A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Quote of the Day

"A policy of conciliation makes sense only if both sides take it seriously. In relation to communist power, whose political vocabulary lacks the word conciliation, such a policy has meaning only if it is conducted from a position of strength. Otherwise, conciliation turns into capitulation, and the policy of conciliation into a march toward political self-annihilation."
- Adam Michnik in A New Evolutionism from his Letters from Prison and Other Essays (1986), p.141

In the context of discussing why previous reform movements within Poland had not only failed to achieve anything, but had in many cases ended up as shills for the Marxist régime.

A Challenge for Heath on Coercive Institutions

I'm a massive fan of Joseph Heath's work, and in particular his article The Benefits of Cooperation I have found to be remarkably clear and illuminating. However, it occurs to me that the arguments he gives in that essay would justify arranged marriages. Unless he is willing to bite that bullet, there must be a problem with his broader argument for the welfare state.

Arranged marriages have tended to be seen as a way for the men of a society to reinforce their control over the family. Hence, it is precisely the kind of social institution that liberalism was supposed to abolish and feminism to eviscerate. Using Heath's tools, however, we have a powerful defence of this institution. I'm not disputing Heath's account of how such arrangements might be socially beneficial; rather, I wish to challenge the idea that, given the beneficial nature of these arrangements, individuals are morally obliged to comply.

In the article Heath identifies five (somewhat roughly defined) ways in which we benefit from the existence of other people: economies of scale, gains from trade, transmission of information, risk-pooling, and self-binding. He argues (I forget whether he makes this argument here or whether you have to move onto The Welfare State: Three Normative Models) that the imperative of efficiency means people can be bound by rules which are designed to achieve these efficiencies, even if they do not actually consent to these rules. His defence of the welfare state, then, is a means of achieving risk-pooling among society at large and of achieving self-binding among people with poor self-control.

(To be clear, in political theory the welfare state - at least as traditionally understood - is marked by two features, both of which are normally taken to require justification: (1) coercive redistribution of income from wealthier members of a polity to poorer members, and (2) that redistribution to take place in the form of in-kind benefits such as healthcare, pensions and food stamps, rather than in terms of pure money. Heath claims that (1) is really just a massive risk-pooling arrangement, and (2) is about self-binding.)

Here's another area of massive risk: choice of spouse. Making a poor choice of spouse can wreck your life and destroy your happiness, as we all know from innumerable stories. (And that's hardly the worst of it. I sometimes joke that I will propose to my future wife with the words, "I love you. Will you become the person most likely to kill me?")

So we have an area where it is massively important to make the right decision. Furthermore, people who are in love are not exactly known for their judgement. So from an efficiency perspective, perhaps you want someone else making - or at least having significant influence over - who any given person marries.

Obviously you can't just let anyone make that decision. So for a person X, what are the ideal characteristics of X's marital-decision-maker? They should know X well, should be in some way invested in X or otherwise motivated to help X do well, and should have reasonable experience of what makes for a good marriage. Who better than X's parents? Hang on a moment, this is starting to look an awful lot like traditional arranged marriages!

As a sociological account, this is reasonably persuasive as an explanation of why arranged marriages came to be (although I doubt many feminists will be receptive to the idea that women forced into arranged marriages are so coerced "for their own benefit"). And perhaps the modern, more liberal forms of arranged marriages (in which both prospective partners have the option of refusing) aren't really so bad. But it does raise some uncomfortable questions: firstly, given the theorem of the second-best and the fact that a transition towards a more liberal system might be difficult if not to achieve, does this mean that people living in a society with coercive arranged marriages must go along with them? And second, does this mean that advocates of a welfare state ought also to advocate for a return to arranged marriages?

Perhaps one might try denying that parents really do operate in the interests of their children, and instead use arranged marriages as a way to threaten the daughter and to shore up familial alliances. But this problem is limited by the fact that parents who make utterly awful choices of son-in-law or daughter-in-law will have fewer grandchildren and so, over generations, will pass on fewer of their genes. Furthermore, real-world states of the kinds that Heath thinks we must obey are themselves far from ideal. Many regulations have a basis less in promoting efficiency than in creating work for lawyers, both in compliance and in enforcement. Other regulations exist due to regulatory capture (for example, most restrictions upon Uber - most egregiously, the recently proposed law in London which would require Uber drivers to wait five minutes before picking up a given passenger, a law with no possible purpose other than protecting the interests of black cab drivers at the expense of everyone else). Taxes go to fund not only the welfare state that Heath defends, but a whole host of programs of dubious utility (e.g. immigration restrictions, military interventions in the Middle East) and even boondoggles. So Heath faces a choice between either denying the duty to obey the law, or affirming the duty to participate in arranged marriages.

If he were a utilitarian, this would be simple: just say that while there's no actual duty to obey the law, the state is nevertheless justified in compelling obedience - if necessary through outright violence. But when you're a deontologist, it becomes harder to reject the intuitive claim that if you lack a duty to do X, no-one can force you to do X. I don't mean this as an endorsement of utilitarianism - that system has its own weird and unpleasant implications - but it's one possible way out of the dilemma.

How to assault human rights like a shitlord

Sarah Conly advocates a One Child policy - officially on environmental grounds, but the Straussian reading is that she's actually really concerned about dysgenics and wants a way to impose fines which will limit poor people's ability to reproduce while not significantly reducing procreation among the middle and upper classes.

Friday, 27 November 2015

On Disagreement

People disagree about politics all the time. Sometimes this is due to different beliefs about how the world works, sometimes it is due to different moral beliefs. Neither of these possibilities automatically implies that someone is doing wrong: there is usually room for legitimate disagreement on both counts.

