Humanity, Efficiency, Time and Beauty


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I think beauty matters. Happiness derives from aesthetic pleasures none of us can fully explain, yet which we experience with certainty. The art I enjoy you might consider rubbish, but who could objectively criticize either of us? Aesthetics seems like a personal matter, in other words.

As liberty-seekers, when we see the state, ugliness stares us back. The airtight logic of anarchy doesn't mean much to someone who doesn't perceive the ugliness or at least hasn't tuned in enough to notice.

I have long felt a tension between freedom and materialism. Ascetics across the ages have understood that austerity breeds sensitivity. 'If you would know the flavor of huckleberries,' began Thoreau, but I would end it saying nothing could heighten the sensations more than fasting. Likewise, materialism has deadened the acutely-sensitive senses nature endowed us with, placed us in a world focused on the near-future of imminent acquisition, and has replaced the happiness that we can achieve through our own work with the pursuit of things made by others.

In this society, it seems that the greater our material prosperity has risen, the less sensitive to the loss of our freedoms we have become. More recently, though, I see this in a new light: materialism has become possible only through the creation of incomplete humans'humans whose training has crippled their natural perception of their world and replaced it with a system of synthetic beliefs that look outward rather than inward for the truth of matters. These incomplete people greatly underestimate their innate abilities to create a happy life for themselves, trapped by their false knowledge, even when a little investigation could quickly reveal the falsehoods.

Industrialization has taken the division of labor to incredible heights and bestowed upon us an unparalleled amount of stuff. Free-market economists have pointed out that humans innately have an unlimited number of wants, so filling them doesn't diminish their number. Supposing that we become happier as our list of material desires gets satisfied, however, suggests that all of us today should feel immensely happier than people who lived, say, 100, 200, or 500 years ago. I doubt this. The law of diminishing returns doesn't lie. We live with much greater material comfort, but deep-rooted happiness seems to elude many of us in spite of it.

The production of this stuff on such a mass scale has required a total reorganization of society. Technological civilization relies on a hierarchical organization to implement the fine division of labor. Doing this, though, has required retooling the educational system into one that develops, in essence, complicated machine components instead of complete individuals. The division of education into specialties and the assumption that as students enter high school they will emphasize a curriculum based either in math and science or in the liberal arts instead of recognizing the fundamental and symbiotic importance of both makes this utterly clear. Of course, in college and graduate school, the higher the education, the more finely divided the product becomes.

Within a society of specialists, like a colony of ants, individuals exist to fulfill a higher purpose'one they don't determine for themselves. Like the cells of a living organism, complex systems regulate their behavior and cull those that step too far out of line. Does this sound familiar?

More than excellence within a small, fenced field, where people get treated as fungible resources, the expression of human individuality requires the life-long development of fluency and competence at whatever interests us at the moment. Shouldn't the arguments against political borders equally apply to artificial borders within our minds?

Consequently, we should draw a sharp distinction between education and training. I would not consider any system that intends to prepare students for a job as true education, but rather as training. Training, as the word suggests, involves following the lead of someone else. Little wonder, then, in a world that has so strongly emphasized training over education that we have so many people who view socialism favorably! The fine division of labor couldn't come about any other way except to train people to obey others and act their role within the colony. Training people for jobs has trained them for socialism.

Where industrialization demands standardization, real individuals demand customization. We see here the battle between efficiency and art. Industrialism, to survive, has to shape mass preferences toward their production. Since they can't produce a million different products for a million different customers, they aim for the average one. I believe this explains the underlying ugliness of the factory, socialism, and its brethren: it demands acceptance of the non-ideal. Individualism, by contrast, uses artistry and liberty to pursue the beauty and the comfort that each of us seeks. In this light, I see freedom not as an end to itself, but rather as one of the essential means to pursuing la bella vita.

Living well goes beyond economics, at least as people commonly understand it. If 'time is money,' as we so frequently hear, then economics could equally-well focus on time instead of money.

If you realize that you cannot buy happiness, then you face the only alternative of creating it for yourself. With this, the unavoidable conclusion emerges, where we see time as the quantitative measure of the true economy'the economy of our lives. We can buy components of our happiness, but it remains to ourselves to create the vision and to do the assembly.

Whereas moderate time used to earn money plays a key role in acquiring those things we need to live well, the driven pursuit of money, which inevitably assumes that more money makes for more happiness, ultimately robs people of the time they need to create beauty within their lives. We hear that through greater efficiency, we will increase productivity without asking what that has to do with happiness.

The loudest exponents within society have said that we should rely on professionals and commercially-produced products to meet our needs, and that doing things for ourselves doesn't pay. Indeed, it does not pay them, but it can reap great benefits for us. Their implicit emphasis on efficiency has next to nothing to do with beauty. The ancient stone bridges of Europe compared with a modern interstate highway overpass make the point for me, yet only the unusual man stops to ask how efficiency benefits him if it comes at the cost of enjoying what he produces!

To question the so-called common sense, common knowledge, and common wisdom that we have heard repeated so often has become difficult since we don't usually make a distinction between something we know from firsthand experience and something we 'know' because we have heard it repeated so many times. Wittingly or unwittingly, authority figures have presented falsehoods as facts, laying the foundations for a powerful and harmful belief system. We need to identify our assumptions, and systematically investigate their veracity.

As others tread this path, I believe the emptiness of so many promises of the job culture will become obvious. Must we have regular jobs to have security? Does specialization in work increase our happiness? Do academic degrees endow us with education? Do we promote freedom and beauty when we labor for others whose inconsistent values squirm next to our own?

If we view money as a tool instead of a major pursuit of life, what meaning do the markets and the economic indicators have except as averages for the mass of people? I've never found an individual among them! Bank failures seem insignificant compared to the failure to guard against the imprudent use of our time.

With skills developed and money invested in productive household assets, we can individually tailor our own production for our own consumption to the benefit of our happiness by emphasizing aesthetics over money, by customizing our production to our tastes, and by reaping the satisfaction that derives from doing good, purposeful work. Does this not sound like a rich way of life? We should selfishly use our time to create what we want for ourselves, and view the money economy only as the opening act to the headline event.

Ugliness in this society already has enough support without us. Think about it. Make the break. Go forth and beautify.

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Will Groves's picture
Columns on STR: 6

Will Groves is an old-school craftsman who knows good work when he sees it.