A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Links, June 2016

Considering that 90% of the sixth Harry Potter film was just about teenagers being frisky and hormonal, they could at least have done it the proper way: as a teen comedy.

The current Republican party is depressing for a number of reasons, including its positions on immigration. There was a better time, though: see this 1980 video of soon-to-be-POTUS Ronald Reagan and his soon-to-be-VPOTUS (and successor as POTUS) George H.W. Bush discussing illegal immigration.

Have you heard that "Happy Birthday" is under copyright, and can only be used in films at great expense? Turns out the copyright has been overturned! (Yes, this is old news. It was recent at the time I added it to my list of links, dammit!)

Despite its lack of Euro '16 coverage, FiveThirtyEight.com remains one of my very favourite websites. One of the reasons is its coverage of questions which are not only important, but with answers that are applicable to daily life. To wit: when should you turn up for a party?

Zilla Van Den Born's holiday to Thailand was unlike any other: it took place entirely in her flat, through the medium of Photoshop.

A review of Brighouse and Swift's Family Values, a book which argued that the imperative of social equality places strong limits upon what parents can do for their kids. The book, for me, exemplified two of the great malaises of modern political philosophy: attempting to provide essentially consequentialist grounds for essentially deontological concepts like non-legal rights, and armchair psychology presented as moral principles.
(Worryingly, these seem set to continue. I recently had a conversation with a PhD student working in this area, and trollishly suggested that egalitarian governments should intervene to encourage non-assortative mating. Obviously you can't force people to marry outside their social class, but if you can require military service why can't you require them to occasionally go on a date with someone they otherwise wouldn't? If you can subsidise marriage, why can't you give a higher subsidy to cross-class marriage? Her objection was that "it would require us to identify some people as the least attractive, and this would be harmful to their self-esteem." Presumably the collection and publication of income statistics is impermissibly harmful to the self-esteem of those on low incomes, and if some independently of the government were to come up with an objective measure of which people are least attractive then as an egalitarian this PhD would have had no further objections to my proposed measures. But I digress.)
In any case, the review is worth reading as a critique of the book on its own terms.

The Independent (to which, RIP): "Christians are the world's most persecuted people".
Salon (to which, please also die): "The Myth of Christian Persecution".
Sort yourself out, left-wing media complex!

A fascinating attempt to portray anti-suffragism as it was seen by sensible, liberal, anti-suffragists. The argument about maintaining a non-politicised sphere of society hits very close to me: people should be able to avoid politics, and the current fashion of right-ons for insisting that everyone vote is not only dangerous and misguided as a way of improving the world, but deeply depressing. If you are interested in politics and you follow one of these links, make it this one.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Burn of the Day

From Stuart Ritchie's review of The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee:

"This disappointing failure to grasp the genetic nettle can be illustrated by a quotation from Mukherjee’s section on IQ tests. ‘Is g [general intelligence] heritable? In a certain sense, yes.’ Alas, the ‘certain sense’ here really means ‘after much qualification’; in fact, after so much qualification that you’ll go away thinking the answer is actually ‘no’, and not worrying too much about it. So, in the same spirit: isThe Gene worth reading? In a certain sense, yes."

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Some Thoughts on Gawker, Hulk Hogan, and Privacy

We know from Wesley Hohfeld that one person's possession of a right implies duties on the part of others. My property right regarding a bike implies that everyone else has duties to let me use it how I so choose, and not to use it themselves unless I have given them permission.

People sometimes talk about a right to privacy. I'm inclined to disbelieve in such a right, on the grounds of the duties it must imply. Suppose I have a right to privacy concerning an affair I have had. That implies a duty on the part of other people not to talk about the affair. In other words, it's a limitation on other people's free speech. Unless they have promised not to talk about the affair, I would not believe in such a duty.

For this reason, my inclination in the recent Gawker vs. Hulk Hogan case is to support Gawker's right to publish the video. They ought not to have done so, sure, but we should be very concerned about the law acting to punish them for this. Not because Gawker itself is worthy of defending - it most certainly isn't - but because government overreach must always be stopped at the first hurdle, before it can become tyranny.

That said, I think there may be an actual case for Hogan here, relying not on a right to privacy but on sexual consent law. Consider that consent to a sexual act is generally not taken to apply merely to the commission of the act in question, but also to the way it is performed. Julian Assange is currently hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in order to dodge prosecution for rape; the claim is not that his alleged victim did not consent to sex, but that she did not consent to sex-without-a-condom. It used to be the case that women could sue men who promised them marriage, slept with them, and then abandoned them. A few years back, a man was imprisoned for rape by deception in Israel after it turned out he was not as Jewish as he had pretended to a woman before sleeping with her.