Take the current debate about whether or not the UK should intervene in Syria. There are essentially two ways to make the case for intervention, presented here in a very rough form:

(A1) Intervening in Syria will make the UK safer.
(A2) If a policy makes the UK safer, it is justified.
(C) Intervention in Syria is justified.

(B1) Intervening in Syria will improve the lives of people in Syria.
(B2) If a policy improves the lives of people in Syria, it is justified.
(C) Intervention in Syria is justified.

One can plausibly reject any of these premises. One might believe that bombing ISIS makes terrorist attacks in the UK more likely, that the situation in the Middle East is unlikely to be improved by UK intervention, or that UK Foreign Policy should aim only at promoting the interests of the UK. The ideal of a deliberative democracy is that we establish where precisely we disagree, and debate the topic until we have general agreement. This is of course very fanciful, but so is most democratic theory.

All of this is to say that when we disagree with someone on a political issue, there are strong reasons not to automatically attack them. If you know precisely what the disagreement is, then you may well be in a position to declare your opponent wrong and/or evil - but this is not generally the case.

This is similar to, but not identical with, the Principle of Charity. I'm not advocating that opposition should always be presented in its most favourable (to you) light; rather, you should aim to understand your opponents' position as they themselves understand it. If, after you've done that, they still seem evil - then perhaps they are in fact evil.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Is Economics a Science?

Based upon the fact that this was submitted to /r/science, I would guess that economics is a science if and only if it supports the political goals of the speaker.

(This is not, of course, to say that the article linked to is wrong. Indeed, it seems entirely plausible to me that the phenomenon it describes is real. Monarchs were not renowned for their generosity, the welfare state - or its precursors - is/were not about redistribution, and in general it seems likely that higher segregation by income will lead to lower social cohesion and trust, which are likely to play a large role in determining how generous people are. Or indeed, perhaps higher inequality means that it's harder for rich people to comprehend that there are other people who are considerably worse off than they are).

Reading the Best of 2015: Part Four

(Previous instalments)

Fare Trade: Breaking Down London's Taxi Debate by John Bull is an engaging, balanced, meticulously researched discussion of the London Black Cabs and the challenges they currently face, in particular from Uber. Bull eventually concludes that "there are no easy answers", but unfortunately for him there are. If people want Black Cabs to stick around they can pay for them to stay around, and if they don't need Black Cabs then TfL should just let the Cabs go. I could write a long essay explaining this point by point, but I really have better things to do with my time. Nevertheless, this essay is quite plausibly the best essay of the year that happens to be demonstrably wrong.

After the snide jab that was the last article I read about Trump, I was not looking forward to Scott
Adams' Clown Genius. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. The article is neither an endorsement nor a mockery of Trump, it simply explains a plausible account of why Trump is doing so well in polling. My prior is to be sceptical that anyone in a sufficiently demanding occupation really knows what they're doing, so I'm not really convinced, but Adams is nevertheless persuasive and demonstrates both a grasp of important psychological concepts, and intellectual humility. At the moment the topic feels a bit too facile to go beyond the shortlist, but if Trump does somehow go on to win nomination or even the presidency, I will be ready to posthumously declare this the winner.

A more unusual topic was covered by Howard Shulman in an abridged excerpt from his autobiography, Running from the Mirror. Having lost his face to a bacterial infection at three days old and having been abandoned by his parents shortly after, Shulman endured a difficult childhood with multiple foster parents and numerous operations. Eventually he traced down his biological mother - his father having since died - and confronted her about it, after which the narrative ends.

The writing is fluent, if unexceptional.

I can't say I liked the author as a person. Sure, the problems he endured while growing up were caused to a considerable extent by other people and by his infection, but there's no sense of responsibility. And while he has a genuine case for anger at his parents, there's no attempt to empathise, no attempt to interpret their actions in anything approaching a charitable light. He finds out that she - mistakenly - believed him to have been adopted, and doesn't rethink his judgement of her in the slightest. He may have had an unpleasant start, but that doesn't justify or excuse the person he has become. If I may be unkind for a moment, I find it not in the least bit surprising that he is 38, still single, and seems somewhat insecure about it.

It's hard to assess Andrew Schwarz's The Illiad and the IPO without reading the article it summarises. Schwarz begins by observing that many publicly-traded companies have defences against takeovers, despite this leading to lower share prices. He theorises, with reference first to the Illiad and then to other, less mythical, historical greats, that this is due to the desire of founders to achieve a place in history.

I'm not going to read the article, so I'm hardly in a position to say that he's wrong. That said, Schwarz fails in the summary to explain what would count as evidence for this claim, much less provide it. But without this, his article is at best providing a different possible model for companies, and not an informative one given that it is constructed purely in order to merge existing data with an unsubstantiated theory.

As a side note: why is immortal fame better than fame in one's lifetime? Sure, they go together to some extent, but if it were a choice between the two then I'll note that there's only one of them which you can exploit for money, power and sex.

On Controversial Premises

I very rarely find Chris Dillow worth reading. It's not that he doesn't have anything of interesting to say: it's that so much of what he says is predicated upon the assumption that his controversial economic beliefs are right. Today's post is as good an example as any, the first two-thirds of which says nothing more than "the far left is correct about the economy, George Osborne is wrong, but mainstream Labourites can't bring themselves to admit this." If you don't accept that, then there's really nothing you gain from reading him - which is a disappointment, since I like to learn stuff, and especially to learn from people with whom I tend to disagree.

But then again, it would be stupid to require people to stick only to saying what is uncontroversial. Partly because the meaning of "controversial" would become heavily contested, and partly because the way progress happens is that people build upon past work and newcomers to the field, excited by all the new work happen, adopt the most productive theories. The point of science is not to convince everyone of what is true, but to use our knowledge to do cool stuff.