On age and experience and respecting elders

A lot of commentary about the financial crisis of 2008 spoke about there not being anyone around who had experienced the Great Depression of the 1930s. The American Economy was largely stable till the end of the 1970s, they had argued, because the memory of the Depression was fresh in the minds of most policy-makers, and they made sure not to repeat similar mistakes. With that cohort retiring, and dying, however, in the 1990s and 2000s there emerged a bunch of policy makers with absolutely no recollection of the depression (in the 1990s, most policy makers would have been born in the 1940s or later). And so they did not hedge themselves and the economy against the kind of risks that had brought America down to its knees in the 1930s.

Now, think back to a society which was far less networked than ours is, and there was little writing (“no writing” would take us too far back in time, but think of a time when it was fairly expensive to write and store written material). This meant, that there were no books, and little to understand and experience apart from what one directly experienced. For example, one would never know what a storm is if one had never directly experienced it. One wouldn’t know how to light a fire if one had never seen a fire being lit. You get the drift. Back in those days when societies were hardly networked and there wasn’t much writing, there was only one way in which one could have learnt things – by having experienced it.

I suspect that this whole concept of elders having to be unconditionally respected had its advent in one such age. Back then, the older you were, the more you had experienced (naturally!), and hence the more you knew! There was no other way in which one could accumulate knowledge or understanding. In places like India, even education didn’t help, for “education” back in those days consisted of little more than learning the scriptures by rote, and didn’t teach much in terms of real knowledge. So taking the advice of elders naturally meant taking the advice of someone who knew more. It is natural to assume that these people who knew more than the ones around were respected.

With the advent of books, and later (post Gutenburg) the advent of cheap books, all this began to change. It became possible for people to know without having experienced. It became possible for people to get more networked, and the direct impact of both of these was that it became possible to know more without having really experienced it. In this day of highly networked societies and wikipedia, it is even possible to know everything about something without even pretending to have experienced it (attend some high school seminars and you’ll know what I’m talking about). There is no connection at all now between age and how much you know.

Culture, however, doesn’t adapt itself so quickly. It didn’t help that “elders”, whose position as the “most knowledgeable” was being threatened thanks to writing and networking, were also the people in power. In any case, the real reason of respect for elders had probably been lost, so it was easier for them to extend their reign. And so it continues to extend.

Older people nowadays fail to recognize that younger people might know more than them, and get offended if the younger people tend to argue with them. Yes, experience is still a great teacher, but the correlation between experience and knowledge has long since been broken. As the pupils sang at the beginning of the Vishnuvardhan starrer Guru Shishyaru (the teacher and the pupils), “doDDavarellaa jaaNaralla, chikkavarellaa kONaralla, gurugaLu hELida maatugaLantoo endoo nijavallaa” (elders are not wise, youngsters are not buffaloes, what the teacher says is never true).

PS: As I was writing this, it struck me that this whole “respect for elders” paradigm is more prevalent in societies (such as India) where education was largely religious. Societies where education was more secular don’t seem to have this paradigm.

Libertarianism and rejection of authority

Ok so this is yet another of those self-reflective posts, where I try and rationalize why I’m the way I am. And in the process concoct a fancy theory.

I’m part of this secret society most of whose members are libertarian. I must in fact credit this society from changing my ideology from one that was broadly conservative to broadly libertarian (notice that my economic ideology hasn’t changed, only the social bit has). One thing common among most members of this society is that they are the kind of people who don’t bow to authority. They can be described as confrontationalist, or maverick, ¬†or non-conformist. And most of them are libertarian.

I must mention that for purposes of this post, I define libertarianism as a “belief in free markets and free minds”.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes that one of the things that makes people religious is the tendency to listen to “superiors”, “elders”, etc. He argues that this is consistent with natural selection – that back in those days where we were a “hunting ape”, if we were the type that didn’t listen to our parents, there was a greater danger that we’d fall off trees or got eaten up by lions. So us human beings are “naturally conditioned” to listen to “elders”, “superiors”, etc. Effectively, we are conditioned to take orders. Dawkins talks about how this makes us religious, but that is not relevant here.

