Acton Institute Powerblog

Ignoring the invisible

I have been thinking a lot about all of the invisible things around us, important foundational things that we take for granted.  Because they don’t immediately manifest themselves to our attention we can forget about them if we are not careful.

There are different layers of “invisible” things or institutions or concepts that make life go on and that undergird our economic, political, and social life.   One of the characteristics of these invisible things is that we don’t necessarily need them at the front of our minds to go through life; in fact it would be impossible to do so.

The danger of course is that if we forget about, or fail to realize their importance, we can can eradicate them and find ourselves in profound trouble.

Complexity all around

One way to begin to think about the realm of the invisible is to look around the room we are in and think about all the things that are making your reading this essay possible. Obviously the computer and the table it is sitting on. To mention a few others –electricity, an electric grid, people who invented that grid and maintain it. If you are in a house, the architect, builders, etc who made it sturdy; the police and soldiers and political institutions that provide security.

If you are drinking a cup of coffee stop to consider all the people and processes, and tools that made this happen.

This is of course is only  a beginning: think about writing and reading and all the cultural elements that have developed over time.  If there is a lot going on in a single cup of coffee, it’s hard to imagine all the complexity going around us.

Some examples in the realm of economics and politics would be what we refer to in Poverty, Inc. as the “institutions of justice” that enable economic development and a commercial society. 

These are things like property regimes and clear title to land, access to justice and courts of law, and ability to participate in the free economy.  Without these things entrepreneurship is stifled. But many entrepreneurs don’t even think about these things until they are gone.  We did a very informal survey of business leaders and entrepreneurs asking them what issues they thought were the most important for people to understand about business and entrepreneurship.  These “invisible” conditions came in at the bottom.  I doubt it would be much different among students and professors of business and entrepreneurship.

I found myself running into this problem at a recent lecture I gave at Acton U on the Cultural Critiques of Capitalism.  In the lecture I pose the question, “Does Capitalism Destroy Culture?”  The question has meaning of course, but at the same time the ideas, institutions, and practice of capitalism emerge from and are a part of culture, not something radically extraneous or separate from it. This relates to the point about the institutions of justice that are at the foundation of commercial society.

What is justice and sacred?

At a deeper level, think of all the invisible concepts that we take for granted and rarely articulate: ideas like freedom, honor, and justice, and equality. We simply assume them as part of the fabric of our thought:

But what is justice?  Where does the concept of justice that dominates Western  thought and institutions come from?  It surely doesn’t come from biology.  It is not a materialist, empirical concept that can be measured. Yet certain ideas of justice, right and wrong, sacred and profane permeate our thinking and view of the world.  In the West they come from a number of sources including Greek, Roman, and most important Jewish and Christian. They are such a part of our lives that we even use them when we critique religion or Western civilization.

Sam Harris, the well known materialist and critic of faith argues that “there is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life.”

But what does Sam Harris mean by “sacred” and why is it a “high purpose” and what in fact is “purpose” in a material universe?  Harris is relying on a host of “invisible” concepts and ideas to even make his argument.  As I understand it, this is one of Jordan Peterson’s critiques of Harris thought–he presupposes many key ideas and concepts that are non-material and deeply embedded in a culture he is trying to critique.

There is much more to say about the invisible elements in our lives, and the deeply rooted elements of culture things we take for granted.

But Roger Scruton gives a good example of the problem of taking things for granted a short passage on Marx’s concept of freedom in Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands

Who gives you the fishing rod or publishes the books?

Marx famously argued that in a communist society freedom would be paramount.  Man would not be chained, but free to engage in “hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, tending cattle in the evening and engaging in literary criticism after dinner.”  The idea of freedom as liberation has problems of its own, but as Scruton points out, Marx doesn’t address how all these things are going to be accomplished if the state (and culture  with it) has “withered away.”

Marx takes the invisible development of a complex culture for granted and assumes it will remain no matter what we do.  Marx argued that his socialism, unlike the “utopian socialists” he critiqued was “scientific.”  But as Scruton writes:

To say that this is ‘scientific’ rather than utopian is, in retrospect, little more than a joke. Marx’s remark about hunting, fishing, hobby farming and lit. crit. is the only attempt he makes to describe what life will be like without private property – and if you ask who gives you the gun or the fishing rod, who organizes the pack of hounds, who maintains the coverts and the waterways, who disposes of the milk and the calves and who publishes the lit. crit., such questions will be dismissed as ‘beside the point’, and as matters to be settled by a future that is none of your business.

And as to whether the immense amount of organization required for these leisure activities of the universal upper class will be possible, in a condition in which there is no law, no property, and therefore no chain of command, such questions are too trivial to be noticed.

Or rather, they are too serious to be considered, and therefore go unnoticed. For it requires but the slightest critical address, to recognize that Marx’s ‘full communism’ embodies a contradiction: it is a state in which all the benefits of legal order are still present, even though there is no law; in which all the products of social cooperation are still in existence, even though nobody enjoys the property rights which hitherto have provided the sole motive for producing them.

The contradictory nature of the socialist utopias is one explanation of the violence involved in the attempt to impose them: it takes infinite force to make people do what is impossible

Scruton echoes Eric Voegelin who noted that when Marxists were pressed on fundamental questions, the answer was “that’s not a question for socialist man.”  As Voegelin and others have noted, a closed ideological system that has shut itself from the truth sows the seeds of violence.

The Wonder of the Ordinary

We could not live our lives if we did not rely on the invisible.  We could never provide everything ourselves, and it would be an impossible task, and drive us mad, to attempt to pay attention to all the ideas, inventions, actions, and maintenance of the cultural, institutional, and physical infrastructure that surround and uphold us.

But we can at least try, now and again, to reflect on all the wonderful complexity and layers invisible culture that surround us.  Doing so could help us avoid  the mistakes of the ideologue who identifies his theory with reality.  It could also help us become more grateful for our ancestors and for the wonder of the ordinary, which when we reflect just a bit, isn’t ordinary after all.



Michael Matheson Miller

Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute