Saturday, April 25, 2015

Cromwell: The movie that brings the English Civil War to life



The British historian Simon Schama once said that the American Declaration of Independence was "like a chapter from a British history book." He compared the American Revolution to the English Civil War of a century before, even going so far as to say that the American Revolution was really "round two" of the British civil wars. There is truth in this statement, and the events of the English Civil War are eerily familiar to students of the American Revolution. They both were political wars, they both were wars over ideas, and they both began as wars over taxes; which soon transformed into conflicts about much broader issues.


Battle of Naseby, 1645
(during English Civil War)

The topic is a complicated one, but its essence can be reduced to a single phrase: a war between a King and a Parliament. The Parliament of that time did not represent the people to the extent it does today; as even suffrage in the House of Commons was restricted to knights and burgesses, and the House of Lords was restricted to even higher nobility (to say nothing of both houses' restrictions on suffrage based on gender and race). But nonetheless, there was a noteworthy portion of British society which was represented in this era's Parliament; and their assertion of the rights of self-government would have massive repercussions for future generations of British citizens, who would grant these rights of suffrage to ever larger portions of British society, and carry these rights to distant lands far removed from the British Isles.


The topic has not been covered much in the world of cinema, but I am aware of at least one movie about the English Civil War, which is the 1970 movie "Cromwell" - not an entirely accurate movie, but nonetheless educational if taken with a grain of salt. King Charles I is played by Alec Guinness, who is best known for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars; and Oliver Cromwell himself is played by Richard Harris, who is best known for playing Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies. The cast is undoubtedly an important part of this movie's success, but the story is also a remarkably important one; with the American Revolution of my country's history owing much to the outcome of the English Civil War. And beyond the topic's vital importance, the story also has good old-fashioned human interest in it, and the human drama of politics and war has seldom been so well-depicted.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Difference between valid argument and sound argument



One of the biggest eye-openers of my education was learning what philosophers mean by the phrase "valid argument." As used by philosophers, a valid argument is not necessarily the same as a "sound" argument. A valid argument is one whose logic is solid, even if the premises are false. For example, take this argument:

If pigs had wings, they could fly.
Pigs have wings.
Therefore, they can fly.

The premises are false, but the logical structure of the argument is solid. If you accepted that pigs had wings, and that their having wings meant they could fly; then the conclusion that they can fly would necessarily follow. Philosophers would thus say the argument is valid; because the truth of both premises would establish the conclusion. But the argument is not "sound" in the philosophical sense; because it suffers from false premises - pigs don't have wings; and even if they did, that wouldn't mean they could fly. Even one false premise makes it unsound - a sound argument must have both valid logic and all true premises. Then, and only then, can we say with certainty that the conclusion necessarily follows.

Here is an example of an argument that is not valid:

Jeff Sparks is a history buff.
Jeff Sparks likes Mexican food.
Therefore, Jeff Sparks loves baseball.

The premises are true - I am a history buff, and I love Mexican food. But the conclusion that I like baseball has no logical connection with these things. Therefore, the argument is invalid - even if the premises were both true, that wouldn't mean the conclusion is true. I do like baseball, but my love of history and Mexican food doesn't establish it. I could just as easily have concluded "Therefore, Jeff Sparks hates baseball," which is false. An invalid argument could have either a true or a false conclusion. It could go either way, which makes it different from a valid argument, where a conclusion necessarily follows from the premises being true.

Here is an example of a "sound" argument, as that word is used by philosophers:

All spaniels are dogs.
All dogs are animals.
Therefore, all spaniels are animals.

The argument is valid, and the premises are true. Therefore, the conclusion must be true. That's what philosophers mean by "sound," as contrasted with what they mean by "valid."


Friday, April 17, 2015

Karl Marx and the “labor theory of value”



One of the central tenets of Marxism is the "labor theory of value," which is the idea that the economic value of something is determined by the number of hours it took to make it. Karl Marx introduces this theory early in his work, in the very first section of the very first chapter of "Das Kapital" (his longest book):


Karl Marx

"A use value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because human labour in the abstract has been embodied or materialised in it. How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be measured? Plainly, by the quantity of the value-creating substance, the labour, contained in the article. The quantity of labour, however, is measured by its duration, and labour time in its turn finds it standard in weeks, days, and hours." (Source: Karl Marx's "Das Kapital," Chapter 1, Section 1, as translated into English at Marxists.org)


Marx and Engels

There are several problems with this theory, and much has been written describing the many flaws of using it to describe value. I will not touch on all of these problems, but only on one of them - the one that I find most interesting. It can be demonstrated with a qualification that Marx himself made to this theory. Even Karl Marx, the greatest proponent of the labor theory of value, qualified his theory with the idea that only those labor hours that were "socially necessary" should be counted as adding value. Marx's concept of "social necessity" is not very well-defined, but his definition's meaning is clear enough to show that it contradicts his labor theory of value, attacking its very basis as an explanation.


Iron and Coal, painting from 1855-1860 (during Marx's lifetime) about the Industrial Revolution

Monday, April 13, 2015

A review of Ken Burns’ “Thomas Jefferson” movie



PBS's biography of Thomas Jefferson was the first Ken Burns biography I saw. I had seen some of his non-biographical things (like "The Civil War"), but I had never yet seen one of his biographies. After having watched virtually all of Ken Burns' films (many are available on Netflix), I still think that this is his best biography; although I greatly admire his film about Mark Twain as well. I've seen a lot of other presidential biographies by other filmmakers, and I think this one is among the best I've seen.


Somewhat ironically, though, there isn't much focus on his presidency. That's not to say his presidency is ignored here, but most of the film is about other parts of his life. This may actually be appropriate, though, because the presidency is not really the most important part of Jefferson's life. For most presidents, their administration stands front and center in the discussion of their legacy; but for Thomas Jefferson, he didn't even put his administration among his three most important accomplishments, which were the ones he wanted listed on his gravestone. The first-listed was a piece of parchment he wrote in 1776 - a much-celebrated document that is none other than our Declaration of Independence. He was the chief author of this document, and I agree with him when he says that this, rather than his presidency, was his most important accomplishment.


John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A review of “The Civil War” (PBS series)



It was the bloodiest war in American history, with more American dead than World War II. It was a war that both sides thought would last ninety days, but which ended up dragging on for nearly four years. And it was a war that freed four million Americans from bondage, and brought some sweeping changes to American society.


Confederate dead at Antietam

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Are monopolies really as dangerous as Marx said they were?



Most people today know Karl Marx was an opponent of free markets, and that he gave all kinds of objections to them in his writings. But lesser-known is an objection he gave to free competition: that competition inevitably destroys itself - through monopoly.


Karl Marx

In the words of Marx himself:

"Competition engenders misery, it foments civil war, it 'changes natural zones,' mixes up nationalities, causes trouble in families, corrupts the public conscience, 'subverts the notion of equity, of justice,' of morality, and what is worse, it destroys free, honest trade, and does not even give in exchange synthetic value, fixed, honest price. It disillusions everyone, even economists. It pushes things so far as to destroy its very self." (Source: "The Poverty of Philosophy," Chapter 2, Part 3, as translated into English at Marxists.org)

The idea that competition needs to be watched - that monopolies need to be guarded against - is held by many today, who are otherwise in favor of free markets. Competition is a good thing, many say; but it needs to be monitored. But ... is it true that competition inevitably destroys itself through monopoly?


Capitol Dome

I once believed that this was true, and that there was a needful function for anti-monopoly laws, such as the Sherman Antitrust Law of 1890. This was one of the arguments that fascinated me; because if it was true, then that meant that competition could be dangerous if unfettered, which would undermine my faith in the free market if true. Thus, I had to know whether or not this argument held water; and whether competition was something to be celebrated or feared.


Senator John Sherman, the principal author of the Sherman Antitrust Act

But I have since come to the conclusion that monopolies are not something to be feared - that there are many forces in place to prevent their rise; and which ensure that if they do appear, that they will not have much power. This might seem to be a strange argument, and I acknowledge that I once saw it as strange myself. But I have come to the conclusion that competition doesn't really destroy itself through monopoly - that free-market forces prevent this from happening, and that Mr. Marx exaggerates their dangers and effects.

I will present arguments in this blog post to support this point of view, and challenge Mr. Marx's objection to free-market competition. If this seems counter-intuitive to you, I ask only that you entertain my arguments with an open mind; and refrain from judging them until after you've heard them. So with that in mind, I will now turn to my arguments about free-market competition, and use quotes from Dr. Thomas Sowell to support them. These will show why competition being destroyed through monopoly is not something we should worry about.


Thomas Sowell

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Marshall Plan: Helping the poor, keeping the peace, and stopping the communists



It might seem strange to begin a post about the Marshall Plan this way, but the end of the First World War a generation earlier was so poorly handled that a second war became necessary twenty years later, to finish the work of the first. Why did the second war happen? The debate is long and complicated, but there are two themes that often come up as explanations. One is the failure to obtain an unconditional surrender from the Germans, and change their system of government enough to make a second war less likely. The other is the imposition of reparations, or the plan to force Germany to pay for the damages they had caused - something which angered the Germans enough that they went to war again a generation later, largely as revenge for the impoverishment caused by the reparations.


Germans demonstrate against Treaty of Versailles, Reichstag 1919

No one will ever know for sure, but I think it could have been prevented - that rebuilding Germany, instead of punishing it, would have been a better way to prevent a second war. In short, what they needed was a Marshall Plan; and the Marshall Plan following World War II (which was the plan to provide economic assistance, to rebuild postwar Europe) may have been a large part of the reason that the peace with Germany was kept after the war was over. The Allied troops did what they had to do to stop Germany; but after the war, the best thing they could have done for their countries was to turn their former enemies into friends; and win the hearts of the people so that they would not be likely to invade their neighbors again. They had won the war; now they needed to win the peace; and the Marshall Plan was a large portion of the reason why the peace has lasted as long as it has.


Devastation of postwar Berlin, June 1945

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