Book reviews: Curiosity, by F.H. Buckley

From Rasmapedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The great thing about Buckley books is that they're such a mix of wisdom and foolishness. The value of the wisdom is obvious: you learn stuff. The value of the foolishness is that it isn't your everyday foolishness of the fashionable woke or the old-fashioned just-plain-dumb variety: it's outrageous foolishness that has enough possibility of being right that you feel a need to argue with it.

That's why I feel like writing a book review even though I've only read to page 4 so far. I'm cheating a bit-- the preface is 20 pages long, and worth the price of admission by itself-- but I have to stop now and argue with Professor Buckley about his first rule: "Don't Make Rules."

I don't object to the contradiction. "The exception proves the rule," and this is an apt example. The meaning of that maxim is that when you come across an exception to a rule, the surprising validity of the exception in that particular special context makes us realize even more how valid the rule is almost everywhere else. When you understand how special the forces of an atomic explosion must be to violate the law of conservation of matter, you realize how reliable the law is in ordinary situations. When you understand how large the size of the income effect must be to violate the law of downward sloping demand curves and create a Giffen good, you realize how reliable is the law that people demand less when the price is higher. So we must not object to a rule saying "Don't Make Rules."

The meaning here is "Don't Make Rules for Yourself." Buckley is not opposing rules to enforce an orderly society: he is saying that rules for yourself make your life too rigid and stupid, in opposition to the book's praise of the Life of Curiosity.

So far, so good. But now we come to the first reason for making rules, "To bind ourselves when we think we'd otherwise succumb to temptation." Buckley admirably "steel-mans" adversarial arguments, and he lay out this one well, with examples as a good writer should (see my comment on Sir David Cox's good statistical writing elsewhere):

If we think we're weak-willed, we might make rules to remove temptation from our path. For example, we might think that it would be a good thing to give up desserts and then back this up with a New Year's resolution. That way, when we have dessert in February, we'll have committed a double wrong: we'll have eaten the forbidden pie, and we'll have confessed to ourselves that we're too weak willed to stick to the resolution. We'll have shamed ourselves, and the fear of doing so might help keep us dessert-free.

This makes perfect sense. It is an example of "Malior, melior, "The worse, the better," "Чем хуже, тем лучше", a deep idea. Indeed, it is such a good application that I've just added it to my article at,_the_Better.%22. By making the result of pie eating worse, the rule makes us eat it less, or not at all. So why not make the rule? Buckley says, using his later example of drinking,

Making the rule is a confession that you're weak willed. It's a second-best strategy, and with greater strength of will the problem drinker could take a single drink and let it go at that.

Here Buckley's lack of a good Calvinist theological foundation betrays him. Do confess you're weak willed! We are all sinners, and nobody achieves the Catholic saint's status of such moral perfection that he can spare some of his extra merit to help his less fortunate brethren get out of purgatory a few hundred years faster. This is exactly the reason why Tolstoy's Father Sergius is entrusted alone with a feeble-minded teenage girl by her father to cure her and succumbs to her highly resistable charms immediately instead. We all need second-best strategies, this being a fallen world; the best is the enemy of the good. Indeed, Buckley's argument for his own position is so weak, and his argument for the opposite is so strong, that a suspicious game theorist like myself is tempted to think he is being Straussian here. If he is, that's okay though. The good scholar is often an unconscious Straussian, since he is fair-minded enough to present both sides' arguments as best he can and let the reader decided which side wins. If the scholar is fair-minded but biased, this will often result in him persuading the reader of the opposite of what he intends.

Buckley concludes the little section by saying that he personally finds rules useful for this reason. He cites economist George Stigler's maxim that anyone who's never been too late and missed his plane is arriving at airports too early. Buckley admits that he himself arrives too early--- because if he didn't have such a rule, he'd miss his plane not occasionally, but often. Prudent people do arrive early. I'm not sure if I count as prudent, since I did miss a flight back from London in my youth, but after that fearful experience of seeing the airplane doors close as I ran towards them and having to take the bus back to Oxford and retrieve my key from the neighbor I've not missed any more. And I knew George Stigler, so I heard the advice personally from him, but with an addition-- Stigler's admission that he himself had never missed a flight.

So, this seems to be a book worth reading. Read a few pages, think, and you're ready to write more pages than you've just read. How much better can a book get than that?