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Hold Your Horses
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Hold Your Horses

A defense of preserving the status quo.

A carving of a Roman cavalryman Lucius Romanus. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images.)

Dear Reader (Except for Roger Stone who has other things on his mind),

I’m in a meandering mood, so don’t look for a lot of straight lines today.

Let’s start with a favorite story of mine.

In the early days of World War II, Britain struggled to get on a war footing. It had to scrounge old equipment—and the old men who remembered how to use it. They de-mothballed some light field artillery that dated all the way back to the Boer War, fought at the turn of the 20th century. It required a five-man crew, and they found some old vets who remembered the routine. Three seconds before firing the thing, two of the men would move to the side and snap to attention until all was silent again. But no one could remember why they did that. It seemed like useless movement and detail. They finally brought in an old artillery colonel. He watched the exercise for a bit, and then suddenly the memory came to him. “I have it. They are holding the horses.”

Until that moment, it didn’t occur to anyone because the artillery had been towed out by truck. But back in the old days, you had to hold your horses lest they get scared away by the boom. More on holding horses in a minute.

I first read about this story in one of my all-time favorite books, Robert Nisbet’s Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (I loved it so much, it was the primary inspiration for my book, The Tyranny of Cliches). “Persistence, fixity, and the clutching gratefully for habit and convention lie in all areas of thought and action,” Nisbet wrote.

You sure have a QWERTY mouth.

The story came to mind while I wasted an hour or so this morning, trying to correct a mistake.  I had Kevin Williamson on The Remnant the other day, and I foolishly brought up a hot controversy among a really tiny group of people 25 years ago: the QWERTY keyboard. (Look at the keyboard on the device you’re reading this on and you’ll see that the first five letters on the upper left are smudged with cigar ash. No, wait, that’s my keyboard. On your pristine device, you’ll see that those letters are Q, W, E, R, T, and Y. Hence: the QWERTY keyboard.)      

My mistake was not in bringing it up, but in not really remembering what the controversy was about. Since then, a bunch of people in my extended nerd network have been peppering me with reminders, papers, and even a little mockery.

So, very briefly, here’s the gist. In 1985, economic historian Paul David wrote a paper arguing that the QWERTY keyboard is a perfect example of technological “lock-in” and what economists call “path dependence.” According to David, the QWERTY keyboard is inferior, but thanks to good marketing and luck, it became the industry standard. I’d summarize his argument more, but the truth is David was wrong. The keyboard isn’t inferior. It was created to prevent the keys in old manual typewriters—the little hammers with letters on them—from locking up. Moreover, as Stan Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis demonstrated, the alleged superiority of August Dvorak’s keyboard is a myth propagated largely by Dvorak himself.

One could still say QWERTY is an example of path-dependence, since we still use it even though no one worries about mechanical typewriter keys locking up any more. But even that case is pretty weak because the QWERTY keyboard is good for ergonomic reasons as well.

But this didn’t stop a lot of people from running with the idea that the market often rewards inferior technology. This is a very important claim for people like Paul Krugman—who wrote a lot about the QWERTY keyboard as an example of market failure. Experts, planners, and technocrats can, in fact, be smarter than the market. Betamax was better than VHS! The Electric Mouse Exterminator is a better mousetrap! Market failure is real! All power to the planners!

About this mousetrap thing. I accept the reality of the better mousetrap fallacy. It turns out that the world won’t beat a path to your door if you build a better mousetrap. But that has less to do with market failure than a failure to market. Success requires capitalization for advertising, distribution, sales etc. Old-fashioned mousetraps may benefit from path dependence, but part of that path dependence stems from the fact that people know how to use them and that they’re really cheap in part because old-fashioned mousetrap makers have reached economies of scale. Besides, “better” is a subjective term. There are plenty of better cars than the one I have, but a lot of those better features don’t interest me very much, so they aren’t worth the steeper price. Lots of restaurants have made far better food than their competitors and gone out of business because customers value other things (location is probably more important than soufflé technique for a bistro’s bottom line). McDonald’s’ success has more to do with speed, convenience, and price than quality. 

Market failure? So what?

