On Sophistry, Philosophy and Economics

While the modern definition of sophistry refers to specious and deceptive argumentation, it originates from the Greek word sophos or sophia meaning to be “wise” or “wisdom.” In the second half of the 5th century BC, sophists were intellectuals of Athens who claimed that they possessed wisdom. However, as German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper puts it, “the words “philosophy” and “philosopher” were coined, according to legend, by Pythagoras. And they were intended to stand in an emphatic contrast with “sophia” and “sophos”: no man is wise and knowing, only God. And so the most that man can do is call someone a loving searcher of the truth, philo-sophos.

‘The School of Athens’ by Rafael Santi

Thus sophistry is directly contrary to the intellectual tradition of philosophy and of Socrates and Plato who saw themselves, not as possessing wisdom, but as pursuers of wisdom. Instead, in the philosophical tradition wisdom was not something that could ever be possessed by mortal man, no matter how vigorously the philosopher pursued it. So, while the sophist is fueled by the ambition to possess knowledge, the philosopher treads down an endless road, and the fuel that burns in his heart is wonder: wonder at the world, at creation itself – and hope. The sophist sees the world through a microscope: reducing creation to numbers and chemicals and mass and wavelengths. The philosopher, in that experience that we’ve all felt at some time in at least some small way, transcends the environment of the sophist and finds wonder in the world, and in the philosopher’s heart burns the hope of expanding this enlightenment – not to dominate the world, but to see it in ever greater circles of experience. Thus, the philosopher grasps a reality that expands to infinity, and is far more human, more fulfilling, than that finite environment of the domineering sophist.

The dichotomy between sophistry and philosophy is an important one in itself but it parallels another dichotomy in economics, a subject matter more pertinent to this blog. Namely, it parallels a stark difference between classical liberalism (similar to the libertarianism of today) and collectivism which is of supreme importance. Collectivism, and other structures like corporatism (a capitalist economic model) and despotism in nearly all forms, represents a centrally planned economy in which a solitary leader or a small minority of elites are, often under the guise of benevolence, in charge of making all of the decisions for society, “planning” and regulating society from their center of power. This correlates well with sophist thought, whose ultimate desire is the possession of wisdom and knowledge – for, as we’re all told, knowledge is power, and the sophist seeks knowledge, not for its own sake, but as a means to whatever end that the sophist has in mind. So, too, with the central planners: they have the power and, through their empire of bureaucrats, they seek to regulate and control the flow of information, to analyze every bit of information coming in so as to, from their center of command, better regulate all the capital and all the labor forces below them. The economy is one great machine and the central planners are its machinists.

However, the economy is not a machine. Neither is it merely an abstraction. Its a living, breathing, real thing: namely, you and me. The “economy” is the world and everything in it: all of its natural resources from minerals and gases to plants and animals, but most importantly, the “economy” is made up of human beings. So that, while the economy of the capital of the world may possibly be reduced to the status of a machine, run by machinists in a precise, calculating way from far off, the human race, with its human nature, religion, culture and civilization, can never be reduced to such simplistic terms. Only God can possess such wisdom and knowledge. Only God could possibly regulate society without inadvertently pulling every member of humanity down to the lowest standard of living over time. As Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek so wisely stated: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

Conversely, classical liberalism bases its economic theory on the foundation of private property – not because government has no authority over its citizens or their property (it does possess the authority of eminent domain, to take property with just compensation to the owner for public use if it benefits the common good) but because the kind of knowledge and power necessary to “run” an economy can never be possessed. With property largely controlled by private individuals, ideally in the hands of as many people as possible, power is decentralized so that the public interest becomes manifest in the collective actions of all individuals working independently in their own self-interests. Is this a model of perfect efficiency? No, but one of the first axioms of economics is that in any economy there will always be unmet needs because we are not perfect and because all resources are limited. Only the sophist seeks the “perfect model,” to reduce the world to a formula. Instead, the free-market model represents the most efficient economy possible, by eliminating the need for anyone to actually possess the unpossessable knowledge necessary to centrally plan society. While central planners, in typical sophist fashion, seek to possess and change their environment, the classical liberal actively pursues a greater understanding of the world and changes his economic model to reflect it. Thus, we have the fluid model of the classical liberal in which each individual, each family, has the liberty to respond to the world as their own specialized knowledge dictates according to their own very specific and unique needs. The aggregate of these billions of daily responses by millions of people is what we call the free-market and no central planner, even with a bureaucratic empire at his fingertips, could ever replicate such a process or hope to possess the near-infinite variables and data points that went into shaping the market.

Therefore, in this regard, it is in the tradition of philosophy that the free-market or free-trade economics of classical liberalism has its roots while the foundation of the central planners’ world, whether in the form of socialism, corporate fascism or some other despotism, is built upon the folly of the sophist.


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