A Pareto curve

As a general rule, I like to avoid two kinds of people: fascists, and anti-fascists. Both will have programmes for human improvement. At least, keep either away from power. Of course, it would help if we had some intelligible idea of what fascism might be. If anyone has one, he is keeping it to himself. The term is now flung casually about. It is meant to smear anyone it touches. It is tossed like mud. This is because it is mud, and I won’t say pure, because according to my definition of it, mud cannot be pure. As for “fascist,” my generous definition will be, any dirigiste seeking power.

I imbibed, young, some of the thinking of Vilfredo Pareto, while trying to understand how “society” works. This is the man who invented the “80/20” rule, which I prefer to call the “rule of thumb.” Into his hidey-hole in Switzerland, towards the end of the 19th century, Pareto gathered statistics on the distribution of wealth, from anywhere, going back through the five centuries before. He noticed a recurring pattern. Twenty percent of the people own eighty percent of the land, everywhere and always. Other inequalities of wealth follow logarithmic pattern. This wasn’t entirely true, but by the time his critics had the upper hand, Pareto was dead and safe from their revenge.

Nature works in certain ways. She isn’t much interested in human equality. Her laws cannot be successfully altered. Pareto trashed the utilitarian principle — “the greatest good for the greatest number” — proposing an alternative “optimality.” He also trashed democracy, liberalism, and several other forms of economic brigandage.

His (unfortunately) enduring accomplishment was the mathematization of sociology, economics, and all other disciplines which had once been moral sciences. I would have been happier to stop at the observation that the distribution of fingers to thumbs tends to the ratio 4:1 (not always, but almost so), and to agree with Pareto (a “free market” phanatic) that any statist, Procrustean plan to make them equal is unlikely to end well. Why don’t we accept reality, instead?

Approximately five books could be inserted between that last remark, and this next one:

Let us compare Donald Trump to Benito Mussolini. The comparison works better than one might expect. Both want the trains to run on time. Both are total pragmatists when it comes to making this happen. Both realize that “pure” socialism cannot work, ever. Both then think: surely dirigiste something. Mussolini swoons to the siren song of Pareto, actually attending his classes in economics at Lausanne. Trump forms his Pareto view of unions in the New York City real estate market. The ideal of unobstructed economic growth is shared. The application of a sledgehammer to perceived obstructions is also in common. Where both deviate sharply from Pareto is in their further fondness for unobstructed nationalism.

Now, Mussolini is reputed to be a Fascist. This seems fair, for he invented the term, as a party label for his masterplan to Make Italy Great Again. Yet, insofar as the term is used more broadly, to convey the centralized application of sledgehammer reforms, he was also an anti-fascist. It is a little-remembered fact that Mussolini was a deadly enemy of inefficient bureaucracies. (I myself much prefer them to efficient bureaucracies.)

By descent from Pareto, it could be said, both Trump and Mussolini acquired an obsession with numbers. All efforts are focused on making the national statistics move the right way. In material terms, this works for a while. Everyone in the 1930s, including all progressive politicians, thought Mussolini’s Italy an economic and social success story. Superficially it was: productivity up, unemployment down, and so forth.

But here I will stop my provocation, with a reminder that history never repeats itself. Only the laugh track is on a perpetual loop.