Now, I don’t want to keep writing about economic nerdery, but I should point out that even though the QWERTY example is wrong, I do think market failure, path dependence, and technological lock-in are real things, I just don’t think the conclusions people draw from this fact are necessarily right. Railroad gauges are a classic example of path dependence. The width between the gauges is not technologically or economically optimal, but we’re stuck with them.

Fine. Railroad gauges are “wrong.” What do you propose doing about it? If you can make the case that ripping out all the railroad tracks and refitting every train in the country will save money in the long run, I’m open to it. But if not, quit your bellyaching and let them lay there in their wrongness. Yeah, technological lock-in is a real thing. You know what else is real? Replacement costs.

But my bigger problem is with the suggestion that because the market sometimes rewards inferior technology the government can somehow do better at making these decisions. I’ve written a gazillion words in defense of the price mechanism and the glories of spontaneous order. Don’t make me tell you that no one knows how to make a pencil again! But as great as I think markets are at allocating capital, I don’t think I’ve ever said they’re perfect. The market allowed Fox to cancel Firefly, for fudge’s sake. I know the market can make mistakes.

There’s still the “and therefore what?” problem. Would I prefer a government agency to decide what TV shows networks should launch or cancel? Hell no. This is a useful point for the folks on the right who suddenly think the New Deal was awesome and conservatives should use government to design society the way they want it. But I’m done with the economic stuff for now.

Declaration of path dependence.

You know where I get the most utility out of these concepts? Everywhere else.

“Habit and convention are so native to human beings, as to every other organism,” Robert Nisbet writes, “because all behavior is purposive and adaptive. It is aimed at the solution of problems which beset the person or organization from the environment or from within.” If something works for you, particularly if it keeps you alive, you get attached to it. For a long time in human history, “we’ve always done it this way” was a pithy encapsulation of a survival strategy. This is because an enormous number of traditions and customs were discovered to “work”—or work, without scare quotes—before anybody had a rational explanation for why they worked. Kashrut (Kosherism) is about more than safe eating practices, but the fact that if you stuck to the rules you had a better chance of avoiding bowel-stewing diseases probably helped it take root.

Societies bound together by strong religious commitments survived better than ones that didn’t, all other things being equal. But that rational explanation for religion’s durability—one of many—doesn’t capture the full meaning or importance of religion.

In the world of business, markets, and economics—different things, by the way—there are enormous incentives to find better techniques, profitable savings, new products, etc. A businessman would have started from the presumption that the extra horse-holders were dead weight long before some bureaucrat or tradition-bound retired general would. “What are we paying those guys for?”

Politicians, particularly local politicians, may occasionally ask, “What are we paying those guys for?” But the answer can cover the waterfront: “They’re so-and-so’s nephews.” “The horse-holders’ union demanded it.” Cost efficiency and frugality with the public fisc are not necessarily the highest considerations.

Language—the root of vast swaths of culture—is shot through with path dependence. No one seems to be sure where or when the phrase “hold your horses” stuck—probably because it emerged dozens of times in different places because the need to grasp equines was common to many cultures. (It wouldn’t surprise me if “hold your camel” is a thing in Arabic cultures.) Homer uses “hold your horses!” in the Iliad because Antilochus is a terrible chariot driver. Others have pointed to the Erie Canal as the source of the phrase because barge drivers used tow horses to move cargo. Others point to China and the invention of gunpowder because loud booms scare horses.

The point is it makes little rational sense to still say “hold your horses” instead of “step on the brakes” or “calm down” except for one reason: It works. People who’ve never been near a horse know what you mean. And as far as I know, no one has come up with a stupid argument for why “hold your horses” is offensive or “problematic.”

Most people can guess why we say “hold your horses,” but plenty of phrases have achieved a steady orbit in our language even though the origin point is so far away we can’t see it anymore. “Hotshot” probably refers to a hot bullet after firing (not the heated ordinance from ships). “Over the top” comes from the trenches of World War I, not from football or Carrot Top’s comedic stylings. You might think “buttering up” someone with flattery is some sort of metaphor for what you do with toast or something, but it comes from India when people would throw balls of clarified butter at statues of their gods in search of their favor. “Turning a blind eye” comes from one-eyed Horatio Nelson, who deliberately held up a telescope to his eyepatch so he could ignore a signal to stop firing on the Danish.

