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What must have Thorstein Veblen thought about Human Intelligence

By Jonathan Larson (1994)

Thorstein Veblen considered his father the brightest man he ever met--partly because he never met Keynes, Wittgenstein, or Russell. That put the question in my mind, "Would meeting those guys have made any difference?"

Let us assume that Veblen was not being merely sentimental. If that is true, we must question what exactly Veblen meant by intelligence. Since clearly Veblen was a bright guy, I think we can assume he had asked detailed and sometimes introspective questions concerning the nature of intelligence.

On the most basic level, everyone seems to agree that intelligence has something to do with retention of information. If this is the operative definition of intelligence, it is not very interesting. MENSA is notorious for attracting a large number of Ayn Rand/ John Sununu/ Charles Krauthammar-type right-wing clowns. Ours is a conservative society these days so many persons with great retention simply learn more parts of the party line.

Some folks associate intelligence with cunning. The expressions of a "heads-up play" in sports or the notion of "smart money" in finance reflect this usage. However, this is rarely what is tested for when measuring I.Q. and most societies place constraints on this behavior with limited success. Such intelligence usually earns the label of "cheating."

The most interesting form of intelligence concerns the ability to reprocess information in innovative ways. Veblen seemed to think so as measured by his life's work.

Innovation is anti-conservative. All innovation stems from the assumption that what is, is WRONG on some level. Of course, this assumption is often wrong in itself. Sometimes, ideas or products simply cannot be improved upon or alternatively, the proposed improvement is not an improvement at all. We usually reserve the word genius to describe the accomplishments of those rebellious innovators who are proven correct.

Without any direct evidence, I believe this is the reason for Thorstein's generous description of his father. Thomas had a huge range of absorbed information that he successfully redeployed in a unique wayhe was the quintessential, innovative, rebel. But because his methods were so successful, his rebellions were not merely eccentric but could be legitimately labeled genius. In fact, I believe that Thorstein included himself in the world of those less gifted than his father.

But this leaves the question unanswered, What made Thomas more gifted than all of the other persons known to Thorstein? It has been my experience that measured I.Q. is of limited value in this context. I find any I.Q. number above 150 to be absolutely meaninglessabove that number folks are being measured by others with less gifts in most casesa process not terribly dissimilar from measuring the accuracy of a micrometer with a yardstick. We may safely assume, then, that everyone above a certain level has roughly equal abilities so differences are determined by how well these gifts are employed. Without mental discipline, training, and practice, a high I.Q. is less interesting than a double-jointed thumb. Thorstein was obviously not referring to simple raw intellectual horsepower when describing his father.

Yet, even testing for an ability to innovate does not yield much information about the capacity for genius. For beyond capacity, there must be a willingness to try something new. This is a fearlessness of sorts but since fearlessness is usually associated with a failure to properly weigh the consequences, the willingness to innovate within rational expectations of a desirable outcome usually reflects other factors that combine natural ability with cultural inputs. As nearly as I can determine, the search for these factors pretty much define the life's work of Thorstein Veblen.

In Thorstein's view, Thomas had all the cultural and environmental advantages for the development of great intellect. Most importantly, Thomas had skilled hands. Jacob Bronowski in his "Ascent of Man" actually argues that tools drive human evolutionthat tool-making transformed lower primates into man in measurable cranial development. I have no idea if he is correct but I have noticed that folks who cannot use tools, rarely get anything else right eitherthere is something about the act of mastering tools that teaches the other great lessons. In this, I am in total agreement with "The Instinct of Workmanship." Thomas had not only mastered his tool kit, but through modifications had rearranged their use. This is toolmakingthe highest manifestation of this evolutionary ability.

Of course, Veblen lists other cultural incentives to great thoughts such as generalized peaceful conditions, free transfer of ideas, lack of servile conditions and attitudes in the general populations, etc. (my favorite list of cultural factors is found on page 195 in the Transaction Press version of "Instinct of Workmanship.") Note that Thomas had every advantage that Thorstein ever listsmost especially the insubordinate animus. At the edge of the empty prairie, Thomas was able to try out almost any idea that came into his head and is still quite evident, he had lots of good ideas. This almost total freedom to innovate meant he could ratchet himself up the innovation ladder. If a person cannot try an idea, or is forced to spend a lifetime defending an idea, this will usually be the only innovative thought that person has. On the other hand, if a person is free to try his ideas, success OR failure will encourage that person to try again. As one advances along the learning curve, success breeds further success from the feedback it generates.

But Thomas was more than an innovative craftsman/ toolmaker/ farmerinteresting as that may be by itself. He considered himself a bonder, a Norwegian word we often translate into "peasant" but should really be translated into "an agrarian man of affairs." Even the expression "gentleman farmer" does not do justice to the concept for it suggests an idle dilettante who dabbles in agriculture while collecting rents from the people who do the work.

Veblen often suggested that the tool-users were most suitable for governing an industrial society. This is the notion of the bonder writ large. Because of the example set by Thomas and men like him, Thorstein knew the tool-users were perfectly capable of managing the other details of self-government and social organization. Actually, Veblen seemed not so concerned that people who ran the institutions were actually tool-users themselves, but that they had learned the lessons and values taught by the mastery of tools.

So, Would the list of `bright guys' in paragraph one have topped Thomas in Thorstein's mind? Probably not. The reason I argue for this position is that none had mastered tools or their values. Take the case of Keynes. His "General Theory" is considered the soul of enlightened thought by economic progressives such as Robert Kuttner. Yet buried beneath the dense prose lies a monetary argument that is really more primitive than the beliefs of the poorest tramp in Coxey's Army. What Keynes did was take this set of ideas and make them palatable for his banking friends. Economic stimulation was fine in Keynes' world so long as it placed governments in hock to the moneychangers.

This modification by a currency speculator has proved to be history's single most anti-democratic idea. Kuttner may be right that Keynes was the most enlightened mind at Bretton Woods and that he died of heartbreak when they refused to listen to him, but this is really not saying much--being the most enlightened banker at Bretton Woods may be like saying the best ice hockey player in Ghana because the outcome was the IMF/ World Bank. Without democratic control of monetary policy, or to be perfectly Veblenian about it, without a monetary policy infused with the values of the toolmakers, all other social decisions are pretty much irrelevantremember what happened to Clinton's economic stimulus package. Reducing the global population and their governments to the status of debt peonage, the logical and inevitable outcome of Keynesianism, may involve great cunning, but cannot be considered the product of genius. The great ideas of Keynes were invented by the Greenback Partyhe only perverted them for use by his social stratum. Worse, reducing the population to servility in a economic sense is the most certain way possible for destroying the toolmakers and their values. In this respect, Keynes was the ultimate anti-genius.

Besides, Veblen's "The Nature of Peace" is superior in most objective ways to Keynes' assessment of the Versailles Treaty and I have already postulated that Thorstein probably considered his intellect inferior to Thomas'. If that is true, I must assume that Veblen could have said at some point, "Keynes was a bright enough fellow, but you should have met my father!" Just a thought. As to the others on the listI don't know enough about them to guess at their possible status of intelligence. I must only ask, "Did they know how to use tools gracefully?"

Now I have spent five hours speculating on the relative intelligence of the long dead writing this argumentI only hope this falls under the "Instinct of Idle Curiosity."


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