A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 11 September 2017

The Rhetoric of Desert

There are two ways in which a person can fail to deserve what they have. The first is that they are actually undeserving of it: the prodigal son does not deserve his father’s welcome, Job did not deserve to be tormented with destruction and agony. The second is that the concept of desert fails to apply: thus neither James Potter nor Lily Evans deserved the love of Lily Evans, because in the decision of who she should marry desert is simply not a relevant factor.

These two situations are very different, yet we use the same phrase of “not deserving” to describe them both. This is liable to create dangerous confusion: when a good (or bad) is appropriate for distribution by deservingness, someone’s lack of desert generally provides a reason for taking that good away from them (and typically giving to them). Physical property is, in most naive views of the world, taken to be appropriate for distribution according to desert: thus a simple argument for economic redistribution would be that the poor are no less deserving than are the rich of worldly goods.

When a good is not appropriate for distribution according to desert - for example, love - the fact that someone is undeserving is no reason to remove the good from them. While most people naively think of private property as something to be distributed according to desert, this view is exceedingly rare among philosophers. The most obvious example of an anti-desert theorist is John Rawls, who argued that we cannot deserve anything at all: any good traits we possess are the results either of our environment or of our genes, neither of which we chose and therefore neither of which we can be credited for.

This anti-realism about desert does not - cannot - provide an argument for redistribution of goods. If desert is not real, then no goods can be appropriately distributed according to desert, and so the fact that the rich are no more deserving than the poor is no argument for redistribution. One may, of course, favour redistribution on other grounds, and this was Rawls’ purpose: to disarm desert-based arguments against redistribution! But if one only takes the conclusion of his argument - that the rich do not deserve their wealth - and puts it not into the context of Rawls’ wider theory, but rather the naive view that desert is real and is a moral basis for property, then one arrives at a rhetorically effective, but subtly self-contradictory, agument for redistribution. I suspect that many people who dabble in political philosophy without studying it in depth, including many politics undergrads ae liable to fall into this trap.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Metaethics of the Harry Potter universe

The field of metaethics is broadly concerned with the following questions: are there any true moral facts? And if so, how can we come to know them?

As an example of what this would mean: take natural-rights libertarianism, as espoused by Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, and legions of spotty teenagers. According to this theory, there exist certain facts along the lines of the following:

(a) The copy of Anarchy, State, and Utopia upstairs is my property.
(b) For any entity X, if X is my property then others ought not to interfere with my usage of X unless my usage of X interferes with their usage of an entity Y which is their property.

Of course, a lot of attention in this kind of theory will be devoted to exactly what it means to say that an entity is someone's property. A standard response made by a non-libertarian philosopher would be to observe that the notion of property is entirely socially constructed. To bring out the difference between socially-constructed and non-socially-constructed features of things, compare the properties of belonging to a person and of being less dense than water. Whether something belongs to me or my neighbour is determined entirely by the beliefs of society: if everyone believes the copy of ASU upstairs belongs to my neighbour, it's not that everyone is wrong - it's that the book actually is my neighbours, and I will be obliged to return it to him at the next opportunity. If something is less dense than water, however, it matters not one jot what any of us believes - it will float, and all the assertions in the world will not change that.

Since property is socially constructed, then, perhaps we ought to construct it strategically so that it operates to the greatest advantage of all. Thus we might decide to agree that notions such as taxation are baked into the very notion of property: taxation is not theft, but simply the proper functioning of the property system. (There's a more ambitious version of this argument which holds that no property would exist without a state and so submission to the state in general is part of what it means to own property, but this is silly because (a) property has existed throughout history without the existence of states and (b) even if that were not the case, it's not at all clear how the move from an is to an ought is supposed to be occurring here).

One thing that would support natural rights libertarianism, then, would be if facts about property somehow turned out not to be socially constructed but to be intrinsic features of the world in the same way as density. It turns out that there is a well-known fictional universe in which this is the case: the Harry Potter novels, in which a key reveal towards the end of the last book is that the Elder Wand, a weapon of deadly power, never truly recognised Voldemort as its possessor - despite him having wielded it for much of the last book, ever since he ransacked the tomb of Dumbledore, a previous owner of the Wand. Instead, the wand recognised first Draco Malfoy and then Harry Potter as its true owner, despite neither of them having prior to this point even touched the wand. In the Harry Potter universe, ownership is not a social construct but a real and tangible feature of the universe - and so it may well be impossible, even if desirable, to move to a more socially beneficial meaning of the notion of "property".

