A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

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.

Friday, 22 April 2016

How Good Has Obama's Presidency Been?

Let's start by giving credit where it is due.

First: Obama has been a much better president than McCain would have been or than either Hilary or Trump will be.

Second: not rocking the boat is a highly under-appreciated achievement in politics.

Third: US politics is the most contentious and divisive it has been since the civil war, and while Obama hasn't visibly done much to fix this - and has arguably contributed to it - it is genuinely harder to achieve great things in politics than it has been in decades and centuries gone by.

With that said, I'll go over this list of "Obama's Top 10 Accomplishments - According to Obama".

10: A growing economy
It is definitely true that the US economy is stronger now that it was when he took charge. However, this is generally to be expected given that he was elected amid economic turmoil. By predicting a perfectly average recovery Bryan Caplan has won numerous bets, and by overseeing a perfectly average recovery Obama will pass on a healthy economic situation to his successor.

If I were more confident in my understanding of the situation, I'd compare the relative rates of recovery in 2009-10, when Democrats held all three branches of the federal government and were able to pass massive stimulus packages, to growth rates since 2011. I lack the requisite knowledge though, and in any case it's difficult to make this kind of comparison because you don't see the counterfactuals. Ultimately, I think this just falls into "not rocking the boat".

9: More Americans Getting Health Insurance Coverage
Obamacare was passed, and has survived various challenges at the Supreme Court. Let's take on face value his claims about how many people are now insured that weren't previously. Even so, Obamacare leaves a lot to be desired.

The single biggest problem in the US healthcare system is the way in which health insurance is tied to employment. This has its origins in the New Deal era when bosses were forbidden from competing on wages and so would attempt to attract workers with other working benefits, but continues to this day because income tax is charged on your wage - but not on your employer-provided healthcare. This has two major negative consequences: firstly, businesses buy one-size-fits-all healthcare packages for their employees, even when this is wildly inappropriate. Second, losing your job (because of a health condition?) tends to mean losing your insurance. Obamacare includes a band-aid for this latter problem, in that when you try to get a new policy you can't be charged more for having the condition which caused you to drop out of work, but overall it if anything reinforces the problem that health insurance is tied to employment.

There are smaller complaints we should have about Obamacare - for example, there is absolutely no reason why health insurance should cover contraception. The expense of contraception is entirely predictable and - more importantly - low variance, so requiring it to be included in employer-provided healthcare packages is wasteful (one-size-fits-all again) and creates easily-avoidable but expensive debates like the Hobby Lobby case.

I doubt American healthcare will be significantly worse after the ACA, perhaps it will be better. I don't know, and don't trust myself to judge fairly. But as reforms go, Obamacare is a remarkably sedate and unambitious one.

8: America's Global Leadership on Climate Change
There's been talk, there have been summits, there have been signed agreements. Wake me up when you have a global CO2 tax.

Sorry, that's an unfair and perhaps impossible expectation. But there have been lots of "commitments", both realistic and unrealistic. I'm going to judge results not by treaties signed but by actual reductions in CO2 emissions achieved. This is something we may be able to pass judgement on in a few years - the most recent figures I've seen are from 2011 - but in any case it wouldn't massively effect my assessment of Obama's presidency.

Quite simply, this is not something the US President has much power over. Obama may be the most powerful man on earth, but - despite what many European liberals might like to believe - he is not God.

7: US-Cuba relations
The opening up of trade and travel between the US and Cuba is indeed a great thing. Great for the US, but even more for the people of Cuba. Full credit here.

6: Iran Nuclear Deal
I have no idea how to assess how good this is, whether it would have happened anyway, or anything else relevant to this. Not being willing to spend the time to do the relevant research, I'll charitably assume it's good.

5: Standing Strong Against Terrorism
This is a very vague phrase. He is continuing to fight in the Middle East, although it's not clear whether that's a good thing. Domestic terrorism has continued to be a problem of extremely low significance but high salience; presumably were the Democrats in control of Congress he would be pushing some kind of gun control, but we can't assess presidents based on what they "might" have done.

4: The Trans-Pacific Partnership
Some of these claimed achievements I have avoided assessing because I have next to no knowledge about foreign policy. This policy I cannot assess because no-one knows what it actually is. In theory it's about securing free trade along with worker rights and environmental protection, as well as being a part of Obama's strategy to make friends with lots of countries near China. These are all laudable goals (although horrendous third-world sweatshops are highly underrated as an alternative to continued grinding poverty, which in practice is the alternative) but due to the secrecy surrounding the agreement, there's no way for me to have any idea how far it goes towards achieving these things.

3: Bipartisan education and budget deals
Well, the government "shut down" a couple of times in order for the budget deals to be achieved, and Obama - or more likely his underlings - deliberately made those shut-downs worse than they needed to be (for example: stopping people from using government websites, closing privately-operated national parks). I guess at least they may have improved health outcomes.

2: The legalisation of same-sex marriage
was indeed commanded by the Supreme Court, with not a finger to be lifted by Obama himself. Don't get we wrong, I'm very happy that same-sex couples are now able to get married - but the credit for this lies not with the president who eventually concluded that supporting it might not cost him votes, but rather with the activists who managed to take it to the Supreme Court - and win.

1: "The American People"
I have to quote this section in full so you can appreciate its utter vacuity:
"All of this progress is because of you -- because of workers rolling up their sleeves and getting the job done and entrepreneurs starting new businesses," Mr. Obama said Saturday. "Because of teachers and health workers and parents -- all of us taking care of each other. Because of our incredible men and women in uniform, serving to protect us all. Because, when we're united as Americans, there's nothing that we cannot do."
Um... well done, I guess? I have no idea what for, though...

