A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Why MRAs should avoid Julian Assange

In the news: "Pamela Anderson to campaign for men falsely accused of rape - inspired by Julian Assange friendship."

First, let me be clear. Men's Rights Activists (MRA) have a reasonable case to make: when couples divorce, women automatically get a presumption in favour of keeping children. It's commonly claimed that men who get raped struggle to be taken seriously, I haven't looked into this but it seems very plausible. Women are able to abort unwanted children regardless of what the father wants, fathers are not able to abrogate responsibility for children they do not wish to bring into the world. Men get consistently longer sentences than women for the same crime (one of my troll positions is that in fact women should face longer sentences than men). etc etc. The Red Pill doesn't come from nothing.

That said, there is plenty of genuine misogyny within the MRA movement. Moreover, it's easy to form a false narrative of being oppressed ("In fifteen or twenty years the black man will have the whip hand over the white man in this country,") or to generalise from particular bad experiences with women to claims about all women.

An ideal MRA movement, then, would in some areas work with feminists - working to disestablish certain social presumptions about gender roles, for example - and in other areas serve as a corrective to feminism that has gone astray (such as the various universities in the US which are expelling male students merely for being accused of rape, regardless of the evidence). The worrying alternative is that, just as popularised neo-reaction abandoned all intellectual nuance and became identity politics for whites, a more mainstream MRA movement would simply be identity politics for men. I think there is less risk of this than there was with white identity politics, and almost no danger of it becoming electorally significant: most men have at least some inkling that open and extreme misogyny is not great for their prospects with women, and the ones who don't realise this (or for whom misogyny is no obstacle to sexual success) are not generally enthusiastic or regular voters.

But even so - the way in which a movement is founded and popularised matter, both for public perception and for internal culture. That's why I'm deeply concerned about Julian Assange, however innocent of rape he may be, becoming any kind of cause celebré for MRAs. Wikileaks' associations with Russia and the nativist right are deeply distasteful, and risk contaminating the movement for years to come. I don't know the best way to cultivate a stronger movement, but embracing Assange most certainly isn't it.

A Plea For Bullshit

I've been toying with the idea of creating a new academic discipline or field of study. The purely evil (or at best selfish) reasons for this are:

The basic plan is pretty simple: come up with a new field that is not immediately obviously bullshit (in Cohen's sense). Write a bunch of essays advocating different perspectives on it. Publish these online as a "journal", with most of the essays attributed to pseudonyms. Publicise it, inviting submissions to a second volume of the journal. Occasionally actually produce another volume.

Here, then, are some ideas for what this new discipline could be. I have not checked to see whether or not these are already being studied. Some of them I know to be discussed in places, but are not (so far as I am aware) fully fledged disciplines.

Numerical Mereology
Philosophers have devoted great energy to whether or not numbers exist, but relatively little to their internal structure. Russell and Whitehead defined numbers in terms of sets, but one can imagine a whole range of answers. Perhaps numbers consist of smaller numbers - but which smaller numbers? All of them? Their factors? Their prime factors? Perhaps they just exist, and have no parts. And does the same number exist in one way that is instantiated in many places, or should we adopt a "trope theory" of numbers according to which each number exists separately in each of its instantiations?

Example arguments: "Any account of numbers ought to shed light on what it means for one thing to be 'more than' or 'larger than' another. The best explanation is that numbers contain all smaller numbers; without this presumption, there is no way to explain the fact that 7 is strictly bigger than 5."
"If numbers consist of all smaller numbers plus the successor relation, it is hard to see what most of the numbers are doing. Allowing numbers to consist of their prime factors clearly explains why each component is crucial to the identity of the greater number."

Epistemology and Metaphysics of the Paranormal
Some people claim that ghosts don't exist. I would suggest we need to have a firm handle on exactly what ghosts are before we can make that kind of judgement. One might argue for:
  (a) reductionism: the paranormal is misnamed, and many paraphenomena can be explained in the terms of ordinary physics
  (b) the paranormal stands in contradiction to ordinary physics, and therefore
     (b1) there are no paraphenomena
     (b2) we should revise our beliefs about physics
     (b3) the laws of the universe are dialethic and contradictions are realised in the actual world
  (c) paraphenomena and physics are neither complementary nor in contradiction, they describe different aspects of the universe

Normative Architecture of Cosmology
Cosmology studies how the universe works. NAC studies the considerations going into the design of new universes.

Study of Autoethnography
Autoethnography has come in for a lot of stick, but very little in formal venues or in a clearly argued format. We would invite practitioners, defenders, and critics of autoethnology to engage on the ethical and methodological issues surrounding both the production of and the response to autoethnographies. In what ways does one's location within a situation give one special insights into that situation? If these insights can only be directly perceived from within a situation, how far can they be communicated to and understood by people outside the situation?

What makes something normal? Is there a property of "normalness" in which normal things participate? Or is normalness to be reduced to other properties? Why indeed should we suppose that "normality" is the default, rather than taking heterogeneity as the default and normality as something to be explained? Studying this would hopefully grant important insights into related issues, such as what makes something "transgressive".

The study of studying. What is to study something? What makes a particular enquiry legitimate? (Should we study things with potentially harmful implications?) Is there a unity between the "correct" methods of inquiry in different fields of study, or is the correct method of study relative to a particular discipline?

Sunday, 14 May 2017

How Have My Political Views Changed Over Time?

I sometimes wonder if I'm too locked into my political ideology. I have been a libertarian of some sort basically as long as I've known what the word means, i.e. about seven years. However, in that time my views on various individual issues have changed; hopefully this means that the fear in my first sentence is not too accurate?

In any case, here is a set of notes I came up with when trying to work out how my views have changed. The four big driving forces between the changes have been:

-I became much less confident in the possibility of "moral truth", which (a) reduced my commitment to making everything fully consistent and (b) made me more sanguine about advancing political positions on aesthetic grounds. (This is quite possibly a negative development; that said, it made it easier to be honest about my real motivations for some policies, e.g. monarchism).

-aged 18, I was a committed Christian and so if I were to hold a belief about politics, either it had to be consistent with Biblical teachings or I had to twist my understanding of the Bible to fit my political leanings. (I remember being very upset when I read Exodus 3:22, which seemed like a blatant endorsement of theft). Between October 2013 and April 2014, I became convinced that Christianity is false.

-in Sixth Form and the first year of undergrad, I knew no other libertarians and the closest I could find to people who agreed with me were a couple of socially-liberal Tories; during the second-year of undergrad I got to know Sam Dumitriu, who eventually got me to start using Twitter, with the result that I quickly fell in with the #MCx crowd. We are all influenced by the people we talk to, partly because of honest intellectual influence but mostly because of a desire to fit in and look cool; hence my move to "neoliberalism" over "libertarianism".

-partly due to my loss of faith in deontological libertarian moral realism and partly due to people on Twitter - most obviously Sam Bowman and Ben Southwood - I became much more utilitarian. It's hard to date this exactly, but I particularly remember one afternoon of summer 2016 spent walking in County Kerry with my dad, when I concluded that either one took the Enlightenment seriously or one didn't' If one didn't, then what resulted was a tribalist, emotivist politics that was honest, if barbaric. If one took the Enlightenment seriously, then either one concluded that other people matter - in which case, why not go all the way to utilitarianism? - or only oneself matters, in which case ethical egoism results. Concepts like citizenship are attempts to maintain the visceral emotional appeal of pre-enlightenment politics in a post-Enlightenment context, but I think this attempt is ultimately dishonest. Emotional appeal ought to be abstracted as far as possible (which is not the same as removed!) from a political system based on reason. I've moved away from this somewhat since, but remain basically utilitarian.

With that overly long explanation out of the way, a list of fifteen ways in which my views have changed (still in note format but with some explanatory links added, I'm not going to tidy this up):

-used to consider anarchism to be the moral ideal towards which we should aim. Circa 2014 concluded that it was probably both viable and better than status quo, but minarchism to be preferred as a way of controlling negative externalities. Nowadays (since early 2017) suspect it may be unstable due to people's tribal instincts - though still would like to see it tried!

Given the supposition of a government:

1-used to advocate "liquid democracy". Now heavily opposed to anything approaching direct democracy, and would advocate for UK and other major liberal powers to be less democratic on the margin. Had a period of extreme scepticism of democracy due to Jason Brennan (circa early 2013-late 2016 or early 2017); now think it has important instrumental-expressive purposes in maintaining public order.