Libertarians should not rejoice too quickly, however: the way the wand passes between owners almost always involves violation of the Non-Aggression Principle. Grindelwald stole it from Gregorovitch, Dumbledore kept it after defeating Grindelwald, Malfoy ambushed and disarmed Dumbledore, Harry burgled and overpowered Malfoy. While there are substantial facts about property, which stand in addition to the facts which are known through science and empiricism, they are surely different from the facts which libertarians would have us believe. Perhaps not entirely different - wands aside, most objects seem to behave much as they do in the actual universe with regard to owners - but not the same either.

As a final aside, it is interesting to note that this universe also contains one of the more notable examples of a society with markedly different but non-utopian rules concerning property. I refer, of course, to the goblins, who believe all objects to truly belong to their makers: one cannot purchase an object, only rent it for life. To pass on to one's heirs something that one did not produce oneself is regarded by goblins as theft. Unless the original maker of the Elder Wand is still alive (and according to tradition, the wand was in fact made by Death Himself), this theory must surely remain live as a possible metaethical truth about property in the Harry Potter universe.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Two brief thoughts

Some thoughts that I really ought to write up properly, but don't presently have the time for:

-Many people appear to think either that (P) all social constructions are bad, or (P*) that belief in (P) is central to SJWism. Hence much mockery has aimed not to point to clearly beneficial social constructs (e.g. respect, love, money) but to suggest that almost anything can be a social construct (e.g. the penis).
A more sophisticated view is that something's being a social construct points not to it being bad, but to it being replaceable or at least malleable. But even this is perhaps too simplistic. Musical harmony is a social construct - while in the West we use a 12-tone scale, many other cultures (or composers within the West, e.g. Harry Partch) use different scales with greater or smaller intervals between notes - it is hard to see how we could overturn many aspects of harmony. (Though we could of course tweak it in particular ways, e.g. moving from equal temperament to just intonation).
(edited to add: this is probably old hat to anyone who reads my blog. I'm not trying to say anything especially original here, but it occurs to me that it would be useful to have something to point to, making this point, which isn't the length of a Slate Star Codex post or three)

-In a liberal society, we want both a principle of exclusion and a principle of inclusion. Thus our society can take in and integrate outsiders, but need not roll over in the face of those who threaten it. A "Propositional Nation" goes much of the way towards this - anyone who affirms the key propositions can become a citizen, people who do not affirm those principles cannot. Contrast this with historical or blood-and-soil nationhood, as exists e.g. in UK and Scandinavia. (France is a weird case - it ought to be a kind of propositional nation given the way French nationhood developed after the revolution, but it's still more of a blood-and-soil nation). Blood-and-soil has practical advantages - among other things, a country can hardly expel native-born citizens for their political views - but lacks such an easy criterion of inclusion. Should places like the UK aim to become more "propositional" in terms of their national spirit? Can they do so without abandoning their present identities? (Can "loyalty to the queen" function as the kind of proposition that would bind a nation?)

Monday, 7 August 2017

Free Speech and Violence

Suppose Alfie hits Betty. We would hold Alfie responsible.

Suppose Alfie throws something which hits Betty - that is, the harm takes place at a distance. We would hold Alfie responsible.

Suppose Alfie throws something and doesn't check that he's throwing into an empty space, and consequently it hits Betty. The harm was not strictly intended. We would nevertheless hold Alfie responsible.

Suppose Alfie throws something which hits something else, which falls on Betty. The harm does not flow directly from Alfie; nevertheless we would hold Alfie responsible.

Suppose Alfie throws something which hits another person, who stumbles into Betty quite heavily. The harm flows through another person; nevertheless we would hold Alfie responsible.

Suppose Alfie throws something which hits another person. This person was menacing Betty with a knife, and consequently stabs her. The harm was worsened by someone else's actions. But we would still hold Alfie responsible.

Suppose Alfie throws some sound waves, conveniently produced by his mouth, at another person. This causes the person to commit an act of violence against Betty that they may not otherwise have committed. Obviously, Alfie is 100% innocent of any wrongdoing.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

An Athanasian Heresy?

I'm reading de Incarnatione by Athanasius of Alexandria, and it's brought to light a question that never really came up during my Anglican upbringing: what is the relation between sin, sinfulness, and salvation?

By sinfulness, or what Athanasius refers to as corruption, I mean the tendency towards sin. A standard Anglican view would be that our history of sinning means that we are generally unable to be with God - that is, to enter heaven. However, Jesus sacrificed himself to bear the punishment for our sins, with the result that by accepting this sacrifice we can be free from our sins and so enter heaven. Corruption, if it even enters the picture, is something that may be reduced through the work of the Holy Spirit, and which will be eviscerated entirely before we enter heaven, but it has no bearing upon the fact of our salvation. (Nor, for that matter, is there any discussion of precisely how we will cease to be corrupt: it will simply happen).

A Catholic view, as I understand it, pays more attention to this issue. Corruption cannot eternally prevent entry into heaven in the way that sin does, but it can delay it. Although Christ's death on the cross paid for our sins, we must also be purged of our corruption before ascending to heaven - hence Purgatory, in which through chastisement we are gradually purified. Eventually we emerge as the perfected visions of Christ, ready to enter heaven free of both sin and corruption. Or something. This is probably innaccurate, I am neither a Catholic nor a trained theologian.

Athanasius has a third and even more different view. There are two crucial building blocks to his view. The first, which I imagine both Anglicans and Catholics would in general be willing to accept or at least to be persuaded of, is that corruption comes as a consequence of sinning. The second, I think, would prove far more controversial.

There is danger in imputing views to historical figures, but it seems to me that Athanasius sees corruption as the primary force keeping us away from God. "Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough." (p16) Sin itself is covered by our repentance, our acknowledgement of it, with no need for Christ's death on the cross.

What, then, did Jesus come to save us from? "The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death... For this reason, he assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection." (p17-18) (Apparently not even Paul himself could compete with Athanasius for overly long sentences).

Let me be blunt: I have no idea how Athanasius' model of salvation fits together. The Christ-died-for-sins is quite clear: death is a punishment, we deserved this punishment, Christ suffered it instead. The debt was paid. ("How did he in three days bear the weight of the sins from billions of entire lives?" "Shut up, that's how.") It is much harder to see how a death could remove corruption.

But perhaps it will become clear from further reading. And perhaps it provides perspective on the theological debates of today, to see that at least we agree on what the founding event of our religion meant - so ething that, it seems, cannot be taken for granted.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Hey, Remember When I Used To Do Regular Links Posts? Neither Do I!

In the spirit of cleaning out my "links" folder, a dump of things I found interesting at the time and hopefully you will too:

Perhaps you have plenty of time to get where you want to go, but are tired of dull and ugly routes. Look no further than this tool for identifying not the quickest, but the most beautiful route between two places! The only catch: it's for Yahoo rather than Google, so no-one will ever use it.

An 88-year-old man has found the ultimate trick for getting to sleep with young women under hegemonic capitalism: market yourself as a commodity! "Grandfather Busted For Prostituting Himself To Young Women".

An article about one of my favourite albums of recent years, The Lyre Ensemble's The Flood. The Flood is an attempt at recreating, or at least composing in the spirit of, ancient Babylonian music; more about the album can be found here and the album is on iTunes, my personal favourite songs are "Enkidu Curses the Harlot" and "Ishtar's Descent".

Staying on the topic of music, "Towards a 21st century orchestral music canon". Various enthusiasts chip in with their thoughts on modenr long-from orchestral music and why there's relatively little of it.

The collection of Wellcome Library, Euston Road, includes an impressive selection of calling cards for London prostitutes. Fascinating both because sex and as a reflection of the social history of London. "Until the mid-190s, the typical tart was of apparently English stock. From around 1994 onwards, we see Oriental beauties, busty Amazons and Jamaican Dominatrices. Raunchy photographs become common at this point, but are often cribbed from magazines and bear little resemblance to the goods on offer. The production values improve as well. One lady poses next to an inset that shows her recent endorsement by the News of the World."

