A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

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.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Raz on the Value of Democracy

Over the weekend CEU hosted a conference on "The Values of Liberal Democracies: Themes from the Political Philosophy of Joseph Raz". The keynote speech, given by Raz himself, was an attempt to articulate why he thinks democracy is such a good system. His answer? Because people think it is.

That's an oversimplified way of putting it. To slightly flesh out the argument:

  • People tend to believe that democracy is both necessary and sufficient for democracy.
  • Clearly democracy is not inherently just and legitimate: actual democracies contain and indeed rely upon many anti-democratic elements (e.g. independent, unelected judiciaries)
  • However, the combination of democracy and a belief in democracy's legitimacy allows us to achieve certain benefits, in particular relating to the stability of political institutions and the peacefulness of political transitions.
Although Raz did not draw out the political implications explicitly, he hinted at some and there are others which I think one can reasonably read into the argument:
  • Monarchy is not necessarily contrary to the values of democracy. (One might even argue that constitutional monarchies tend to be more stable than presidential democracies, although you might have trouble establishing the direction of causation there).
  • What I believe he was getting at: it doesn't really matter if supra-national institutions such as the EU and the UN aren't really very democratic. Most of the benefits of democracy are to be achieved at the national level, and in any case what we fundamentally want out of political institutions is not that they are democratic (though this may well be desirable) but that they work.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Towards a Realistic Cultural Canon

There are various lists of literary works that everyone ought to know. For obvious reasons these lists tend to be written by people who are themselves literary scholars. This is could because it allows them to be more comprehensive and to choose from a wider range of works, but it leads to lists that are utterly unrealistic for anyone who either has little spare time or who wants to be well-informed about other aspects of culture.

To this end, I think that there need to be some more limited lists which cut across different cultural mediums, combined with stretcher lists that allow people to focus solely on what interests them. The point is that I want there to be a basic list where you can consume everything on that list, remember large portions of that, and have this be sufficient to be considered cultured.

My thoughts are that a basic list might include works of literature, music, visual art, some films, and whatever else is considered vital. I'd be aiming to have the combined basic lists clock in at somewhere between 500 and 1000 hours when combined, so that given a modest investment of perhaps five hours per week one can finish the list in five years or so.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

When Can You Ask For Whom The Bell Tolls?

One can regard an event as being on-the-whole good without having a positive emotional reaction to it. Similarly, one can take enjoyment or satisfaction from something while acknowledging that it was on-the-whole bad. For example, some tribulations might be unpleasant but cause the sufferer to come out at the other end a better person; they might then have a negative emotional reaction to their pains while upon reflection endorsing the suffering.

It seems to me that this kind of distinction is what would be needed to defend the taboo against speaking ill of the recently deceased as anything more than an arbitrary social convention. We would say that while one might think that the death of Margaret Thatcher, or Hugo Chavez, or some such person was all-things-considered good (an argument which seems far easier to make about Chavez, given that at the time of Thatcher's death she had been out of power for almost 25 years), there is something wrong with having the emotional reaction of pleasure to the death of a fellow human being.