By Lionel Shriver
Harper Collins 2016
In September of 2016, Lionel Shriver, a novelist, gave the keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Conference. She made instant headlines when, donning a sombrero, she denounced the idea of “cultural appropriation”. For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the term, cultural appropriation refers to the practice of writing, acting, speaking, dressing in a voice, clothing etc. outside of one’s own ethnic, gender, racial etc. identity. The idea appears to have already gained wide currency on elite campuses among the snowflake brigades.
Shriver argued that fear of cultural appropriation could have a chilling effect on literature; that it could pigeonhole minorities who wish to be seen as individual people rather than members of a group, and that it enforces a narrowing of vision. She is, of course, correct. Not only that, she is refreshingly direct in her approach.
When asked by a reporter from Time if she found any validity in the criticism of her speech leveled by a woman who walked out, she replied “No”. When asked if she felt that she had neglected to have empathy for the other side when writing the speech she answered: “I have no empathy with that side”. Needless to say, all this has prompted the neo-Marxist race, class, and gender crowd to reach for the smelling salts.
Not bad for a day’s work.
Shriver, until that point, was most famous for the novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, which she published in 2003. In June of 2016 she penned a near-future dystopian novel titled The Mandibles—A Family, 2029—2047 in which she excoriates conventional progressivism. It is a wickedly entertaining book. And it is easy to see why progressives are a bit taken aback by it, and by her. The book is unmerciful in its mockery of the pseudo intellectuals who mouth the vacuous pieties of the faith. Worse yet, in the book it is a precoscious 14 year old who is forever pointing out errors in the reasoning of a narcisistic Georgetown economics professor.
The book grabs you by the lapels from the first page. It is bitingly ironic, with a keen eye for the inanities of academic fads and pop culture. Stylistically, Shriver combines the irony of Tom Wolfe with George Orwell’s admonitions about the use and abuse of language. She does this in a way that is immensely entertaining and with a clear-headed libertarian bent, but without a hint of Randian hyperbole.
The plot centers around “The Renunciation” which refers to the day in 2029 when the U.S. defaulted on its debt in response to foreign powers refusing to accept payment in dollars for U.S. debt service (or eventually anything for that matter). In response to the American government’s reliance on the printing press for money, primarily to finance entitlement spending, foreign powers, including erstwhile allies, form a new currency. The new currency is called “bancorps” and U.S. creditors demand to be paid in it. The U.S. refuses and simply defaults on its debt. Amusingly enough, the U.S. Fed Chairman printing all the U.S. dollars that are quickly becoming worthless is named Krugman.
The U.S. government along with the default forbids any of its citizens from holding bancorps. And it isn’t too long before the government begins to confiscate the citizenry’s gold holdings including jewelry. Needless to say, inflation skyrockets, barter takes over and the U.S. is on the road travelled recently by Venezuela. Anarchy rules as mobs take over the streets.
The Mandibles is powerful, well written, funny in a black-comedy sort of way, and immensely entertaining. Most of all, it is not a book about economics as the word is commonly understood. It is about people, incentives, and systems.
Economics is commonly thought of as the study of money and business. But that is a narrow understanding of the field. Economics started off as Political Economy. The first economist, Adam Smith, was a Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow where he wrote his Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Economics is better understood as the study of the way we make choices. For this, economists have as Schumpeter put it, a set of theories (like the relationships of supply and demand to prices) and a toolbox (statistics). Most importantly, the underlying theory is that man is a rational self-seeking being capable of making his own choices in furtherance of what he subjectively believes to be his own self-interest. That self-interest extends beyond mere monetary gain.
Notably, free choices and free trade tend to maximize social utility. Conversely, systems relying on top down command and control fail to achieve citizen satisfaction, and in the end, tend to fail disastrously.
Shriver has a good grasp of this and conveys it well in her story telling. As the economy, the culture and civil society break down after “The Renunciation” people still have to make choices, but now their choices face far more difficult constraints than before. So the questions explored are how do they cope, how does it affect their beliefs (if at all), how do they adapt, who is best suited to adapt and why, how do they define moral quandaries in their decision making? Lurking underneath it all, Shriver makes clear that rational self-interest prevails in decision making, no matter changing circumstances.
Shriver ties the economic collapse to a fundamental problem of collectivism, which is necessarily dependent on command and control. The Renunciation occurred because the country could not pay its debts. Those unsustainable debts are the inevitable result of the welfare state. Entitlement spending just went on and on until the collapse—and continued on with money from the printing press. The argument for enforced altruism over rational self-interest failed as manifest by the failure of the State, because it is contrary to human nature.
The result of an attempt to reconstruct a society contrary to human nature is a collapse of civil society, and a return of man to a Hobbesian state of nature. Sometimes it makes a pit stop with authoritarianism along the way, but inevitably human nature prevails over attempts to recreate a “new man” as various utopians have tried—all with such disastrous results. The Mandibles, in its amusingly smart-alecky way strongly hints at this. And it also suggests, sort of, a way to redemption and rebirth.
All in all, The Mandibles is an excellent read. It is highly amusing, witty and provocative, just as the author clearly meant it to be.