Another library I'd have been interested to visit: that of the IRA prisoners. People are often surprised at how well-educated and middle-class most terrorists are, but you have to remember that terrorism is a fundamentally political act, which means that it is most popular among the political classes. In this light, the greater surprise is not that the prisoners were so interested in Marxism, but that they were able to establish such a remarkable compendium of works in the tradition.

Only the true Messiah denies his divinity! (via this 2009 Marginal Revolution post)

Stewart Lee defends the German sense of humour. Incidentally, a dirty Hungarian joke I heard last night about Transylvanians, but which could be about many other nationalities too:
A young Transylvanian man is getting married, and asks his father for advice concerning the wedding night. The father tells him: "First, you must pick up your new wife, to show that Transylvanians are strong. Then you throw her on the bed, to show that Transylvanians are masculine. Then you remove your clothes, to show that Transylvanians are beautiful. And I'm sure you can work out what to do from there."
After the newlyweds return from their honeymoon, and the delighted son checks in with his father. "It was just like you said! I picked her up, to show that Transylvanians are strong. I threw her on the bed, to show that we are masculine. I removed our clothes, to show that we are beautiful. And then I stood next to the bed and masturbated, to show that Transylvanians are independent and autonomous!"

Robert Wiblin has one of the most interesting Facebook feeds I know, and this is a particular highlight: a discussion of "What's the strongest argument against a political position you hold dear?"

Everyone likes to joke about homoerotic readings of the relationship between Batman and Robin, but this is an impressively thorough history.

The complaint that English people only know England, and have no idea of how the world works or of how they are perceived beyond their borders, is a familiar one: I hear it all the time from Scots and Northern Irish. If I had any Welsh friends they'd probably say the same thing, the British-but-not-English countries are all basically the same anyway. In any case, an expat skewers this mentality from a more international perspective, with regard to our beloved "athlete" Eddie the Eagle.

Braess' Paradox: adding capacity to a road network can increase congestion, without changing the volume of traffic!

Edward Feser explains a particular view of the nature of heaven and hell, according to which people choose to go to hell. Warning: relies on kooky metaphysics (though nonetheless fascinating if you have an interest in theology).

A defence of Napoleon, portraying him as a great reformer who sought to avoid war, at least following his return to power in the Hundred Days. In a similarly revisionist but less hot-takey, more plausible vein, various instances of private violence being taken over by the government as a way to restrain and control it. "Many southern states tightened "Jim Crow" racial codes between the World Wars as part of an attempt to stop lynchings"!

Since I may have just defended governments, better even it out with a reminder that many of them are literally evil: as famine is declared in two counties of South Sudan, the government increases the fee for work permits for foreign aid workers from $100 to $10,000.

Some people just hate progress: an argument against colonising Mars. That said, perhaps the problem is that Mars is the wrong target and we should aim for Venus first.

A takedown of certain elite views that war with China is inevitable. Convincing as an explainer, I particularly enjoyed the section suggesting that the same argument imply inevitable war between the US and Europe.

Friday, 9 June 2017

The Banter Heuristic Strikes Again!

So Theresa May is bringing the DUP into a governing coalition:

-After campaigning in 2015 on the fact that a Labour government would rely on a purely Scottish party with 5% of the vote, the Tories go into government with a purely Northern Irish party with 0.9% of the vote.
-After calling an election in order to obtain a strong majority, the Tories lose the majority they had.
-After branding Corbyn a friend of terrorists, the Tories bring some actual (former) terrorists into the governing coalition.
-A mass movement of socially liberal youngsters has brought a climate-change-denying anti-abortion anti-LGBT party into the government.
-The DUP can't even govern Northern Ireland due to a corruption scandal, but they're going to be helping to govern the whole of the UK.

Can anything top this bants?

