Abstraction, Power, Virtue, and Vice

 

Abstraction is the flip side of Division of Labor. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Adam Smith’s pin factory example, so forgive me if I’m fuzzy on the details. Suppose that the operation consists of the wire stretcher upstream of me, myself on the point grinder, and the guy down below me puts the heads on, shooing away any dancing angels. Smith teaches us that by focusing on my job, on grinding pins, that me and my two fellows will make vastly more pins than we would have separately. And indeed our experience with society bears this out; I’ve never made a pin myself but I can purchase as many as I’d like at almost no cost.

So huzzah Division of Labor, right? That’s where Abstraction comes in. To focus on grinding pins I’ve got to stop worrying about cutting the wires and placing the heads. If I’m trying to cut my own wires then I’ve lost whatever advantage I’d gained from Division of Labor and now my pin output has plummeted. So I abstract away those concerns, contenting myself with the knowledge that there will always be a stretched wire for me to reach out and grab, and that the sharpened wires will always have heads placed. Because I’ve abstracted those away to the other guy’s concern I’ve necessarily given that other guy Power over me.

Power is the ability to use the details the other guy’s Abstracted away either for him or against him. If you’re doing your job honestly that’s Virtue (in this context.) If you’re using that Power for any other purpose that’s vice.

Suppose I’m grinding pins one work day, I reach my hand out for the next piece of stretched wire, and find there’s none there. “Hey, what gives!” I shout angrily at the guy upstream from me. Not only has he stopped making pins himself, but he’s also prevented me from making pins. He grudgingly wakes up, gets back to work, and all is well. A couple of minutes later the guy downstream wanders off. I stack up pin after pin at his workstation waiting for him to put heads on them, but he’s gone. Hours later I’ve ground as many wires as I like, I still haven’t produced any pins, and no money gets made. I’ve abstracted that part of the job to him, and he’s exerted his power in order to screw me over.

To get the benefits of Division of Labor I have to abstract away the details of all the other parts of the job. This gives power to the people dealing with those details; because I’m no longer paying attention to them they’re able to execute those details in whatever manner they choose, which may or may not screw me over.

Seems simple enough, right?

Let’s Apply this Model to What We See in the World Today

What happens when you abstract the job of ‘reporter’ away to a dedicated class? That class now has power, in that they have the ability to tell you what’s going on in the world. If they have virtue they execute the task faithfully. They give us the news. If they lack virtue they attempt to wield this power, influencing the thoughts and opinions of the rest of us by selectively reporting what they want us to hear. Abstraction, Power, Vice.

Another example, almost too obvious to mention; government. We abstract the question of who makes the rules to representatives, who further abstract it to regulators. That gives the regulators immense power in determining the rules by which the rest of us live our lives. Virtue consists in honest government, vice in the government we have.

We abstract away the raising of youth from mothers to teachers. This, according to the logic of the Division of Labor, allows great economic gains by taking the laborious rearing done by twenty Mrs. Mamas and replaces it with the moral instruction provided by one Miss Teacher, allowing the collected Mamas to go off and do high powered executive jobs. But by Abstracting the child-rearing away from Mama to Teacher we’ve given Teacher an enormous amount of Power. As the poet testifies ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world’ and we’ve moved that power from the collective feminine half of society to the Teacher’s Union. Virtue in this case consists of the teachers who teach honestly, and Vice is seen in all the teachers who see their job as fighting the culture war.

Over and over the story goes. Lightning round!

The problem with Star Wars?
Abstraction: We’ve abstracted storytelling for the price of a movie theater ticket
Power: The ability to shape the collected narratives of a nation
Virtue: Telling a decent story
Vice: “The Force is female: SJW point-scoring.

Woke Corporations?
Abstraction: The shareholders have abstracted the actual running of the company to the executives.
Power: The ability to direct a massive corporation.
Virtue: Using said corporation to make money for the shareholders who are trusting you.
Vice: Using said corporation to advance your reputation as a good person.

Blackrock?
Abstraction: The common man’s 401k invests in mutual funds so he can get back to his job at the pin factory.
Power: You don’t need to own the investment capital of a nation’s working class in order to direct it
Virtue: Doing the right thing by those small investors
Vice: Directing those investment dollars in such a way as to advance your political goals.

What Can We Do About It?

Three things. The first is to be virtuous ourselves. Saint Augustine (the actual saint, not the Ricochet member, although possibly also the Ricochet member) said “Lord reform thy world, beginning with me.” All too many of us are all too willing to use our large-scale world-reforming activities to excuse our small-scale peccadilloes. The poster child for this is the global warming activist flying to conferences in a private jet, though an earlier age might point to the priest in ermine robes asking for alms from the peasant.