2-used to be uneasy about redistribution in principle, but would tolerate sufficientarianism. Now at peace with the principle of redistribution, though heavily concerned about *how* it is implemented. Partly due to Joseph Heath (ctrl-f "risk-pooling"), partly due to becoming more neoliberal/utilitarian, which is probably more due to the people I talk with than due to any particular argument. (Took a long time, but roughly late 2013-mid 2016)

3-used to be heavily opposed to military interventions. Now cautiously in favour, largely due to the influence of Mugwump. (still in flux)

4-used to be heavily concerned about tax rates. Still think they matter, but no longer consider them the highest priority. Always thought *how* we taxed matters, though have a more sophisticated understanding of taxation theory than I did back then. Used to advocate negative income tax; now prefer progressive consumption tax.

5-realised free trade is about much more than tariffs and quotas - free trade agreements serve a genuinely valuable purpose. Relatedly, was eurosceptic; switched to being pro-EU around late 2014, as a result of debate preceding the referendum became vastly more pro-EU. (Possibly also related to change in self-image due to living in Hungary for two years).

6-was unconcerned about fertility. Now consider it a top priority, mostly due to Nancy Folbre though partly due to combination of Parfit/Cowen on discounting the future with my own work opposing antinatalism. (early 2015-present)

7-used to assume that Austrian goldbuggery was sensible. (How embarrassing!) Have given up having strongly held views on monetary policy, though Scott Sumner is fairly persuasive. (change around early 2013 - mid 2015?)

8-as natural-rights libertarian, assumed there was a definite answer to whether or not intellectual property was valid, leaned towards not. Nowadays take a much more utilitarian view, thinking that in purely instrumental terms there should probably be some but less than we currently have.

9-was pro-open-borders. Now merely think we should have open borders for citizens of other liberal democracies, and higher but not unlimited immigration from less liberal countries. Didn't care about integration, seeing it as a service provided by host country to people who should be quite happy to reap the benefits of moving to a richer country; now see integration as an act of self-defence. (2016?)

10-thought we should tolerate more terrorism. Still think it's greatly overrated as a threat, but think that (a) preventing people from overreacting is intractable, and (b) costs of anti-terrorism much smaller than I thought back then.

11-struggled to find a reason to be monarchist while still being anarchist. Now I'm (a) less of a moral realist so happier to advocate political institutions on aesthetic grounds, (b) equipped with evidence that Habsburgs were good for Mitteleuropa.

12-was heavily opposed to existence of national debt. Now think morality of national debt dependent upon other institutions, in particular with how much we do to encourage fertility. (2015-early 2017, especially more recently with my work opposing anti-natalism: I came to think that we ought to subsidise procreation, but it seemed fair that the people benefitting by being born ought to bear the cost of subsidies)

13-felt reasonably comfortable with Conservative Party. Also thought UKIP were alright. Think Tories and Labour worse than they were back then, probably happier with Lib Dems than I was. (this probably more due to changes in the parties than changes in my own views, however)

14-thought strong governments (and consequently FPTP) were hugely important. Don't think I had any good reason for this belief. Now hold no strong opinions on this beyond "it depends". (Don't know when this changed, but probably not before 2011 AV+ referendum)

15-now advocate returning the Elgin Marbles. Felt awkward about this in much the same way as the monarchy insofar as I thought about it at all; this Ed West tweet convinced me that they ought, so long as Greece can look after them (which it admittedly might not be able to given the current economic situation), that they ought to be returned ASAP. (This is perhaps the only change in my views which happened in a single moment rather than over time).

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Scientology-Shaped Hole in our Hearts

There's an argument sometimes made for the existence of God, known as the "God-shaped Hole" argument. The basic idea is that our lives are often unfulfilling, that this un-fulfilling-ness ceases to be for those who place their trust in God, and that this constitutes evidence for the existence of said God.

This argument is most commonly advanced by Christians. However, I feel that taking this argument seriously entails taking it not just as evidence for a God in general, but more specifically for the God - or broadly religious doctrine - who is most effective at giving our lives meaning and satisfaction. If YHWH is the most fulfilling deity to worship, then this is evidence for Allah. If the Hindu pantheon is most fulfilling, then the argument supports Hinduism. And so on.

So - what is the most fulfilling religion? Empirical measurement will be very difficult, because adherents of every religion wish to claim that their particular faith is the most fulfilling, so direct testimony will be unreliable.

An alternative would be to ask adherents of each religion how happy they are, without letting on that this has anythng to do with religion, and seeing which religion has the highest average. But religion co-varies with all sorts of other things - income, social class, education - that also affect happiness. Any such survey will be horrendously biased in favour of the religions chosen by people who are already doing well.

Perhaps, then, we could attempt to correct for these other influences by only looking at people from similar backgrounds who follow different religions. But this introduces its own bias - adopting a religion other than your native one often comes with its own set of costs, and moreover the people who convert will tend to already be psychologically different from those who do not. The average middle-class white British Muslim convert will be very different from the average middle-class white British Christian or atheist!

What we should do, then, is look at which religions most effectively use the tools of which we are aware for creating meaning and satisfaction in people's lives. If we were truly created by some deity, presumably we were designed with the true religion in mind (or vice versa); either way, the religious practice ought to be well-tuned to our usual psychology.

There are two particular psychological phenomena that come to mind as relevant: sunk costs, and the hedonic treadmill. First, sunk costs. People are extraordinarily reticent to abandon past investment, and so even when the rational thing is to cut and run, many people will throw bad money after good. Following the true religion, then, should be expected to involve significant cost to disciples. Given the multiplicity of human desires, we expect these costs to exist in a variety of areas - there should be financial costs, social and reputational costs, and (for the truth-seekers among us) intellectual costs in terms of blatantly stupid beliefs which one is nonetheless required to hold. ("Hath God not made foolish the wisdom of this world?")

Second, the true religion should pay attention to the hedonic treadmill. It is well-established that people are not fulfilled by what we may call "objective success", but rather become inured to their present situation. In order to be happy, it is less important that one achieve a high standard of living that that one's standard of living should improve over time. Similarly, the true religion should not present all doctrine and revelation at once, but rather should reveal it over time as one becomes more accustomed to the religion. Perhaps there is a progression of levels, each granting new deep truths, but each of which requires greater commitment and investment in the religion.

There is one religion which fits both of these criteria beautifully: the Church of Scientology. People who join end up paying vast amounts of money, being mocked horribly by outsiders and face being rejected as a credulous fool, and has to proclaim remarkable stories about the alien king Xenu. Greater payments of money grant access to deeper levels of doctrine, the details of which the Church at least tries to keep from outsiders.

In conclusion, there is a deep longing in all of our breasts for the comforting truth of Scientology. Dianetics is the true path to nirvana, and I urge you, brethren, to sign up today.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Should the UK #SpendTheSix?

Sabisky's campaign for the UK to #SpendTheSix - that is, to spend 6% of our GDP on the military - gained some mainstream coverage today when he presented a short film defending it for the Daily Politics show on BBC2. I've tweeted a few times about it before, generally positively, so I feel I should express my misgivings too. Hence this post, setting out in brief what I see as the best case for #SpendTheSix, and why it might be problematic.

Isn't this proposal utterly ridiculous?
It's bold and eccentric, but I don't think it's ridiculous. True, 6% is more than any other developed nation, in most cases by a long way - most European countries spend under 2%, the mighty US military consumes only 3.3% of the world's largest economy. Even Israel, threatened on several sides, spends only 5.4% of GDP on the military (although in less peaceful decades gone by, the figures was considerably higher).

But by historical standards, it's not at all unprecedented. Typical practice during the days of the old Empire, as best we can tell, was to spend around 7% of GDP on the military. True, back then Britain was exercising global influence if not dominance, whereas we can now hope to be at best a second-rate power. But the point is hopefully made: 6%, while high by peacetime standards, is not utterly ridiculous from a historical perspective.

What does this have to do with defending the United Kingdom and its interests?
I'll be honest: not a great deal. The UK faces no imminent danger of invasion by any foreign power, and protection of UK business abroad is a service to big business whose cost there is no particularly good reason for passing on to the taxpayer. Terrorism is a salient threat to the UK, but not a very dangerous one, representing a trifling number of domestic deaths each year. (Moreover, the stated aim of Jihadism in Europe is to separate European powers from the US, so it is at least plausible that a more isolationist UK would not suffer Islamic terrorism at all).

If you see the purpose of Her Majesty's Government as being the promotion of British interests, you should probably favour lower defence spending. I do not hold such a view however, being rather more cosmopolitan in my moral perspective.

So why should we #SpendTheSix?
There are two plausible reasons in favour. First, liberalism is an ideal worth fighting to defend and indeed spread. Forcing countries to be more peaceful and liberal is not oppressing them, as anti-colonial activists would claim: rather, it is preventing local elites from oppressing their fellow countrymen. Compelling Egypt by force to adopt liberalism would be no more an attack on Egyptian freedom and self-determination than preventing Serbians from killing Bosnians and Albanians (or at least trying to do so, and not very hard) was an attack on Yugoslavian freedom and self-determination.