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

In Condemnation of Enthusiasm

Over the last few days I've tweeted various thoughts about tomorrow's general election. The key points I have made, expanded to take advantage of there being no 140 characters limit and to include explanation I didn't really give at the time:

(1) May and Corbyn are both absolutely awful.

(2) It's very difficult to say who is worse. I suggested, however, that May is probably worse in the long-run. (And ultimately, the long-run is the only thing that matters):

(2a) May is likely to make changes not just to our laws, but to our very society.

(2ai) Firstly, by massively restricting immigration (and quite possibly forcing out foreign citizens who are already present), she will remove many of our most reliably cosmopolitan members. Second, our population is already ageing and immigration is one of the things keeping it from going up faster - both because immigrants themselves are typically relatively young, but also because they raise the fertility of native Brits.

(2aii) Second, May is moving away from entrusting immigration control to a few sociopaths on the border and more to employers and landlords. If they employ or let to unauthorised immigrants, then they will be punished - so they will have to be vigilant to avoid this. Given the way that government enforcement tends to create public acceptance (see chapter 6), I think this is likely to further contribute to negative views of immigration and immigrants.

(2b) As Rory also notes, Corbyn is likely to fail a lot more visibly than May. Perhaps we undergo a few years of stagnation or recession, fine. Hopefully people see this isn't working and after a decade or so of self-inflicted misery, we end up with better policies. (This feels relevant, though I'm not certain how).

(3) But ultimately, this is just a guess. I would put my confidence that May is worse somewhere between 55% and 60%, and would not blame anyone for deciding that either May or Corbyn is the lesser evil.

(4) Anyone who has a reasonable knowledge and understanding of economics ought to realise that both are awful, and enthusiasm for either one indicates that you should views on politics should not, in general, be taken seriously. (This is not intended as a personal slight. There is nothing wrong with knowing nothing about politics, any more than there is with knowing nothing about car maintenance. The problem comes when one attempts to force one's uninformed views on others, rather than leaving politics well enough alone).

(4ai) Donald Trump received just under 63 million votes last year. The overwhelming majority of those were not from out-and-out racists, but rather from people who think that it is more important that the president have an R next to his or her name than that he or she be a sound thinker of calm disposition who adheres to even basic standards of ethical conduct. Party loyalty and partisanship allows people to overlook terrible flaws in their candidate; to be enthusiastic for either May or Corbyn, rather than resigned to whoever one takes to be the less bad candidate, is to place oneself in the same category as those millions who elected the ape currently occupying the White House. If the candidate one supports is less bad than Trump, this has nothing do with one's own virtues and everything to do with the fact that one is fortunate enough to live in a place with less awful candidates than the US.

(4aii) Anyone who genuinely believes in communism ought never to be allowed anywhere near government office, regardless of what they profess in order to get elected (or to be acceptable in polite society). Firstly, this belief displays a severe lack of judgement, and judgement is key to good governance. Second, the communist will attempt to implement communist policies, constrained by what they think they can get away with.
Tony Blair was acceptable is Prime Minister because he demonstrated, in particular by forcing the rewriting of Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, that he was not any kind of communist. He was not someone who wanted communism but would settle for being able to implement liberal policies with a leftist slant; rather, he genuinely accepted the superiority of liberalism over communism. If one is the kind of leftist who ought to be entrusted with power, then one will - as a genuine liberal - be horrified at the prospect of Corbyn getting to implement his policies.

(4b) Both (4ai) and (4aii) are valid criticism of some enthusiastic Labour supporters. However, attributing both to any individual voter is perhaps to make things overdetermined. If one is a full-on socialist, then while one almost certainly despises the Tories this is hardly necessary for one to gather around the Labour flag. Similarly, becoming a loud and enthusiastic Corbynite merely to keep the Tories out has its own problems, but it does not indicate a deficit of judgement in the way that being a genuine Marxist does.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Eugenics: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Eugenics is the attempt to improve the genetic quality of the human population. Some people might object to the notion that we can talk of "genetic quality", insisting that all people are fundamentally equal and that this rules out the possibility that some genes are better than others. I say this is nonsense. A gene that predisposes you to be unhappy, violent, or stupid, with no other effects, is clearly bad. No parent should want their child to inherit such a gene. If this is contrary to human equality, then so much the worse for human equality.