We say these things because they do what we need them to do.

And we do things that don’t make strict rational sense—at least to some self-proclaimed champions of reason—because they work for us. Plus, we don’t necessarily have to know why they work for us. I recently had a great conversation with Richard Reeves about his excellent new book Of Boys and Men. We had some disagreements about marriage. He thinks civil partnerships are a serviceable replacement for formal marriage. I disagree, in part because I think there’s evidence that marriage is different from a mere agreement to divide labor and responsibilities. But I also disagree for reasons that are more immune to social scientific inquiry and rational basis tests. If Chesterton’s fence applies to any institution, I think marriage must be it. What I mean is, I can’t reduce my case for marriage to pure reason, even if I think reason is on my side.

Now, I could be wrong. Indeed, my case for marriage need not be the case against civil partnerships. Surely it’s better for single mothers to have some claim on the time, money, and attention of the fathers of their children, and if marriage isn’t possible, some other arrangement might still be desirable.

Regardless, I think one of the reasons our culture is so unsettled these days is that too many people think that offering some superficially plausible explanation for why this or that tradition, custom, or phrase needs to go is enough cause to tear it down. Many on the right these days think that rudeness is acceptable as long as it gets the job done and that good manners are a sign of weakness or misplaced fastidiousness. (The left went through a similar moment during the Bush years.) The same acidic thinking in some corners of the right has been applied to notions of good character and all sorts of other things, like the Constitution, democracy, and the free market.

But on the left, in some quarters, this approach has spun out of control. I’ve long complained about the role capital-P philosophical Pragmatism plays in progressivism. But say what you will about pragmatism—when practiced with any seriousness, it looks to reason, facts, and evidence. It may miss things not easily captured by reason, facts, and evidence—like the value of religion or marriage—but it’s an intellectually serious project. But what we’re seeing from some culture warriors on the left is neither pragmatic nor Pragmatic.

For instance, compared to many of my colleagues on the right, I’m a bit of a squish on transgender stuff. But even if I agreed entirely with transgender activists—I emphatically do not—I would still note that trying to erase or fundamentally transform both the concepts and biological reality of male, female, mother, etc. is wildly overheated and dangerous. “Woman” is not analogous to Chesterton’s fence. We know why we refer to women as women. Medical textbooks tell us one reason. Common sense and common experience tell us several others.

I’ve written about cultural path dependence many times and in many ways. One of my favorite examples is traffic lights. Making “red” mean stop wasn’t an arbitrary decision like railroad gauge widths. But even if it was, and even if you could convince me that we should have made “green” mean stop, it would be folly to change things now. Society has a huge interest in the status quo of traffic lights. Switching them would produce chaos and death. Announcing, almost overnight, that men can get pregnant and all that is the cultural equivalent of switching the color of traffic lights. And when you declare that anyone clinging to the old understandings is a bigot, you’re inviting a backlash far more harmful than the harms currently suffered by a handful of transgender people.

A little respect and humility for the cultural costs—replacement costs, sunk costs, etc.—of treating society like an Etch A Sketch is not merely prudent and not merely moral, but rational. Sometimes there’s a good reason to hold your horses.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I’m alone with the beasts this weekend. The Fair Jessica is visiting our daughter out West. They’re taking it well enough, though three’s a bit of a crowd in bed. This morning we had some drama when a golden retriever (probably a mix, since all goldens are sweet according to the legal department of Big Retriever), came running at us. It was on a leash, it’s just that the leash wasn’t attached to a human. Pippa was very concerned and ran behind me and Zoë. Zoë on the other hand was very excited by the prospect of “go time.” Fortunately, the impudent pupstart realized that it would be best if he stuck with verbal attacks and quickly ran away. Zoë is becoming less and less restrained in her demands to stick to timetables and protocols though. 

Pippa had to go to the vet last Sunday for a surgical consult. She’s still scheduled to have a (benign) tumor removed but probably not until January (the surgeon had very few openings). She’s in no discernable discomfort from it. Indeed, she remains determined to live her best life. On Tuesday, she did roll in some fetid, Stygian foulness—for research purposes, of course—and had to have an unscheduled bath. And Gracie remains the queen. 


And now, the weird stuff

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Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.