The second is to call them out on it. Look back at the pin factory example from up top. When the wire stretcher took a nap and prevented me from doing my job I mentioned it to him and he started doing the job again. Division of Labor presumes that the other jobs are being done competently. When they aren’t then there’s no merit in keeping on your station like an automaton; call them out on it and maybe they’ll do better.

The third is to stop relying on them. When the pinhead in a change of placing pin heads went over the hill I kept stacking unfinished pins at his station. Maybe I should have noticed he was gone and worked out some other arrangement with the wire stretcher guy. Maybe we pull in a fourth person to man that station. The point is, stop pretending that he’s still standing there and doing the job that he’s supposed to be doing.

There is a Fourth Thing Which I Don’t Advocate

Now that you can see the way that abstraction creates power you can seek out the power centers that the left has built and subvert them. The left is all about green energy, right? That means that the community organizers have abstracted away electricity generation to one type that they view as inherently moral (wind, solar, hamsters on wheels) versus another they view as inherently immoral (coal, nuclear, burning hamsters). If you own a windmill you may do so virtuously by providing power as best you can, or may engage in vice yourself by using the windmill to self-aggrandize at the expense of the leftists who might be willing to think you’re a good person because you’re green energy compliant.

You know who had that figured out? Harvey Weinstein. Do you recall, early on when he was getting the ax from the #MeToo movement, how he had a press conference where he said he was going to take out his anger on the NRA? Abstraction: Any nuanced thought on guns to a straight “guns are bad” position. Power: Free moral credit to any leftist wiling to take on the NRA. Vice: Claiming to fight the NRA as penance for being a weapons-grade creep. Thankfully the movement at that point wasn’t a protection racket rounding up leftist action.

Mostly though I don’t advocate taking this line because the end result is anarchy. If every abstraction produces power that can be exploited, and if every power so produced is exploited then it follows that it never benefits you to abstract anything. You never reap the benefits of Division of Labor if, having divided your labor, the other laborers do anything but. Consequently, we’re left with a society where no man benefits from dealing with his fellows. Taken to the extreme this becomes total anarchy. But don’t assume we get that far; at every step along the way, we get to a society where you can trust your neighbor less, where it’s less pleasant to live. We’ve already taken entirely too many steps along that road.

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  1. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Internet's Hank: The third is to stop relying on them. When the pinhead in change of placing pin heads went over the hill I kept stacking unfinished pins at his station. Maybe I should have noticed he was gone, and worked out some other arrangement with the wire stretcher guy. Maybe we pull in a fourth person to man that station. The point is, stop pretending that he’s still standing there and doing the job that he’s supposed to be doing.

    I think of the utility player on the bench of a baseball team to cover a situation that resembles this.

    You mention Adam Smith in your first sentence. I think frequently about the vicious outcomes in our American effort to live in a free market economy that then finds the power trending us towards wealth and political power being concentrated in the hands of a small minority. Perhaps the people can act in ways to overcome some of this vice, like the Blackrock example, but how to avoid the concentration of wealth that leads to abuse of power, like Big Tech and Big Pharma for example, is not apparent? 

    • #1
  2. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Couple belief in free market economics with individual liberty politically and recognize human nature will yield the vice and virtue described as the abstracted power is exercised and humanity has a situation. This is what we have in America, but very corrupted.

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Internet's Hank: That means that the community organizers have abstracted away electricity generation to one type which they view as inherently moral (wind, solar, hamsters on wheels) versus another they view as inherently immoral (coal, nuclear, burning hamsters).

    The caloric output of hamster briquettes has never been fully investigated. I need a grant.

    • #3
  4. AMD Texas Member
    AMD Texas
    @DarinJohnson

    Percival (View Comment):

    Internet’s Hank: That means that the community organizers have abstracted away electricity generation to one type which they view as inherently moral (wind, solar, hamsters on wheels) versus another they view as inherently immoral (coal, nuclear, burning hamsters).

    The caloric output of hamster briquettes has never been fully investigated. I need a grant.

    I’ll pitch in $5. A hamster bit me when I was a kid

    • #4
  5. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Looks like Elon Musk has entered this arena trying to shift away from some of the political corruption enabled by the wealth/power vice crowd. Have to wait and see if his posture is credible.

    • #5
  6. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Here is a picayune point, to most people: That’s a novel use of to abstract. Americans have a life-and-death need to learn to abstract, in the usual sense. You use it as a pejorative—to abstract from meaning to ignore [imprudently.]

    I think that’s unnecessary, and stretches the meaning of a very useful word for a necessary thinking skill to the point of breakage.

    • #6
  7. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Internet's Hank: A couple minutes later the guy downstream wanders off. I stack up pin after pin at his workstation waiting for him to put heads on them, but he’s gone.

    Well you can’t eat them so that only leaves cramming them in your pockets and any other space you can find.