Second, one can appeal to the importance of collective self-defence between the countries of NATO. Estonia and Latvia in particular are threatened by Russian expansionist nationalism, and our current best estimates are that, even with the NATO forces currently stationed in these countries, they would be overrun within a mere 36 hours. These countries cannot defend themselves, so it is our duty to aid them - which requires a larger defense budget.

Two other points fold into this. Firstly, the EU in general is very poorly equipped to handle a Russia that goes properly on the warpath: the only significant EU militaries are those of the UK and France. (On paper, the German army is numerically very large; however it is - and has been for many years - poorly funded, poorly supported among the public, and known for drunkenness more than competence). Given that the UK is currently in dire need of both goodwill and bargaining chips with the rest of the EU, pledging towards the military defence of the Balkan states is a genuine way in which UK interests may be served through higher military spending.

Secondly, if Russia actually does go on the warpath, we will very likely be spending rather more than 6% of GDP on the military. During WWI, UK defence spending peaked at around 47% of GDP; during WWII, it at one point exceeded 50%. I doubt we would go so high again, but it would not be at all astonishing to see perhaps 15-20% of GDP going to the fighting of a major war. Putin starting a war in the Balkans is unlikely, but genuinely possible, and it will be easier to mobilise properly if we already have a large and well-established military program.

Then what's the problem?
If, several centuries ago, you had asked me to make the case for Britain colonising various parts of the world, the argument I would have made would not be so very different from the arguments above. I would have stressed the need to spread liberalism, common law, and individual self-ownership across the world - in contrast to Napoleonic civil law, Chinese absolutism, and a whole host of tribal despotisms. This is not a modus tollens of the argument: the British Empire remains, among non-Britons, underrated. (Among Brits, it is of course vastly overrated).

But it should give us pause that despite the existence of people making such arguments - John Stuart Mill, Rudyard Kipling, arguably John Locke - the actual considerations which motivated it were self-interested, and practice reflected this. Cecil Rhodes talked a fine talk about how we were spreading civilisation and governing other peoples for their own good, and I daresay he believed it - the Rhodes Scholarship and his advocacy of the Cape to Cairo Railway are both pretty consistent with such a view - but do we really think that, in his heart of hearts, he passed the Glen Grey Act (which displaced numerous black farmers) or escalated the Second Boer War because he honestly thought it would be good for the natives? I don't think so.

Similarly, we can point to numerous figures back home, from a range of periods including the last decades of the Empire, who advocated deliberate maintenance of colonial poverty in order to enrich Britain. Britain does not bear sole responsibility for the continuation of grinding poverty in India - Gandhi and Nehru bear as much blame, if not more - but British imperialism in India is certainly nothing to be proud of.

Similarly, one can defend British militarism on universalistic grounds of the promotion of liberal democracy and peace and freedom and all that, and it's not that the argument is wrong. It's that in practice, there is a severe danger of providing intellectual cover for people who have thoroughly despicable goals in mind. Mill's defence of colonising barbarous peoples wasn't wrong, morally speaking, but it was deeply naive about the way in which colonialism was practiced.

This is not at all a knockdown argument. Firstly we are (I think?) more moral than we were 150 years ago, so one would expect a British military publicly justified by universalistic values to stick more closely to those values than did the military of the old Empire. Second, while the British Empire was in many ways an awful thing, it is far from clear that the world was left worse off for it: apart from the places which clearly benefited from it (e.g. Hong Kong), the years 1815-1914 were by historical standards remarkably peaceful. But one should not advocate such policies without at least some unease.

Also, why specifically six per cent?
No idea. Ask Sabisky.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Christiano's Renewed Defence of Democracy; or, Rule By The People For The People, Except Without The People

These are interesting times at CEU, but that did not prevent a public lecture by the famous political philosopher Thomas Christiano from going ahead. Christiano is perhaps the world's leading democratic theorist, having put more sustained thought and brainpower than anyone else alive into the defence of this ideal. His talk was specifically responding to a series of critiques made in recent years by Bryan Caplan, Jason Brennan, and Ilya Somin, all of whom argue that democracy is undermined by the poor quality of voters.

Christiano began by briefly setting out a key claim, difficult to dispute, that on a variety of metrics - economic growth, protection of human rights, avoidance of war - democratic nations have tended to enjoy greater success than alternative regimes. This is something that our social scientific theories ought to be able to explain.