There are a variety of things which, if not revealed prior to sex, can cause any consent to the sex to become invalid. STIs are a familiar example; I would presume that being filmed is another. Hulk Hogan was not, I believe, aware that we was being filmed; it seems fair to assume that had he known that the resulting video would be made public, he would not have engaged in the sex act in question. This would imply that his sexual partner, and Gawker through their complicity, have engaged in rape.

"Rape" is a far-ranging term, of course, and not all rapes are equally bad. On a scale of one to ten, where Gilles de Rais is something around an 8 and Amnon somewhere in the region of 5-6, Hulk Hogan's story can't be worse than a 1.5. But there's definitely a case there.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The Shift from Polyamory to Monogamy

Today the following paper abstract has being going around Twitter:

The original paper, The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage by Henrich, Boyd, and Richerson, is here. I intend to read the paper in full, but before doing so I intend to write out my own theory of why there has been a transition from polyamory to monogamy. This theory is one I have held for a while, and which is probably not original to me, but I have not seen it made fully explicit anywhere. (It is heavily influenced, however, by my reading of Matt Ridley's The Red Queen). The general thrust of my argument is that household structures are for the most part chosen by individuals - and especially by women - in a way that seeks (roughly) to maximise their genetic footprint. The key changes which cause different choices to be made are essentially economic: hence the dominant cause for the move to monogamy is the industrial revolution and associated rise in the incomes of the general population.

What do women want?

Females of sexually reproducing species require a male contribution in order to pass on their genes to the next generation. The contribution of males can be neatly divided into two parts: the genes, and what we will call "paternal investment".

Genes make a contribution firstly in the obvious sense that reproduction is sexual. But it is also important to not that not all genes are created equal: some are more useful than others for passing on genes, in that these genes will lead to stronger, healthier offspring. If a female is able to assess which of two prospective mates will give her more vigorous young, then this is a strong reason for her to favour reproducing with that one.

Anything which is passed on genetically from parents to children is a potential source of assessment for males. Height is a good example of this: if it is advantageous for a woman to have tall children, then she will be more attracted to tall men.

Paternal investment represents a vast array of things a male might provide for a female in exchange for her bearing his young; what he offers varies massively according to species and environment. If the female will be vulnerable while raising his child he might offer her protection against predators; if the environment is harsh then he might supply her with food; in humans, a considerable part of paternal investment consists in emotional support for the mother.

How do these affect family structure?

The more important genes are to the choice of male partner,the more likely a species or society is to be polyamorous. Imagine a group of women are asked to vote on who, in their personal opinions, is the most attractive out of a group of men - none of the men or women ever having previously met each other. The women will come to their personal choices based on a variety of metrics - height, looks, intelligence, charisma - and while it is unlikely that they will unanimously agree on the most attractive men, it is unlikely that they will disagree wildly either. In species where genes are the only contribution of the male to his children, the average "family" consists of a man, his harem, and their children.

In many species, however, there is some measure of paternal investment. The nature of this investment will effect how far the species moves away from monogamy. In particular, investments which are difficult to provide for multiple females tend to push in a monogamous direction.

An investment which is relatively easy to provide for multiple females is protection. Species where the sole contribution of the male after conception is protection are typically not so different from those where the male contributes only genes. Examples of this include many mammals, such as lions.

Resources such as food are rather harder to provide for multiple females. Food provided to one mate is food which cannot be provided to another mate; hence environments in which food is scare are often conducive to monogamy. Indeed, in some extremely barren environments, where multiple men are needed to support a single woman, we have seen polyandry: wives having multiple husbands. To give you a preview, my claim will be that changes in the availability of food and other such resources are the key reason for societies moving from polyamory to monogamy.

The changing economic environment

Prior to industrialisation, famine was an ever-present threat. A bad harvest might kill all of your children. This meant that your wealth could have a very considerable impact upon your ability to raise children to maturity. Since a lord or king could be hundreds of times richer than an ordinary peasant, then, he could maintain hundreds or even thousands of times more wives or concubines. These men would maintain harems consisting not only of their wife but also of servants and "ladies-in-waiting" - and perhaps also, to some extent, the wives of the men around them. Ordinary peasant men might not marry at all, and if they did it would frequently be only once they had been earning for some years.

