The Weight of Misquotation

I know.

It doesn’t pay to be naive, and I’d be a lot better off if I didn’t let this kind of thing get under my skin.

Picture courtesy of

But it really does shit me when people misquote things.

Religious demagogues are frequent employers for these particular shades of bullshit. In fact, it was some recently re-televised comments by the Right Honorable Fascist Fred Nile that spurred this rant, particularly in regard to his stance on homosexuality. Now, when religious types cry foul on the LGBT community they typically cite the Bible as their evidence, despite their quotations being blatantly mistranslated and homosexual relationships having the support of the big guy JC himself. Don’t believe me? Here’s a nice little translation for you. Yay languages!

But… to be honest the fundies can rot in their own sick, terrified little holes all they like. They never say anything particularly interesting or creative, and Nile’s one of a dying breed, they don’t need my help to push them over the edge. Politicians, however, are alarming in their tenacity. And boy do they manage this misquotation malarky with a gusto that makes my eyes bleed.

I’m thinking about two names in particular. Not the quoters, in this case, but the quotees. John Maynard Keynes. Thomas Malthus.

I can smell hackles rising already. Imaginary hackles. Because all my readers are imaginary. Thanks for sticking around guys.

I have heard Malthus misquoted to an alarming extent, and I found the responsible artifacts to be, if a little conservative, largely inoffensive. The circling resurgence of the meme that has grown from Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population is staggering; the very idea that Malthus said “We’ll have all the babies and eat ourselves to death” appears to have been addition after the fact. The idea of the Malthusian trap, at best guess a derivation of Ricardo’s dreaded Steady State Trap, is something wholly constructed and reeks of extrapolation.

Ok. Context. The C word is still so very powerful.

Malthus wrote the essay in response to a letter from William Godwin, and the latter thinker presented a picture of an anarcho-socialist utopia. Godwin’s thought was an almost Marxist one; that the very institutions that define our society are the source of its ills. Marriage, property (and the gentry who possessed it) and religion were all damaging leeches, and if we could do away with these things then resources would be so plentiful that every man, woman and child would have plenty to meet their needs and wants. You produce enough, and everyone will be happy.

If only… Photo “Malthus” by Deposto on Flickr.

Malthus, pipping cyberpunk to the post by about two hundred and fifty years, cried foul on that. He started by agreeing that the institutions of the time were in fact not universal goods; he makes particular note of the pariah status of unwed mothers. But he also says these institutions evolved for a reason, based on a scarcity of resources that led to people not wishing to support children who weren’t their own. Taking the logic to Godwin’s argument, he posited that once resources were guaranteed by society for each child people would have as many children as they liked, artfully pussyfooting around the reason for that being that people in general like having sex. With the deterrent removed, population swells, and we begin to outstrip our resources.

What happens then? Well, cannibalism, road warriors, the end of civilization… are more or less exactly what Malthus didn’t predict. What he believed would happen is more or less a return to what we had before; marriages to enforce responsibility for children, landowners commanding serfs, all as a method of controlling consumption of resources. Doesn’t show a lot of creativity on Old Tommy’s part, and a blatant disregard for the idea of contraception, but he was working with what came to hand.

So the belief that population is limited by resource availability, as I heard surface at least once during the 2007 Australian election (props to anyone who can find that clip, think it was on Q&A, but not having any luck), is decidedly non-Malthusian. Its limited by institutions in the face of scarcity, so the idea of it being inevitable ranges from vaguely misinformed to downright irresponsible when its rattled off by potential Members of Parliament.

So, lesson the first: Read Malthus before you quote Malthus. Its English, so don’t worry, you won’t run into the same problems we encountered up page with our Bible studies.

Now, dear Keynes, poor Keynes, brilliant, arrogant Keynes. Our pal John Maynard has copped a lot of flack in recent years, his name is used by economic conservatives in the manner that the Devil’s name is used by religious ones. Every so often you hear a pundit decrying some big spike in government spending as Keynesian, hell, Wayne Swann was openly in bed with the General Theory when he decided to, er… “stimulate” the Australian economy. We run into another problem of misquotation again.

Keynes did, in fact, support small government with minimal interference in markets. This man had actually come out and said that he intended to save capitalism from the dual threats of Communism and Fascism, and in the 1930’s that was looking like a losing proposition. But Keynes had faith that the capitalist market could do great things, outstripping centrally planned economies through sheer weight of productivity. And the government should let it do so.

Until, of course, the market fucks up. And it will. Did in 1929, did in 2008. So when those big businesses come crying to the government that they browbeat into deregulating them, howling “please, save us, we’re too big to fail!”, should we bail them out? What would Keynes say?

Photo “RELAX (blue sky, mountain, Tasmania)” by Mez (sketchesbymez) on Flickr

Though I imagine he’d use better chosen words, I suspect the message would be “Let ’em rot. Can’t have our lives ruled by Moral Hazard fattened imbeciles.”

See, Keynes didn’t say the government should prop up a failing market. He said it was there to protect people when it hurt them. When a demand slump kills off businesses and raises unemployment, the government should employ those people for public works, giving them funds with which to get demand – always, always demand – rolling again.

Admittedly, Keynes also said a lot of things that don’t make a great deal of sense. I can only assume that he wrote a great deal of his works drunk, a sentiment with which I can identify pretty easily.

So, in this context (ooh! Dirty C word again!) Jon Stewart’s suggestion on the Daily Show that Barack Obama could pay the money he intended to spend bailing out the banks to the people in debt to them actually makes some sense in a Keynesian model.

So for the conservative types who seem to associate Keynesian thought with the damn dirty government giving their hard earned tax dollars to crack babies, dope heads and programs to take away their private stash of anti-tank weaponry, that’s not really what it means. In fact, a lot of recent stimulus has seemed pretty out of joint with Keynes’ proposals, but then like we saw earlier, Jesus was totally cool with gay sex. So yeah.

And if I do ever get to debate Fred Nile, I suspect my argument will more or less follow these lines. Not that I think he’d listen.

Alright, that’s that giant poisonous monster off my chest… glad that’s sorted. Anyway, this article is once again Creative Commons meat for the market, and I am not making any money out of it. Feel free to rip it to pieces and rebuild it as whatever macabre offense against nature you can imagine. Do Frankenstein proud. Have a metal week, imaginary folks.


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