He followed this by introducing Caplan's theory of the "rational irrationality" of voters. This theory emerged as a response to the "rational choice" theory of voting behaviour, which held that voters behave in their own interest - that is, voting for the parties and policies which stand to benefit them, as individuals, to the greatest extent. Caplan noted that this assumes voters already know which parties and policies best serve their interests, and pointed out that due to the vanishingly small chance that one's vote could ever change the outcome of a national election, the expected benefit of voting wisely could never exceed or even equal the costs of acquiring such knowledge. Indeed, from a rational choice standpoint, it is difficult to explain why one even takes the ten minutes to walk or drive to and from the polling station. So we have a morass of deeply uninformed voters, who are in no way suited to the task of choosing a government and its priorities. Caplan's argument is borne out by multiple surveys which find the average member of the public to be comically ignorant of fairly basic facts of day-to-day politics. If one cannot name the chancellor of the exchequer, what hope does one have when trying to assess complicated macroeconomic theories which do not even command agreement among experts?

Next, Christiano discussed Brennan's argument for how ideology corrupts our political judgements. Brennan provides three models of individual voters: "Hobbits", "Hooligans", and "Vulcans". Hobbits correspond largely to Caplan's picture of people with no clue of even the most trivial facts of politics; Hooligans are arguably worse, possessing some degree of political knowledge but also being highly ideological and more interested in ensuring the victory of their team than in seeking the best outcome overall. Vulcans, by comparison, consider all available evidence in a relatively impartial way, and contribute honest and valuable information to democratic decisions. A democracy of Vulcans might very well be a good system, Brennan says - but the world in which we live is one in which most people are hobbits, the overwhelming majority of the rest are hooligans, and Vulcans - if they even exist - are a microscopic minority. This is all backed up with social science to demonstrate that most people are as Brennan claims them to be. So while it might be nice to live in a world of Vulcans, Brennan says, that fact is that we do not - and our institutions ought to reflect this, in a way that universal democracy simply does not.

From here, Christiano said, Brennan, Caplan, and Somin - libertarians all - conclude that we ought to adopt alternative systems, with Brennan and Caplan suggesting the rule of experts and Somin suggesting a sharp reduction in the role the government is allowed to play in our lives. In particular, all three advocate a greater role for markets in decision-making.

I don't think this is really a fair characterisation of their positions. In fact, I would say it is an outright misrepresentation of Brennan's position. It is unfair on several counts:
-By "epistocracy" Brennan doesn't mean confining politics to the elites with no-one else able to break in. Rather, he has in mind tests of political knowledge, which one would be required to pass in order to vote.
-More fundamentally, Brennan does not actually advocate epistocracy! Rather, he suggests that it is a potentially-viable alternative to democracy, and that our institutions should not be built on the assumption that all citizens will behave as Vulcans. This is an understandable mistake, given Brennan's other writings; on the other hand, both he and Caplan are avowed anarcho-capitalists, so the only sense in which they can possibly be seen as supporting epistocracy is as an improvement over what we have rather than as an end goal.
-While they indeed believe that markets should play a greater role in our society, and believe (in line with the evidence showing that both social and economic liberalism correlate positively with both intelligence and with being politically informed) that the effects of a higher-quality voting population would be to give markets such a role, this is not (at least for Brennan) a core claim. The argument is that better voters would give a better set of political institutions, without any claims about what those institutions would necessarily be except as illustrations of how our current institutions are ludicrously sub-optimal.

Christiano then boils the debate to the following argument:

(1) Voters are subject to rational irrationality, ideology, and other such biases.
(2) If voters are subject to rational irrationality, ideology, and other such biases, then democracy will fail to work well.
(3) Democracy will not work well.

This, then, is the anti-democratic theorists' view in its simplest form, as a simple modus ponens. But, as he said at the beginning, the conclusion is false! Therefore, since the argument is valid, we know that something must be awry with at least one of the premises. Christiano suggests that Brennan et al overplay the evidence for (1), but does not wish to challenge it too much. The problem, he suggests, is therefore with the assumption that these various biases preclude voters from making good choices about who to vote for.

How can this be? To point towards a solution, Christiano attempts to turn his opponents own arguments against their views, by suggesting that the same problems which they attribute to democratic choice apply in the same way to ordinary decisions made within markets. There is then a dilemma for the anti-democratic theorists: either they admit that markets are just as flawed and so democracy may nevertheless be the best system we can get, or we identify some mechanisms by which individual ignorance can be translated into rational decisions.

There is undoubtedly some small truth to this. I have no idea how to repair a car, but this lack of knowledge on my part does not prevent me from hiring a mechanic - that is to say, from outsourcing the relevant expertise. I do not have the time to form opinions on an especially wide range of books, but I can outsource this to people whose comparative advantage lies in quickly reading and accurately assessing the merits of books.

So, Christiano suggests, such sources of information exist for politics. Moreover, they are often available at little or no cost, and include the following:
-newspapers and television
-political parties.
-friends and colleagues.
-many educated people need to understand political events for their work, and so understanding it for voting purposes comes at no marginal cost
-labour unions

One worry he admitted to this is that these institutions for informing people need "warning lights" for when they are failing to accurately transmit information. When one goes to a mechanic, it is usually quite clear whether the mechanic genuinely has their claimed skills, due to the success condition in which your car starts moving again (or passes its MOT, or whatever). It is not clear exactly what these are intended to be with regard to politics - The Guardian criticises Theresa May but as a left-wing paper they would say that, wouldn't they? And if one takes the criticism seriously, then without becoming something of an expert oneself, how can one establish whether or not the criticism is accurate?

One possibility, which I'm reading into him though not, I think, unreasonably, is for there to be legal requirements of neutrality or truthfulness applying to political broadcasters, as exist in the UK and Canada but not, infamously, the USA. The big worry with this, as Christiano notes, is that in principle democracy is rule by the people made on their own terms. Is it not contrary to this spirit to compel certain terms of discourse upon them?

OK, so that's Christiano's perspective, presented in what I think is a fairly reasonable and sympathetic way. I have a fair few criticisms, and will work up form smallest to largest.

First, his admittedly-only-a-hypothesis about the role of unions seems highly dubious. He suggested that the decline of unions made working-class populations vulnerable to demagoguery and so is responsible for the current malaise of "the US, the UK and France." But this just seems empirically ridiculous: first, demagoguery was just as potent a force in the days when union bosses would trip into Number Ten for beer and sandwiches. Second, Thatcher gutted the unions in the 80s: why did it then take more than thirty years for demagogues to come along for the working class vote? And finally, France suffering from not enough unions? Are you joking, or are you merely unaware that their transport systems are routinely shut down by disgruntled farmers, taxi-drivers, or whoever else is the angry industry of the day?

Second, I think Christiano overestimates the extent to which even intellectually demanding jobs require one to know about politics, and the extent to which such knowledge represents a very thin and impoverished of the infinitely complex reality. As an example: my dad works in estate and property management for the University of Birmingham, and had a great grievance with the EU that whenever he wished to outsource some work, anti-corruption legislation originating in Brussels required him - as an employee of an organisation recieving significant EU funding - to put it out to tender (including, of course, an expensive advert in a Brussels-based EU-approved journal) and placed certain restrictions upon who he could hire. As a result of this, such outsourcing decisions became vastly slower and vastly more expensive, since in the absence of such regulations he would simply have called up a handful of small local firms, asked for quotes, and gone with the cheapest who he thought could actually deliver at the price they gave. (Of course, the regulations require that he hire the cheapest firm, with the result than from time to time they will not manage to keep to the agreed price, and it is rare that this situation does not end up costing the university further money).

My dad has a deep knowledge of one particular aspect of the way the EU affects Britain. Does this equate to a knowledge, or even a reasonable idea, of what the EU is like as a whole? Of course not. (Incidentally, my dad was turned off by xenophobic messaging of the Leave campaign during the last few days before the referendum, and ended up abstaining; since the referendum, he has been quite enthusiastic about its result).

Third, and moving on to more serious criticisms: Christiano appears to go straight from the uncontroversial claim that democracy correlates with various desirable outcomes to the highly dubious claim that democracy works well, i.e. that it is causally responsible for these outcomes. I've seen a plausible case that democracies can enjoy lower borrowing costs, but otherwise this seems entirely to get the causal direction the wrong way round: countries liberalise economically, this creates a growing middle class, and so a demand for democracy. The economic success of the Asian Tigers is not to be explained in terms of their (anaemic) democracy but in terms of their liberal economic institutions. (And before one tries to argue that they have failed to respect human rights, (1) be careful you're not assuming your conclusion by taking democracy to be a human right, and (2) economic growth is highly underrated as a means to securing people's vital rights to food and shelter).

