When a good system produces an evil result

Sunday, August 16, 2020

I read an article in German by Nils Markwardt published in a special edition of “philosophie magazin”: Das vermeintlich Gute, das Böses schafft. Date not specified.

He starts by explaining how difficult it is to differentiate between good and evil. As one of the most perverse examples he cites a paragraph from a well-known speech by Heinrich Himmler in Posen (1943) where he praises as “decent” (“anständig”) what later turned out to be “the biggest crime of humanity”:

Most of you know what it means when you see a hundred of corpses lying next to each other, or five hundred or a thousand. To have held this on, and –except for occasional human weaknesses– to have remained decent, that’s what made us strong and is an unwritten and unwritable page of glory in our history.

Intermediate remark: Himmler’s words remind me of the slogan “Make America great again”. But let’s not dive into this now.

Markwardt then explains how capitalism and free market are classically seen to work as an “ethical transmission belt” that converts individual evil motivations (selfishness, greed, pride, fraud, envy, theft etc) into something that is good as a whole. He cites Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the bees (1705) as one of the earliest sources of this idea. Adam Smith later (1776) called it the invisible hand of the free market.

And then he asks: What if the evil does not, finally, end up into something good? What if profit and greediness of some grow into poverty of many others? What if the free marked with its invisible hand, instead of uniting equal liberal interests, produces exploitation and inequality?

Markwardt doesn’t answer these questions. He quotes Voltaire (1694-1778) who gave a logically correct legitimation for his participation in slave trade that reminds Himmler’s speech.

  • He fails to differentiate between natural and legal persons. Legal persons are not humans. They don’t act out of “motivation”. They have a goal, a mission statement, a vision, defined by legal documents and rules. But they are not living creatures. They are ideas, created by human intelligence. They exist only in our brains and in our legal systems. By granting them the right to own private property, we open the door for them to become more powerful than our governments. They control us. Subdue the greedy giants!

  • He fails to consider that freedom without a controlling mechanism will sooner or later become unbalanced and cause the whole system to tip over. A soccer match without a referee works only in very limited conditions.

  • He forgets that the free market works only when the actors are of same nature. Humans against humans is okay, corporations against corporations is okay, but humans fighting against corporations is like a racing between rabbits and turtles.

  • He fails to differentiate between material property (wealth) and intellectual property (honour). Honour includes identity, famousness, authority and power. Unlike material property, honour increases when others use it.

My conclusion: a civilization that produces exploitation and inequality will vanish sooner or later. That’s all. You can call it a divine law or just evolution. The whole article reminds me of Matthew 13,24-30.

If we agree upon this at philosophical level, then a practical question arises: How can we avoid the extinction of our whole civilization? How can we get it to produce welfare and unity instead of exploitation and inequality?

As a software developer it’s my business to optimize systems that don’t produce the expected result. The customer’s requirements aren’t satisfied when the system produces exploitation and inequality instead of welfare and unity. Let’s assume that the free market in its essence is a good system. It probably just needs a few lines of code to get changed. So the question is: where is the bug? Is there some small part of the system that we can replace or change, in order make the whole system work again as expected? Here I can stop for today and point back to How to save the world.