Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ishmael (Daniel Quinn)

As I read books, I am going to try to blog about them. Ishmael was an easy read - took me only a day - here are some quotes I found interesting along with the reasons I found them interesting. Highly recommend the book itself because it is such an easy read. As I continue to read books this summer I will try to maintain this as a sort of note-taking for myself. If there's a better way to organize it or make it more interesting, let me know!


(page 80) "Only one thing can save us. We have to increase our mastery of the world. All this damage has come about through our conquest of the world, but we have to go on conquering it until our rule is absolute. Then, when we're in complete control, everything will be fine."

The idea of spontaneous order simply permeates throughout this book. The parallels between the above quote - discussing human control over nature - and every class I've taken - complaining about human control over politics and government - just shock me.


(page 25) "You're captives of a civilizational system system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live."

This casts the whole study of economics in an interesting light. I tell a lot of people that economics is the study of human behavior and the way things are - we try to explain why some countries are rich while others are poor, or why government projects for the "public good" tend to do a worse job of promoting the general welfare than private ones "for profit." And yet, this is saying, our starting point is wrong. So although we propose modest reforms to the financial system, or to the current interactions between the government and the market, what we really need to do is propose to scrap everything and begin again.

The most interesting thing about these two quotes, in my opinion, is the combination of hopefulness and hopelessness that they represent. On the one hand, Quinn suggests that the whole system is flawed and we're destroying the world. Later, though, he talks about the spontaneous order of the world, and I see him utilizing tools of economics. Our science is the most versatile of disciplines - it is so widely applicable and I think that might be its greatest strength.


(page 90) "With nothing but this wretched story to enact, it's no wonder so many of you spend your lives stoned on drugs or booze or television."

Notice anything odd about that sentence? I see television discussed as a sister of drugs and alcohol. As an aside, it's silly to separate drugs and alcohol in the first place, but we do because our legal system does. But more to the point - do you really think television belongs in that same realm? After two years of being nearly to TV-free at school (minus the time at home when I am a TV junkie), I think I would say yes.


(page 126) "They (man) exterminate their competitors, which is something that never happens in the wild."

Anytime I hear "the wild" in this book, I think immediately of "the market." And this brings me to a discussion from a macro class last semester. There was a rumor that Pepsi came into possession of the secret formula to create Coca-Cola recently. However, Pepsi simply returned the formula. Why?

Well, Pepsi could go about taking the formula to try to make Coke, but what good would that do? It already has a perfectly successful product, and even with the formula, it would be costly to begin to properly make Coke. Wouldn't it make more sense to simply make the formula public?

Yes, this makes sense - then anyone could make Coke. A dozen brands would pop up within the year and the price of Coke would be driven down to almost nothing!! But wait - how much brand loyalty do you think there is between Coke and Pepsi drinkers? I'm guessing that loyalty won't last long if a can of Pepsi costs 10x what a can of Coke costs. So the price of Pepsi would actually be driven down as the cost of a substitute (Coke) decreases.

Given the chance, in "the wild" world of the free market, Pepsi wouldn't try to exterminate Coke. In fact, it would return the secret formula and allow business as usual to continue.

--> Monopolistic tendencies are the result of government action only? What do you think of this statement?


(page 138)

A discussion on famine has me thinking a lot about aid and the cycle of free food keeping poor countries poor by preventing them from ever getting agriculture started.

But I wonder how well the price system, if allowed to TRULY FUNCTION FREELY, (which it never has been allowed to do in the course of human history), would regulate population and keep us in balance with nature.


The last 20 pages (120-140) have talked up diversity a lot. Does free market economics promote diversity? How so? Do its opposites prevent diversity? How so?


(page 167-168) I can't even pick a quote but there's a whole section about choice. Choice is the fundamental underpinnings of a true free market system - you can choose what to do, how to do it - hell, you can choose how others do it based on who you buy from and who you do not buy from. Economics and ecology are not nearly as separated as they are made out to be.

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Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty