Written in gold on the base of Karl Marx’s gravestone in London’s Highgate cemetery:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
Reading these words today, not for the first time, they struck me as being the manifesto of a busybody, and the manifesto of every single busybody that came after him.
No sooner had Marx set foot in the world, than he wanted to change it. And the same is true of every other busybody, whether Marxist or otherwise.
I can’t say that it has ever been the aim of my life to change the world. I think that if one is to change the world, one first has to understand it. And I can’t say that I even begin understand the world well enough to try to change it, or improve it.
For me the world is a most mysterious place. I find everything mysterious. I find trees and flowers and birds and clouds mysterious things. I find rivers and beaches and waves and sand and pebbles mysterious too.
And it’s a world that is continually becoming ever more mysterious, with the addition of cars and planes and radios and TVs and computers and mobile phones.
And my response to all these mysteries has been to try to understand them, to make them a bit less mysterious. Idle Theory (now only available on the waybackmachine) was my attempt, using simple physics, to understand living things (perhaps the greatest mystery of all) in a slightly new way, and to take a new look at economics and ethics (both of them equally profound mysteries). I did not set out to change them or improve the world. Idle Theory offers no advice or recommendations or calls for action. It simply offers a slightly different way of thinking about these things.
For I think you can only repair something – like a motorcycle engine – if you understand how it works. If you don’t understand how it works, there can be no possibility of repairing it. If the problem is a broken piston ring, you can only know that this is a problem if you know what a piston ring does, and why it’s necessary for the operation of the engine, and where you can buy new ones, and how to take out old broken piston rings and put in new ones.
The same goes for human economies and human societies. They also are like engines, with moving parts, that work in tandem together, each performing different tasks.
And I have no belief that Marx had any real understanding of the economies and societies that he wanted to change. I think he made a powerful attempt to understand them, but even he ended up offering little or no practical advice as to how they might be changed. And this more or less ensured that every subsequent Marxist attempt to change the world ended up making it very much worse. What else was ever going to happen, once ignorant, incompetent social engineers had set out to change it?
Furthermore, I think you have to have some understanding of how something works before you can know when it is not working properly. A radio set may be working perfectly well, but merely be lacking a battery or power supply. People may set out to repair things that are actually working perfectly well, and don’t need to be repaired. What made Marx think that the Victorian capitalist society he found himself in wasn’t working perfectly well, or as well as it possibly could?
Antismoking busybodies are ignorant and incompetent social engineers who have set out to make the engine of society produce less smoke – by blocking up its exhaust pipe. Well, I don’t know what happens with a motorcycle engine when you block its exhaust pipe, but I imagine that it won’t work very well, or even work at all. I’ll bet they don’t work better. And I think the same is true of the infinitely more complex engine of a human society when you remove what seems like the extraneous feature of smoke-filled pubs. They were perhaps performing an important role in the cycle of activities that take place in human societies. I read recently somewhere that the human appendix – long thought to be a useless residual organ – may in fact be store of useful bacteria that can be used to replenish – ‘re-boot’ – the intestinal system’s stock of bacteria in the event of an extinction event.
We may also know that antismoking busybodies have no idea what they are doing, because they never make any attempt to assess the wider effects of their smoking bans. They are like motorcycle mechanics who, having blocked the engine’s exhaust pipe, are only interested in whether it has ‘stopped smoking’. They are unconcerned whether the engine is still working or not. Their only interest is in the smoke.
I have, for example, never seen any survey like the one I helped conduct a few years ago. Nor, in all the years I have been writing about smoking bans, has any antismoking busybody ever attempted to contact me and ask me any questions about my experience as a smoker (although they know I exist). They are not interested. And therefore they remain ignorant. And they don’t know what they’re doing.
Unfortunately, the world is full of such busybodies who have no idea what they’re doing, but are quite sure that Something Must Be Done. It would have been better if they’d done nothing at all.