So we grow up having this “elderly authority” at home. The “elderly authority” commands us and guides us and gives instructions, and in return provides us protection from the outside world. Soon we grow up, and don’t need that protection any more, so we don’t need to take instructions any more (if you look at taking instructions from parents as the “cost” of the protection they offer you). But then we are conditioned to taking instructions, and being controlled, and it is tough for most of us to outgrow this conditioning.

And so some people look to “society” to provide the instructions, and control you, and tell you what to do and what not to do. They end up as conservatives. Some other people, look to the government (remember that today’s “government” is a replacement for yesterday’s “king”, who was supposed to be “divine”) for instructions and control. They end up being “liberals” (quotes because traditionally liberals supported free markets; it’s only recently they’ve taken a socialist turn). It is quite interesting that a lot of “liberal” people, who profess their rejection of authority, think it is ok for the government to tell them who to do business with, and at what price.

And then there are these really masochistic people who look to both “society” and “government” to put controls on you. Think Swadeshi Jagran Manch and similar institutions.

And so what about people who actually reject the need to have a “protector” once they grow up? They don’t want to take instructions from anyone, and in return they are willing to forego protection – apart from asking from the government protection in terms of defence, foreign policy and upholding of law. Given that very few people reject authority (Dawkins’ concept), it’s very few people that end up as libertarians.

PS: Is it a coincidence that so many very good libertarian bloggers (Caplan, Tabarrok, Hanson, Cowen) are at the little-known George Mason University, and not at one of the “top-ranked” universities?

PS2: I think large corporations are not free-market in any sense. Leave aside crony capitalism. Corporations, by definition, are internally deeply socialist. I guess I’ll save that for another post.

 

Axioms and fear

So it is around the time when I’m taking part in religious ceremonies that I question my religion, or lack of it. That’s when I need to interact with priests regularly, and sometimes talking to them is frightening. What is most frightening is their level of belief in certain things that I find absurd.

Lemma:
Every major religion is founded on a basic set of axioms. These axioms are designed in a way that they cannot be disproved scientifically.

Sure, there is no way to prove these axioms either, but then given that religion is the “defending champion” it has fallen upon the atheist to disprove the religious axioms. But the way these axioms are stated makes it extremely hard to disprove them. The best that most rational people can do is to call the axioms “absurd” and leave it at that, but that does nothing to convert people on the fence.

For example, take this concept of rebirth and reincarnation which forms the basis of a lot of Hindu thoughts. I find it absurd, and there is no scientific way to prove it (especially since the “universe” is so large since you could be reborn as any species). But there is no scientific way to disprove it either, which is what gives the proponents of this axiom more mileage.

The other thing I observe is that the easiest way to propagate religious thoughts is to create a sense of fear. Stuff like “say your prayers daily else god will punish you”. And then there are some selective examples (with heavy bias in selection) given of people who didn’t make the right religious noises and hence had to suffer. When faced with all this, the young child has no option but to comply with what the religious elders are telling him.

Then I realize that the way you are “taught” religion is extremely absurd. Growing up, you are simply taught a set of processes that you need to go through, without ever going to the significance of any of them. Even the axioms that form the basis of the religion are not exactly taught. In some cases, even the parents would have simply “mugged up the religious practices” and are in no position answer when kids ask them questions about these practices.

For example, when I read Dawkins’s book a couple of years back, I was shocked that there are people that actually believe that there was some “god” who created the universe. I’d always taken evolution as a given. Similarly while talking to priests yesterday (my mother’s first year death anniversary ceremonies are going on) I was shocked to find they actually believe in rebirth, and life after death. Of course, I do believe in Live After Death and think it’s an awesome album.

I just hope I’ll be able to inculcate a sense of questioning and rational reasoning in my kids, and help them protect themselves from blind faith.