Fourth, Christiano seems to me to ignore, in an utterly irresponsible way, the quality of information being received. To quote him almost word-for-word: "In the US, I find that I agree with the values of the Democrat party... and this means that they can act as a way to distill complicated information to me." If I had not heard this from his own mouth, I would have assumed anyone attributing these words to him to be creating a strawman. Yet on the grounds that they share his goal of helping the poor more explicitly than their opponents, he is apparently willing on precious little further authority to commit to controversial views on a wide range of topics - the optimal minimum wage, the optimal response to global warming, the optimal level of US involvement in the Middle East...

Fifth, and to the extent that it succeeds most damningly, how different is what Christiano proposes from that which he opposes? If all were to vote the party line, we would have an esoteric epistocracy in which the relevant measure of knowledge would be "Are you a party leader?" It will not be this extreme, of course, with hopefully a range of alternative media sources. But insofar as his vision of democracy is parties telling voters what to think, and the voters consequently choosing parties to implement their policies - why not cut out the middleman, and let the social elites get on with ruling the country untrammelled by the inconvenience of needing to face election? (This, I should note, is the criticism in which I have least confidence).

Perhaps an argument could be made that voters don't really need the knowledge that Brennan thinks they do. More information is not always good, after all.  Apart from this, there are plausible cases for democracy which do not rely at all upon claims about its ability to make decisions. But Christiano's case for this is thoroughly unconvincing, to the point where I was inclined to wonder if his claims to know little of day-to-day politics were not, in fact, just modesty.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

No More Heroes

The name of Stephen Jay Gould is still widely cited as an authority on a wide variety of topics. In particular his book The Mismeasure of Man is currently fashionable as an antidote to Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein's The Bell Curve. I'm certain that I've heard him cited by an Oxford academic, and think though am less certain that I've heard him cited by one of my professors at CEU.

The problem is that, politically useful though his ideas may be, they range between the trivial, the utterly false, and the downright fraudulent. The most academically-weighty refutation of his claims is that of Arthur Jensen; the most sharply worded description of his crimes is Eliezer Yudkowsky's. Also, from the comments on that post:

  • He formed a reading group specifically to criticise E. O. Wilson's book, and published these criticisms; despite Wilson being 30 seconds' walk from where this group was held, he was never invited to come along to hear and respond to their counterarguments.
  • He fudged a historical dataset to support his conclusions in The Mismeasure of Man, then accused Samuel Morton, the long-dead creator of the dataset, of having himself manipulated the data. Reanalysis proved Morton innocent and Gould guilty.
Among those who know what they're talking about, he exists only as a punchbag (and, to be fair, the source of a couple of nice terms). But few among the wider population are aware that Gould was a fraud, and so he goes on, year after year, as the People's Expert on Intelligence.

Economics is understood by a larger proportion of the population than evolutionary biology, so John Kenneth Galbraith is no longer celebrated in the way that Gould is. In these days, after Friedman's great victories in the intellectual debates of the 60s and 70s, it is perhaps hard to imagine how economists were perceived in the 1950s. But back then, they were seen not as unhinged free marketeers (not that that's a fair description now, or even that it was for anything more than a short period in the 80s) but as some of the leading technocrats pulling us toward socialism. At their head were Paul Samuelson (who, since I'm not only mentioning him alongside Galbraith but also linking to a key error, I should clarify was a genuinely great academic who contributed crucial concepts to our understanding of economics, engaged seriously and honestly with those he disagreed with at a deep level, etc) and Galbraith. Although Galbraith fell out of what was regarded as economics, and is now read primarily by his son and by sociologists, the fact remains that as late as 2000 he was able to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom. (It's true that he didn't commit any academic crimes in the way that Gould did; his crimes were rather more mundane, like endorsing policies that killed millions of Indians, no biggie really).

These two men dominated the public discourse of their time, were widely respected, and have yet to receive the pissing-over that they both thoroughly deserve. This raises the question: who are today's Goulds?

One person who I unfortunately can't find now is an academic "researching" obesity, who served as a White House advisor, and was observed to have multiple "surveys" in which despite different numbers of letters being sent out, and some offering rewards for response and others not, there would always be the exact same number of responses.

An academic who is currently overrated, but nevertheless genuinely very good and worth reading, is Daniel Kahneman.