Then, between the late eighteen century and the mid twentieth century, there developed what we now refer to as the first world: the wealth of the average man shot up, and in the 1900s there emerged welfare states which defrayed many of the financial costs of raising children. It was no longer important for a woman to marry a rich man, so long as she married a man who was gainfully employed. The choice between men, then, would be made on a number of metrics: men with good genes would typically have the first pick of women, but even those with poor genes obtained a wife. Wealth did not cease to be important, but higher wealth would now get you a more attractive wife rather than getting you multiple wives. Furthermore, paternal investment could take non-monetary form: being an interesting person to be around, for example, might aid a man in obtaining a woman of his choice.

One prediction I will make based upon this theory is that, as women increasingly come to out-earn men in the workplace, paternal investment in general will become less of a factor. Consequently, genes will rise in relative importance, and so we will see an increase in polyamory.

Advantages of my theory

My theory has, as I see it, two big advantages over the theory of Henrich et al. First, I avoid postulating group selection. Second, I have an explanation for why polyamory used to exist. Going by the abstract, Henrich and his collaborators have an explanation for why monogamy emerged but not one for why it took until a relatively recent point in history to emerge instead of being the natural human condition. Or perhaps they do - I'll have to read the article and update based on that.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Ken Livingstone watches a kid's movie

I'm watching Shrek for the first time since I was about 9, and there are things about it which seem really different once you've read Seeing Like a State and such things. Lord Farquad orders that all "fairy-tale creatures" should be rounded up and quarantined. Back then I thought that this was a slightly humorous, slightly dystopian thing. Now it seems like a remarkably panglossian interpretation of state process of state formation. In the real world they wouldn't have confined Pinocchio. the Seven Dwarfs et al to a swamp, they'd have killed them. See for example the Holocaust, the Balkan wars of the 90s, US treatment of Native Americans (and in particular the disease blankets).

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Is Longer Better?

Having recently engaged in an assessment of Obama's presidency, I now turn to the horse for that particular cart: how should we actually go about assessing the greatness of historical figures, and in particular of heads of government? And in particular: how should the longevity of a person's term of office effect our assessment of their greatness?

Empirically, there is a fairly strong correlation between the term length of British Prime Ministers and their historical rankings as assessed by journalists for The Times: for the people on that page, the correlation coefficients between number of days as PM and ranking are -0.45 for Matthew Parris, -0.60 for Peter Riddell and -0.53 for Ben MacIntyre. (The rankings are such that 1 is best and 53 is worst; hence these numbers show that longer-lasting Prime Ministers were more positively assessed. I don't have p-values because after two hours of inputting data I really didn't feel like doing a whole new load of number crunching, and I can't see any easy way to find the p-value in Excel).

Now there are a couple of obvious ways to go about justifying this. First, if we are to assess leaders by their achievements then a longer tenure gives you more time to rack up achievements. I'm a bit sceptical of this, since (a) it also gives you more time to rack up failures, and (b) it doesn't take all that long to establish an impressive list of achievements. Churchill (unanimously ranked in first place by the Times journalists) is remembered almost entirely for his first term, during which he led Britain to victory in the Second World War; one could ignore his second term of four years without denting his position. David Lloyd George was Prime Minister for less than six years, yet is credited with winning the Great War and founding the welfare state. Peel lasted barely more than five years, but abolished the Corn Laws and established the first official Police. To be sure, longevity helps in this regard, but I suspect that diminishing marginal returns set in pretty quickly after the first five years.

A better argument would be that historians are likely to assess leaders on similar criteria as voters (or other people with the ability to topple a Premier). The better you perform, the more likely you are to continue surviving. Obviously there's considerable variation in this across parliaments - a US president can usually be unseated only every four years, the exceptions of course being Nixon and the four presidents who were assassinated, while Australian PMs can go from being unchallenged to being out of office in a matter of mere hours.

The question, then, becomes one of whether the criteria upon which leaders tend to be assessed are appropriate. This question is one I hope to return to.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Does Liberalism Require a Free Market?

There has recently appeared on Facebook what is still provisionally called the Young Liberals Society. It's a group of mostly students who advocate free speech and so far seems to be little more than a discussion forum combined with a coordinating post for anti-NUS activism. Within the group there has been talk of expanding it into something more, for which watch this space.

