  Will that be enough?  I hope so but, I see 1984 coming rapidly to our lives and we just don’t seem to realize it nor do many of us thing THAT could actually happen.    You are mistaken, it already is.

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