Having looked at what Obama sees as his greatest achievements, we really ought to look at some of his failures. When you look up "Obama's greatest failures" articles online there tends to be a strong overlap with what are considered his greatest achievements (Obamacare, work on climate change, etc). I'm going to avoid discussing anything twice, but here are some things you might wish to criticise him for.

Failure to close Guantanamo Bay
It's true that he hasn't closed the base. But he has at least stopped anyone new being sent there, and given that he has limited political capital you can understand his decision to use it on other things.

Continuation of Bush-style militarism
He has surely been guilty of this. There was the cack-handed intervention in Libya (admittedly mostly the fault of Hilary Clinton), the bluster in Syria (where his reputation was saved, of all people, by Vladimir Putin), and the massive expansion of drone warfare.

I'm actually going to defend that last part. If you're going to war, then drones are a good way to do it. Sure there is significant collateral damage from drone strikes, but all war has collateral damage and drone warfare in fact has relatively little - I believe about one civilian per two combatants killed. Conventional wars typically involve around two civilian deaths for each single combatant death. Obviously all collateral damage is regrettable, but if you accept the case for war then you should accept the case for drones.

War on privacy and whistleblowers
The pursuit of whistleblowers - most famously Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden - has been one of the more worrying trends of Obama's administration. As has often been remarked, it stands in particularly stark contrast to the platform he campaigned on. It's hard to quantify the harm caused by his policies here, and he hasn't been obviously worse than Bush Jr, but this is a definite black mark on his presidency.

The difficulty in assessing presidents lies in the absence of an obvious benchmark. I am not a fan of the average Obama policy, but the fact remains that had he not been president then his position would have been occupied by John McCain or Hilary Clinton - neither of whom would have been any better as a safeguard of domestic liberties or as an advocate of the free market, but both of whom would have been vastly more inclined towards ill-conceived military adventures in the Arab world. The best case to be made for Obama is that his presidency has been one of retrenchment, of healing after the trauma of his predecessor.

Perhaps the one thing I feel most willing to say is that Obama has ultimately been inconsequential. The US of 2016 is not so very different from the US of 2008 - slightly wealthier, a fair bit more polarised and distrustful, slightly freer in some ways and slightly less free in others - but ultimately there have been no grand schemes, no ambitious triumphs or follies. Obamacare is talked about a lot, but it did not change in any fundamental way the workings of the US health insurance system in the way that single-payer or taxability of employer-provided healthcare would. There have been new interventions but no new invasions, and past invasions (along with their spawn, such as Guantanamo) are being slowly but surely wound up. In time, Obama will be remembered as the first black president of the US, and nothing more or less than that. There are worse legacies.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

A Conversation I'd Be Trying To Have Were I Back In The UK

Me: "The election of the anti-Semite Malia Bouattia leaves students of Jewish descent, such as myself, feely very threatened on university campuses. You need to stop harming us!"

Left-wing student politico: "I didn't know you were Jewish."

"Jewish descent. I got my genome sequenced by 23andme, turns out I'm 0.1% Ashkenazi."

"Oh, come on. That really isn't very Jewish. You're just playing victimhood politics here."

"Oh, so you admit to anti-semitism, but it's okay because I'm not a proper Jew?"

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Gettier on knowledge

In order to count as a Hungarian student, I have to pass exams as part of my degree. The format of these exams is that we have been given five possible questions for each subject, and will be randomly given one from each subject in the actual exams. For working towards these I am preparing answers to the questions, and this seems as good a place as any to store them. The answers I give in the exam will be largely the bog-standard-but-mildly-original replies necessary to score an A; however, when writing here I will express some of my more controversial philosophical beliefs.

What are the main points of Gettier's famous paper on justified belief and knowledge?

Edmund Gettier's 1963 paper Is Justified True Belief Knowledge begins by showing that there has historically been general agreement over what it means to know that P. The classical definition, beginning with Plato, holds that an agent X knows that P if and only if:

  1. X believes that P
  2. P is true
  3. X is justified in believing that P
Gettier's concern in his paper is to demonstrate that this definition of knowledge is inadequate, and in particular that there are cases of justified true belief which are not cases of knowledge. He provides two counterexamples to the standard account. In the first of these, two men - Smith and Jones - are both applying for a job. Smith believes that he has messed up his interview and that Jones will get the job; furthermore, he happens to know that Jones has ten coins in his pocket. From these he draws the conclusion that the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.

Smith has in fact done far better than he thought, and gets the job. As it so happens, he also has ten coins in his pocket. This means that:
  1. Smith believed that the man who would get the job had ten coins in his pocket
  2. It was true that the man who got the job had ten coins in his pocket
  3. Smith was justified in believing that the man who would get the job had ten coins in his pocket
All of the conditions of the classical definition of knowledge are met- yet intuitively this does not seem like a case of knowledge. This shows that justified true belief is not adequate to define our intuitive sense of what knowledge is.

There has been a great deal of work attempting to tighten up the definition of knowledge - requiring that one's belief be "not easily wrong" or "truth-tracking" or some similar. Personally I think we should just accept that "knowledge" is not a well-defined term, and while it serves purposes in everyday conversation these are less like "I have a JTB that P" but rather closer to "I strongly believe that P" or "I am indeed aware that P". The search for a definition of truth is part and parcel of the mistaken project of trying to obtain genuine certainty. This is an unrealistic and indeed impossible standard.