The Perils of Genius (and the virtue of good parenting)

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Albert Einstein was undoubtedly a genius in the field of theoretical physics. His General Theory of Relativity is one of the two pillars of modern physics and has led to astonishing technological advancement in human societies. For a scientist Einstein became incredibly famous, which no doubt did much to popularise science in general. From a book about his famous equation I learned that he was inclined to periods of thinking or imagining (these would later become known as “thought experiments”) that would last several hours, during which time he would just be sitting and looking out of a window.

Ever since I was a teenager I have greatly admired Albert Einstein. His relentless curiosity and passion for understanding the nature of the universe I found compelling and inspiring. There are so many delightful quotes attributed to Einstein, covering various topics, that convey some profound truth, and often reveal a delightful sense of humour, that I started to idolize him somewhat. Such was Einstein’s wisdom and insightfulness that it seemed to me that he knew the answer to practically everything. Of course, eventually I realised that he like every human being has limitations, inconsistencies and makes mistakes.

Having genius in one particular field of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. It’s sometimes easy for exceptionally clever people to make the mistake of believing that their genius is simply transferrable to other areas of knowledge and bound to produce equally successful outcomes. Albert Einstein, unfortunately, did fall into this trap when he attempted to apply his brilliant mind to the problem of how society should be organised. According to Einstein: The life and Times by Ronald W. Clark:

“Einstein offered to and was called on to give judgments and opinions on matters often unrelated to theoretical physics or mathematics.”

Indeed Einstein went as far as writing an essay entitled “Why Socialism?” in the 1949 issue of socialist journal the Monthly Review. In this essay he set out his belief in the virtue of a planned economy:

“I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

The mistake Einstein made in writing this essay was in thinking that he could use his genius in theoretical physics to find the answer to a complex economic problem. Imagine how Einstein would have reacted if a carpenter had approached him saying that he had come up with a superior theory of relativity, but hasn’t “done the maths” because they didn’t think it was important. Einstein would surely have said “are you mad?”.

In 1922 economist and fellow German Ludwig von Mises wrote ‘Socialism: an economic and sociological analysis’ and quietly proved that economic calculation would be impossible in a socialist society; and therefore that the planned economy was utterly infeasible and unrealisable. Eighteen years later in 1940 he published his magnum opus, a book entitled ‘Human Action’, which has been described as the “largest and most scientific defense of human freedom”. It was first published in German and then in English nine years later.

I think it’s reasonable to assume that Einstein would have changed his convictions on a planned economy accordingly had he studied the works of Mises. At the very least, I’m sure Einstein would have recognised Mises’ genius in the field of praxeology (the logic of human action), and respected his life-long dedication to a cause close to Einstein’s heart: human liberty.

Mises, one of the least-known but greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, proved that economic calculation is impossible when there is no market and therefore no prices for the means of production. Even if central planners could ‘borrow’ prices from markets in capitalist economies elsewhere in the world to base their calculations on doing so would leave them in the inescapably contradictory position of implicitly accepting the economic necessity of private ownership of the means of production in order to explicitly deny it by attempting to manifest a planned economy.

When Einstein said “the means of production are owned by society” he seemed not to comprehend that this is already achieved through markets (i.e. capitalism) because society is a collection of individuals, and furthermore that they are already “distributed in a planned fashion” just as he desires by markets; that is by entrepreneurs whose plans are based on price signals, which are the most accurate way of knowing the current demand for and value placed upon any given resource, product or service. Also, production is adjusted according to the needs of the community, as Einstein thought only a planned economy could, by markets – by way of profits and losses. Profits result from correctly adjudging society’s demand for and valuation of some goods, product or service, and losses result from the failure to do so. Persistent losses result in bankruptcy, then liquidation of assets and subsequent redirection of the resources that were being used up to some other area of the economy where they are needed most.

What Einstein actually meant by what he said, whether he realised it himself or not, was that the means of production should be owned by a group elected representatives of society and distributed according to their plans. That’s the cold, hard reality of socialism and centrally planned economies.

Given that Einstein once said “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind” I think it’s reasonable to assume that he envisaged a global planned economy, socialism on a global scale in a world without nations, empires and especially war – something which he as a pacifist publicly condemned in no uncertain terms.

“He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action. It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.”

However, as we’ve already established, economic calculation would be impossible in a world where no market economies existed; and so such a system, if it could even be established in the first place and for long, would inevitably result in the impoverishment and starvation of great swathes of humanity.

One of my favourite Albert Einstein quotes is: “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Unfortunately the great man failed to heed his own wisdom in relation to his belief in socialism and a planned economy; for the principle at the very core of such an idea is ‘do as your leaders say or else”, which is a way of organising communities and distributing resources that has been used by Man since prehistoric times.

At the height of his fame I suspect Einstein was asked for his opinion much more often than he offered it. He wasn’t much of a talker or people-person after all (he didn’t speak a word until the age of two). No doubt he was flattered, as anyone would be, that so many people wanted to know what he thought about this, that or the other. I don’t think any less of Albert Einstein as a result of his conviction in the virtue of a planned economy, but finding out about it enabled me to shrink the Einstein in my mind down to size – human size.

Einstein’s place in history is assured and rightfully so, but I think his parents also deserve to be admired and remembered. Pauline and Hermann, by all accounts, nurtured and loved him for who he was, even though is “oddness” and strong introversion caused them to worry that there might be something wrong. Instead of trying to ‘fix’ him or ‘correct’ his behavior using forceful methods they loved him unconditionally. Here’s a heart-warming account of a moment between Albert and his father from the book ‘On a Beam of Light: The Story of Albert Einstein:

“One day, when Albert was sick in bed, his father brought him a compass — a small round case with a magnetic needle inside. No matter which way Albert turned the compass, the needle always pointed north, as if held by an invisible hand. Albert was so amazed his body trembled.

Suddenly, he knew there were mysteries in the world — hidden and silent, unknown and unseen. He wanted, more than anything, to understand those mysteries.”

It never seemed to occur to Einstein that it might be odd, wrong, silly or pointless to wander about town (sans socks and eating ice cream) pondering the mysterious forces in the universe that the compass had hinted at because his parents never told him it was; or revealed to him in their behavior that they believed it was. His teachers did admonish him for his behavior, but thankfully they didn’t succeed in convincing him that conforming was better than being curious.

How wonderful that the most important and influencial people in his life, his parents, didn’t discourage Einstein in childhood or in later life from doing what made his eyes light up with excitement, however odd, fruitless or impractical it may have seemed to them. Now that’s parenting.

With different, more usual parents Einstein may well have had his curiosity snuffed out at an early age and the world would have been bequeathed just Albert Einstein the patent clerk, and not Albert Einstein the man who revealed the true nature of time and space. So, for me, Albert Einstein is not just a story of genius and the dangers that can go with it, but also one of the virtue of peaceful parenting.

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