    • #7
  8. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    High division of labor increases the need for coordination, and resources devoted to same.  Say it’s 1905 and you have a factory working of traditional craft principles. You read Taylor’s Scientific Management and decide to do things the modern way, with high division of a labor and a clear separation of thinking from doing.

    You’re going to need a bunch of new people focused on coordination of one type or another–industrial engineers, process planners, schedulers, expeditors, etc.  These will eat up part of the savings from making the actual production process more efficient.  You also may find that things have become more rigid, harder to customize a particular order for a particular customer or sub-market.

     

     

     

    • #8
  9. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Hey! Some religions find virtue in wearing ermine robes!

    • #9
  10. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Hey! Some religions find virtue in wearing ermine robes!

    “What’s ermine is mine, and what’s yours is at least 10% mine as well.” 

    • #10
  11. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Here is a picayune point, to most people: That’s a novel use of to abstract. Americans have a life-and-death need to learn to abstract, in the usual sense. You use it as a pejorative—to abstract from meaning to ignore [imprudently.]

    I think that’s unnecessary, and stretches the meaning of a very useful word for a necessary thinking skill to the point of breakage.

    One thousand likes.

    • #11
  12. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    Sorry. Software guys are touchy about abstraction.

    • #12
  13. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank
    @HankRhody

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    You mention Adam Smith in your first sentence. I think frequently about the vicious outcomes in our American effort to live in a free market economy that then finds the power trending us towards wealth and political power being concentrated in the hands of a small minority. Perhaps the people can act in ways to overcome some of this vice, like the Blackrock example, but how to avoid the concentration of wealth that leads to abuse of power, like Big Tech and Big Pharma for example, is not apparent? 

    I mention Adam Smith because the pin factory is his example; when thinking about a concept like the division of labor it’s helpful to go back to first principles and remember how they work. It’s taken from The Wealth of Nations, but I don’t think you can even describe the division of labor as “free market”; it’s a concept so basic to economics that not even communists and capitalists disagree on it.

    While a concentration of money is a concentration of power, not all concentrations of power are due to concentrations of money. The power of colleges does not flow from the size of their endowment.

    • #13
  14. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank
    @HankRhody

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Here is a picayune point, to most people: That’s a novel use of to abstract. Americans have a life-and-death need to learn to abstract, in the usual sense. You use it as a pejorative—to abstract from meaning to ignore [imprudently.]

    I think that’s unnecessary, and stretches the meaning of a very useful word for a necessary thinking skill to the point of breakage.

    Any time you’re abstracting anything you’re ignoring details in order to draw a useful conclusion. Here I’m ignoring the details of everything involved in wire stretching to say “there will be a wire there when I need it”. Sometimes that’s warranted and sometimes not. If you’re thinking that no one ever ignores the wrong details and draws the wrong conclusions in their thinking then you’ve got a great deal more faith in mankind than I.

    And forget that word “imprudently”. The abstraction I describe here is so inextricably bound with the division of labor that taking an overly ‘prudent’ approach and never engaging in it means the death of civilization, as I described in the last paragraph. One might write about the dangers of electricity without advocating that we ban the substance.

    • #14
  15. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A big picture look at the history of the auto industry around the world indicates some strong similarities: Countries on the verge of, or in the early stages of industrialization can produce seemingly miraculous results for a generation or two, whether the economic system is driven by Wall Street, Communists, or Nazis. The half a century or so when the farm boys leave the farm is the time of maximum output with minimum restraints. I think of tales of Ford and GM foremen in the 20s and 30s who said the workers treated them like gods, and they damned well better have. 

    Increasing specialization and rationalization boosts that output, but it makes work miserable. That’s “okay” in a dictatorship–the workers have no choice but to work or die–or in a massive recession or depression. But when conditions improve, it’s tougher to keep the work force on site. Once the farm, or memories of hard times, are far behind you, it’s harder to get people to do rote work. 

    So they dress it up a little. In the car factories, work teams rotate unpleasant, repetitive tasks. They are told that participating in quality circles and constant self-improvement are a creative contribution. 

     

    • #15
  16. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank
    @HankRhody

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Sorry. Software guys are touchy about abstraction.

    I’ll confess I’m a bit vague on object oriented programming, but computers provide a great example of the principle too.

    Abstraction: I didn’t write the software on my computer.
    Power: The guy who did write the software determines exactly what it does.
    Virtue: The software does what it says on the tin.
    Vice: The software does what it says on the tin and also tells the Chicoms about it.

    • #16
  17. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    A guy came to me one time with a design for a system he wanted to code, a framework or construction kit for a certain class of utility program. Listening to him talk I could see the vague outlines of the thing he wanted, but his design was foggy. 

