Ends, Means and Knowledge

Two thoughts for today:

bluefenceA parable:

Once upon a time, the people in a village decided that the picket fence that marked off the village limits needed to be painted red, in accordance with the desires and traditions of the people. The village Painter announced: “I have plenty of blue paint with which to paint the fence red, and I work cheap!” The Mayor announced that that seemed good to him. And so the Painter was hired.

The village Curmudgeon tried to point out, “you can’t paint a fence red with blue paint,” but he was drowned out by the back-slapping and congratulations the villagers gave each other as the walked back to their homes.

And so the Painter began, and, over the next two weeks, the fence got a fresh coat of blue paint. Some people grumbled, saying: you agreed to paint the fence red, but it’s coming out blue. The Painter replied that you had to wait until it was finished before judging him. The Curmudgeon shook his head.

When the fence was finished, it was still blue. The villagers said to the Painter, “We appreciate your hard work and all, but the fence is supposed to be red, not blue.” The Painter replied, “Well, I’ll admit it’s not as red as one could hope. What it needs is a second coat, to bring out the red more.” The Mayor thought this sounded reasonable, and so, with a little grumbling, it was agreed.  They paid the painter for his work, and a down payment for the second coat. The Curmudgeon shook his head.

After the second coat was on, the fence remained a blue as ever. As the villagers gathered, the Curmudgeon made another attempt. “Folks, you can’t make a fence red by painting it blue.” But the Painter jumped in, and said, “Look, I’ll admit it could be more red,” (a little boy shouted “It’s not red at all!” but was quickly hushed) “but this is the way it is supposed to be done – I am the Painter, after all. If you all want it to be more red, I’m just going to have to paint it blue again.

As the people grumbled – they had paid for the fence to be painted red twice now, and it sure didn’t look red – the Curmudgeon tried to speak again: “People, blue paint makes things blue. If you want it red, you need to use red paint.” “Who are you to go on about painting,” the Mayor replied, “when we have an expert here to advise us?”

And so the villagers paid to have the fence painted blue again. Most of the villagers eventually decided that the fence color was OK, that the traditional understanding of ‘red’ was really no longer appropriate, and besides, this was the best they could do, and they should be proud of it. The Mayor declared that the particular shade of blue would from henceforth be referred to as ‘mayoral red’.  The Painter went on to a long and lucrative career in public works. The Curmudgeon shook his head.

Over the last couple decades, I have had a number of in-depth discussions of education. Several times, my interlocutor would object that, if we followed my thinking to its logical conclusion, we’d shut down all the public schools and start over (true) – and that we can’t do this, because it would be abandoning all those poor kids who need school to get ahead.

That would be the point where, back when I had hair, I’d be tempted to pull it out: the entire argument I’m making is that current schools – compulsory, factory-model schools – are not designed to teach kids anything a sane parent would want them to know, in fact are designed to prevent any real learning from taking place*

But if we just paint it blue again, THIS TIME it will come out red! Think of the children! We’d be abandoning them!


Next, it doesn’t take any special training or understanding to see that the bridge is out. However, it does take some training to see why the bridge failed and what needs to be done to fix it.

Another way to put it: everybody see that the goal is to get over the river, and that the bridge being out does not permit the goal to be realized. Yet few people understand the engineering that needs to be done to achieve the end of getting people from A to B.

This was brought to mind by a blog post on Mark Shea’s site that brought to mind the people in the picture above: everyone can see that the economic bridge is out, that some people are trapped on one side – the poor side – and the way they are to get over to the other side has been washed out.** Reading the comments on that post was, for the most part, to despair.  Agreeing to the desired ends, and embracing the Church’s teachings does not mean agreeing to paint the fence blue in order to make it red. So to speak.  Why is it that Catholics of good will and no doubt holier than I am manage to maintain such levels of total, (willful?) ignorance of economic reality?

The Church guides and helps us here: no one should be left on the other side, we have a duty as Christians to help those who are less fortunate. Given those ends, prudence might indicate that building a new bridge is the way to go – implementing structural methods by which people on the poor side can get themselves over to the not poor side. Heck, maybe we could even send economic missionaries across the bridge to take care of the immediate needs of the poor, and then show them the way across! Sign me up.

This would be very good. But, given the goal, which we will presume every decent Christian desires, we’re still going to  need the engineers to figure out what kind of a bridge to build so that it works – it reaches to the other side and allows people to cross over – and that stands up to traffic. Otherwise, it goes out again.

But, judging from much of the of the comments, many faithful Catholics want to start by stringing up all rich people, taking their money, ripping the shirts off their backs and, using a t-shirt cannon, fire wads of cash wrapped in the shirts across the river to the poor. Something like that.

I stopped commenting  after a couple tries to make a few simple economic points. The O’Floinn kept up a manly battle for a while longer, and there were a couple people who seemed to resist the attempts to merely inflame people against the rich in the name of JVSTICE. The manufactured (read: lying) statistics in the headline, and this general idea that things would get all better if we could only take everything away from the rich people (ignoring who is the ‘we’ that is doing the taking, and who gets to say who is rich) seemed to me calculated only to inflame hatred and envy.

Anyone who has read this blog much knows that I have a long list of rich people I’d like to see in jail, as a result of a litany of economic abuses committed by them or by minions for their benefit. Of course, rich people abuse their blessings and fail in their duties.

Kind of like all of us.

So, while we’re contemplating taking those bastards down, maybe we should look at history, and see how that works out in practice. When I think of rich people getting their comeuppance, I don’t just think of the Tzar and his family getting executed –  I tend to think of those rich Ukrainian peasant farmers who Stalin starved to death in their millions. Because, you know, too much wealth is in the eye of the beholder, and to the revolutionary vanguard a self-sufficient farmer with a couple cows was clearly a capitalist pig who needed to die horribly, along with his wife and kids. That’s how this kind of stuff tends to play out.

90% of the world would view 90% of Americans as filthy rich. By the same logic used in that combox to condemn the rich just for being rich, every time you buy something at WalMart to save a couple bucks, YOU are causing peasants to be abused – because they are abused IN YOUR NAME, FOR YOUR BENEFIT.  Your savings on those rock bottom prices are your 30 pieces of silver.

Unless, of course, there’s more to it than that. I feel another series of longish blog posts coming up.

*When real learning does take place in the graded classroom model, it’s often an heroic misfit teacher plus uppity parents who pull it off. The system will then do its best to repel the invaders. How often do those stories of great teachers end with them getting pushed out or fired?

** Of course, down in the river, there will people trying to swim across, or build a raft, and others who, for a small fee, will give you a ride across in their boat. And some of those people will drown, and some of the boat guys will take your money but not deliver you to the other side. It’s not pretty – but neither is it impossible.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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