With that out of the way, I wish to suggest a division of our notion of "eugenics" into three categories: pro-natal eugenics, which aims to increase the number of people being born with preferable genes; anti-natal eugenics, which aims to reduce the number of people being born with less-preferable genes; and improvement eugenics, which aims to improve the genetic quality of people who are going to be born anyway. An example of pro-natal eugenics would be providing financial subsidies for high-IQ couples to have children; an example of anti-natal eugenics would be compulsory sterilisation of people judged to be defective in certain ways; an example of improvement eugenics would be screening embryos for disease among people undergoing IVF treatment.

These different kinds of eugenics ought to be assessed differently. My key thesis here is that improvement eugenics is clearly desirable, pro-natal eugenics is likely to be anti-egalitarian but that the good consequences may well outweigh this, and that confusing these with anti-natal eugenics is responsible for most of our worries about eugenics. (I'm not going to take a strong position on whether anti-natal eugenics might be overall justified, but it seems far more problematic than either of the other kinds).

There is a risk with any of these programs that policy-makers will seek to promote not good traits but traits which they personally like - for example, particular colours of skin. We should acknowledge this danger, should fight against all such misapplications of eugenics, and may find that the risk of abuse is to high to practice any eugenics. But I maintain that these practical issues are irrelevant to the in-principle-acceptability of certain kinds of eugenics.

Improvement Eugenics

When we talk about ways to improve outcomes for people who will exist anyway in ways which don't involve genetics, no-one bats an eyelid. Controls on lead emissions are obviously desirable. Education, insofar as it represents real improvements in people's capabilities rather than just a form of signalling, is similarly desirable. The only question, then, is whether the fact of these changes being genetic rather than through other mechanisms makes a moral difference.

It does introduce some extra reasons to be concerned, to be sure. Genetic changes are rather harder to reverse than many other kinds of change: if it had turned out that we were wrong about lead and that it was in fact vital to children's development, we could start pumping it into the air and would within a few years fix much of the damage caused; if it turned out that an incident of gene editing had significant negative consequences, this would take longer to correct and would require significantly greater resources, if it was even possible. But this does not affect the case, on the level of pure principle, for improvement eugenics.

Some people object that by meddling with genes, we are "playing God". Given that I don't believe in any kind of God, at least in the conventional sense, I'm not inclined to take this kind of argument seriously. Besides which, such arguments seem woefully underspecified. What is that makes fixing people's genes blasphemous, but throwing a ball not blasphemous? Both involve meddling with the world in certain ways which might happen to be either in accordance with or contrary to God's will. I'd be happy to have this discussion with a serious religious thinker willing to supply such a condition, but in the absence of such an interlocutor I feel the attempt would be a waste of time.

Perhaps changing someone's genes involves some kind of interference with their autonomy. OK, but it can also improve their autonomy if it leads to higher intelligence, conscientiousness, or similar. Moreover, it's highly unclear why we should take their natural set of genes as the moral default from which any deviation must be justified.

Ultimately, it's hard to see why we shouldn't edit out things like hereditary diseases from the human genome, unless there are significant side-effects of doing so. Is it right to save life, or to kill?

Pro-natal eugenics

This is more problematic than improvement eugenics. Most obviously, it's likely to involve anti-egalitarian transfers of resources and welfare, since the people we would be attempting to incentivise to have more children would in many cases be those who already have plenty. (Perhaps the solution would be, rather than rewarding high-IQ types for having more children, punishing them for having fewer children? But even if this is judged worthwhile when intelligence we wish to encourage, it becomes rather less palatable when trying to encourage greater procreation by people with genes that lead them to be more pro-social than average, or other things we view as virtuous).

That said, I think in general this ought not to be much more controversial than improvement eugenics. If you accept my arguments that people benefit from existing, and you think that certain people create net positive externalities for the rest of society (and would continue to do so on the margin if there were more of them), then why would you not want more of those people? Yes it has certain inegalitarian aspects, but any good Rawlsian should recognise than in the end we all benefit.