    I have to dive into tech for a second. I promise to do it badly. In the programming language we worked in, an Object is the most abstract thing. Literally everything in this language is an Object. To do anything useful at all, one must (make and) use things that are more concrete and more specialized than Object, like List and BankAccount.

    But everything in his design was an Object. It was elaborate, sure – multiple layers of interlocking structures. Things had suggestive names. But literally nothing was truly specified; his design didn’t guide the reader anywhere. He used the broadest possible abstraction and left the broadest possible latitude to the implementor. 

    I had to tell him that his system as specified could be implemented in an afternoon by a code monkey, and would do nothing. The system he envisioned would need a bit more exploration, which I invited him to do.

    There are many kinds of abstraction, which is the extraction of salient features from a richer set. Most of your points seem to concern interfaces, abstractions that operationally hide something more elaborate, to limit our dependency on it. 

    Be careful – real world interfaces are imperfect, unlike software interfaces. That is to say, they are rich.

    I would like to strike two words from public usage: “science” and “scientist.” I’d like for people to tell me more about what they mean besides that it wears a lab coat. If you were denied the broadly applicable word “abstraction” …

    • #17
  18. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    You mention Adam Smith in your first sentence. I think frequently about the vicious outcomes in our American effort to live in a free market economy that then finds the power trending us towards wealth and political power being concentrated in the hands of a small minority. Perhaps the people can act in ways to overcome some of this vice, like the Blackrock example, but how to avoid the concentration of wealth that leads to abuse of power, like Big Tech and Big Pharma for example, is not apparent?

    To keep our system openly competitive is the challenge.  Top down can’t.   The problems are two.   In the last few decades  technologies emerged that do not face rising costs. Secondly, politics and political power seeks to expand, gather controls and doesn’t lose them.  That is the history of the world that we overcame by building our system ground up.  Other than these new technologies, competitive markets solve the problem unless we don’t stop government expansion.  I.E. if business  can’t control politics they will be replaced because their economies do not allow them to eliminate competition or new innovation.  So what do we do about falling cost companies?  We have to either control them, which seldom works out well,  break them up, or control the size of the market.  IE.our market is so large economics of scale vastly exceed anything we enjoyed 30 years ago and when we add close friendly countries that’s good enough. We do not need China, moreover, China is the biggest threat we face and won’t ceases being the threat until we so dominate they have to cooperate.   What does not work, cannot work, has never worked, is central government control and now we are so vast so centralized that the bottom can’t understand or control the top and  the top can control the bottom only by making it rigidly conform to its interests.   We must cut the federal bureaucracy by 80 or 90 percent.  Sounds crazy but is essential.  Then state governments as well.

    • #18
  19. Nanocelt TheContrarian Member
    Nanocelt TheContrarian
    @NanoceltTheContrarian

    “Hence it appears, that those schemes of religion or moral philosophy, which–however well in some respects they may treat of benevolence to mankind, and other virtues depending on it, yet–have not a supreme regard to God, and love to him, laid as the foundation, and all other virtues handled in a connexion with this, and in subordination to it, are not true schemes of philosophy, but are fundamentally and essentially defective.  And whatever other benevolence or generosity towards mankind, and other virtues, or moral qualifications, which go by that name, any are possessed of, that are not attended with a love to God, which is altogether above them, and to which they are subordinate, and on which they are dependent, there is nothing of the nature of true virtue or religion in them. And it may be asserted in general, that nothing is of the nature of true virtue, in which God is not the first and the last; or which, with regard to their exercises in general, have not their first foundation and source in apprehensions of God’s supreme dignity and glory, and in answerable esteem and love of Him, and have not respect to God as the supreme end.”

    Jonathan Edwards:  On the Nature of True Virtue.

    Note that Adam Smith went to some length and vituperation of his predecessor in the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, eg, Francis Hutchison, for his reliance on a transcendent capacity of humans (a divinely implanted moral sense), and labeled (and libeled) Hutchison as a “casuist” for that foundation of Hutchison’s moral philosophy. Adam Smith, as far as anyone can tell, was an atheist (although many have argued otherwise). He was a devotee of Hume’s ideas that humans experience nothing except through their (often deceiving) senses (skepticism), and made “sympathy” , or “fellow feeling” (eg,  our own sense of our self interest–we would use the term “empathy”) the only foundation of his moral philosophy. Of course Smith sort of cheated by appealing to a vague entity to replace anything transcedent, or any Divine Being, with his “invisible hand”. Utter chicanery and self-dealing sophistry in my view, but, hey, Russ Roberts, Don Boudreaux, et al, almost worship the guy.

    The passage from Jonathan Edwards was written before Smith’s “A Theory of Moral Sentiments” but not published (posthumously) until after publication of Smith’s first book.  All this might have something to do with our current predicament.

    • #19
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