Part of increasing the scope of what the group covers is changing the way it describes itself. The group's current focus on student politics (or if you're feeling generous, opposition to student politics) reflects the fact that it emerged largely in response to what are seen as anti-democratic, authoritarian values which pervade the leadership of student unions. Since many people want it to be more than "just another student politics group" and instead a genuine base of advocacy for liberal enlightenment values, that requires a better picture of what we stand for as a group.

Some things are obvious. Free speech and religious tolerance are obviously crucial values. Other things are clearly things which the group takes no official position on - e.g. Brexit (an in-group poll was evenly split 25-25 with 8 votes for abstention) and the Monarchy (the members are overwhelmingly in favour of retaining a monarch as the UK head of state, with a poll going 49-12 with 5 abstentions). What about free markets?

There's a definite libertarian strain within the group. (This is how I was introduced to the group - someone I met at the ASI and IEA's Freedom Week added me to it). And the word "liberal" is in the name. So can we say that the group is pro-free market?

I would suggest probably not. Liberalism and the free market, I believe, go together very well but liberalism does not logically entail any kind of support for the free market. Historically, liberalism has tended to mean the combination of five ideas:

  • Individualism: Ultimately, what matters morally speaking is the individual. To the extent that we value anything above or below the individual person, it is because these things promote individual wellbeing and autonomy. Contrast collectivist views (e.g. fascism).
  • Voluntarism: Individuals are the best judges of what is best for them. Contrast paternalistic and theocratic views.
  • Naturalism: There is an objective and knowable way that the world really is. Contrast post-modernism.
  • Idealism: Ideas can change society. Contrast Marx, who thought that all aspects of society were determined by the level of economic development.
  • Moralism: There are knowable moral truths. Contrast post-modernism, for lack of a better-known punching bag.
Naturalism has some relevance to the burgeoning trans-war, but not to the society directly. Idealism and Moralism are pre-supposed by almost any group which aims to effect political change. I think that what the society is really concerned with are individualism and voluntarism. Individualism entails a commitment to increasing individual wellbeing; voluntarism implies that the best way to do this is through the promotion of individual freedom.

What is freedom? Or rather, what is the understanding of freedom which, upon sincere reflection, we would conclude is morally valuable? This debate has been going on since Two Concepts of Liberty, a lecture given by Isaiah Berlin in 1958. I'm going to sketch some of the positions that have been taken. These are not necessarily clearly separate from one another.
  1. Pure negative liberty. Freedom consists in not being prevented from achieving one's aims by another agent.
  2. Moralised negative liberty. Freedom consists in not having one's rights violated by another agent.
  3. Crude individual positive liberty. Freedom consists in being able to do things that one wants to do.
  4. Moralised individual positive liberty. Freedom consists in being able to do that which is right.
  5. Collective liberty. Freedom consists in taking part in a group which makes collective decisions, binding upon the members.
Different accounts are more popular with different groups. Nozickian libertarianism is essentially reliant upon (2); (5) has been used by everyone from Fascists to democratic theorists; (4) probably represents the closest there is to a consensus in academic political philosophy, albeit with a heavy dose of subjectivism about what is right. Personally I'm a bit closer to (3) than to (4), but the differences here are very abstract and not worth going into.

Liberalism, I would suggest, is completely at odds with (5). One cannot believe that individuals are the only source of value in this universe, then claim that they somehow become most truly themselves through political community with other people. But beyond that, all of (1) to (4) are potentially reasonable understandings of what it means to be a liberal. Do these definitions of liberty imply support for the free market?

(1) certainly does. If one does not take the market to be inherently unjust, (2) does also. There are reasons why libertarians like the free market beyond its consequences.

(3) and (4) are not so clear, however. Once we move beyond the question of "Is the free market simply the natural consequence of people being able to do what they like with their possessions?" to "Is the free market an effective way of allowing individuals to achieve good lives?" there becomes a lot more room for reasonable disagreement. Someone who denies that the answer to the first question is "yes" is fundamentally misunderstanding something. Someone who thinks there are systematic problems with the free market as a way of achieving individual flourishing is in my view empirically wrong, but the view seems conceptually coherent.

Of course, you don't necessarily need to think that only one conception of liberty is important. You can mix-and-match as much as you like, although it becomes harder to tell a story of how they all fit into the picture of morality.

Given this, I think that liberalism and support for the free market go together very well. But there is room to favour positive liberty, distrust the free market on empirical grounds, and therefore be an anti-capitalist of some sort.