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The Libido for the Superficial

One of H.L. Mencken’s most famous essays is his 1927 piece “The Libido for the Ugly.” Traveling by train through western Pennsylvania, Mencken was appalled by what he regarded as the terribly unsightly buildings and houses that were visible from the tracks. Because the residents of this area were, by the standards of the day, reasonably well-paid American workers and businesspeople, Mencken refused to explain the ugliness as being the result of poverty. Mencken instead concluded that the people of that region simply had a taste for ugliness.

I offer no opinion on the accuracy or appropriateness of Mencken’s aesthetic judgment. Had I been on that same train with him, I might have shared his assessment. Or not. I have no way to know.

But I do believe that Mencken put his finger on a real, yet largely overlooked, phenomenon, namely, the role played in society by some individuals’ questionable tastes. When we observe in other people habits and proclivities that baffle or disturb us, the explanation is sometimes as simple as “That’s just what they like to do.”

I thought of Mencken’s essay recently when I heard on NPR a “report” that claimed that among the “contributors” to child poverty is the so-called “gender-pay gap.” Forget that what appears superficially to be a gender-pay gap is, in fact, a gap explained by differences in productivity, which is to say differences in pay are explained not by bigoted discrimination against women, but instead by healthy market forces that bring worker pay into close alignment with worker productivity. Instead, ask: why would such a pay gap contribute to child poverty?

The NPR “report” itself is surprisingly unhelpful at revealing an answer. I suspect that both the NPR reporter and the activist being interviewed both unthinkingly take for granted that because a disproportionately large number of American children living in poverty are in households headed by a single mother, if the “gender-pay gap” were closed, single working moms would earn more income and, thus, fewer children would be in poverty.

But this conclusion is superficial. Of course it’s true that if single working moms were to receive higher real incomes they’d have more resources for their children. Yet this “fact” is mere arithmetic; it tells us nothing interesting about reality. Why do a large number of single moms have meager work skills? Are there institutional barriers that prevent or discourage many women from acquiring more-remunerative work skills? And what are the likely consequences of government trying to close the gender-pay gap by diktat, say, by allowing “underpaid” women to sue employers for higher pay?

These are only some of the many substantive, interesting questions to ask about the poverty of children who live with single working moms. Yet no such questions are asked or answered in the NPR report, which as a result is nothing but superficial babbling. I conclude, therefore, that both the reporter and her interviewee have a strong preference for the superficial. Intelligent people without such a preference would not have babbled on as frivolously as they did.

Once the reality of a libido for the superficial is admitted, many phenomena are better understood.

It’s easy to understand, and excuse, intellectually unengaged people falling for protectionist fables. And there’s certainly no mystery as to why business executives and politicians often endorse protectionist policies: protective tariffs and subsidies swell the wallets and purses of the executives, and enhance the electoral prospects of the politicians. But it’s always baffled me that protectionism is championed by so many learned and intellectually active people who have nothing personally to gain from protectionism.

After all, the argument against protectionism is, as they say, not rocket science. Indeed, it can be grasped by a reasonably alert eighth grader: because the very essence of protectionist policies is to forcibly reduce the supplies of goods and services available in the home country, protectionism reduces the quantity of goods and services available, on average, for each citizen of the home country to consume. Protectionism makes people in the home country poorer than they would be otherwise.

Although the argument against protectionism is simple, some intellectual effort is required to understand the fact that imports do not increase overall unemployment in the home country. A few moments of cogitation are necessary to grasp the reality that imports are not gifts, but instead represent foreigners’ demands for our exports or to invest in our country. Some thought deeper than the surface must be made to understand that when we import more, we either export more, or we witness the capital stock of our country growing larger than otherwise, and both of these outcomes create jobs to offset the jobs that are “destroyed” by imports.

These additional thoughts about the employment consequences of international trade are hardly difficult. I wasn’t exaggerating when I wrote that this line of reasoning can be managed by an eighth grader. But apparently for many people it’s much more enjoyable to reason like a kindergartner. Tracing through the employment consequences of international trade requires digging a bit beneath the surface, a task that anyone with a libido for the superficial will, of course, resist doing. Such a person’s senses are gratified by his or her focusing exclusively on the superficial. The prospect of thinking about trade even a bit more deeply seems to such a person to be distasteful, probably in much the same way that eating a pizza topped with anchovies seems distasteful to someone who dislikes fish.

The task isn’t remotely difficult; it’s easily accomplished. But many people simply don’t wish to accomplish it.

Grasping the reality of a libido for the superficial makes the world much more comprehensible. Having now grasped this reality, I will be less surprised at encountering intelligent people arguing passionately that minimum-wage legislation is an unalloyed boon for poor workers, or that locavorism is good for both the environment and the economy. Likewise, I finally understand why so many advanced-degree-possessing intellectuals defend, and even praise, Nancy MacLean’s simplistic fictional account of the work and influence of my Nobel-laureate colleague, the late James Buchanan. Compared to embracing the truth about Buchanan, embracing instead MacLean’s cartoon version is so much more fun!

While I don’t understand having a libido for the superficial, I do now understand that many people do indeed have such a libido. And they cherish it. The reality of this libido is a fact of reality that must be taken as given in much the same way that we take as given the universal reality of gravity, or of cold weather in New England in winter. Just live with it.