Anti-natal eugenics

This is the bad boy. This is the kind of eugenics responsible for giving eugenics in general a bad name, the kind of eugenics used to justify forced sterilisation of despised minorities.

When considering any kind of anti-natal eugenics aimed at abolishing a condition X, there are two questions to be asked: (1) what does X mean for the quality of life of the person who possesses it? (2) Do people with X tend to make the rest of society worse off?

If the answer to (1) is that X usually makes people's lives not worth living, as with certain medical conditions, then we do not need any kind of eugenic principle to justify preventing people with condition X from coming into existence: we need only a sense of mercy.

If the answer to (2) is no, that they simply end up in a worse condition than the average member of society - so what? Let these people live, let their parents have full reproductive freedom!

The complicated cases come when a person is fully capable of having a life worth living, but would impose costs on society in doing so. Sometimes these costs will be concrete, such as those who are in important ways disabled at a young age and so require another person to act as a full-time carer. Sometimes they will be harder to detect, such as the stuff Garett Jones writes about. My tentative inclination is to think that some anti-natal eugenics may be permissible in such cases, but I cannot claim to have thought this through in any great detail. Moreover, any interests society may have in avoiding these costs must be weighed against various interests - in particular procreative interests and bodily autonomy - of the would-be parents of children with condition X. Paying criminals to be sterilised is probably acceptable, mandatory sterilisation is probably not.


Eugenics gets a bad rap due to the genuinely reprehensible things which it has been used to justify. However, eugenic interventions aimed at improving the genetic quality of people who will be born in any case and/or at increasing the fertility of people with desirable traits are in principle morally acceptable - though we might nevertheless have justified worries about the practicalities of such programs.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

How Serious are Northern Irish Nationalists?

When what is now the Republic of Ireland seceded from Britain in the early 1920s, six of the thirty-two traditional Irish counties remained part of the UK. These six were judged to have more Protestant inhabitants than Catholic, and so to be sustainable for the Empire against the rising tide of generally small-scale but widespread and well-targeted violence that had rendered much of Ireland utterly ungovernable for the British government. 95 years later, the situation remains in the most basic facts the same: Northern Ireland remains a mixture of Catholics and Protestants, with the Protestants holding a slim plurality of the population. The Catholics are still mostly Irish nationalists, wanting the six counties to leave the UK and join the Republic; the Protestants are still mostly unionists, fiercely resistant to this suggestion. In past decades there was significant violence over this issue, resulting in over 3500 deaths; however, since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, there has been very little fighting and pressure has been exerted through the controlled violence of electoral politics.

One question we may ask of the Irish nationalists who live in Northern Ireland is: given that they claim to have a strong preference for living in the Republic of Ireland, why don't they? Rather than pushing for Irish unification politically, a cause which is no closer to success than it was 95 years ago, why don't they just move 50 miles south to live in the existing territory of the Republic? I shall consider various reasons they might have for not moving, and ultimately conclude that in general they just don't care that much. The preference of Northern Irish Catholics for Irish unification is not a preference that we should take especially seriously.

It is worth making it clear that I am not arguing that by living in Northern Ireland, Catholics consent to British rule. David Hume savaged consent theory quite comprehensively back in 1748. In any case, the idea that living in a state constitutes consent to that state presupposes that the state already has legitimate ownership of its territory. Nor would I claim that Northern Irish Catholics lack strong feelings about which state ought to possess sovereignty over Northern Ireland. But such feelings are produced by a need for group identity rather than any intellectual case or any experience of being oppressed.

The costs of moving to Eire

Let's be fair: there are substantial costs involved in moving house, especially between countries. But for most people in Northern Ireland, I shall show that this is not a convincing explanation. Most of the costs involved in such a move are small, negative, or inevitable.

Let us divide the costs into four categories: material costs, social costs, legal barriers, and transitional costs. By material costs I mean long-lasting reductions in one's standard of living as a result of moving geographically. An example of a material cost would be moving but being unable to find a job similar to the one you had back home, with the result that one is permanently poorer. These are the kind of costs that explain why people who are still in work do not tend to move from higher-income countries to lower-income countries. For much of the last century, this would have provided a plausible reason for not moving to the south: at the time of partition, Belfast was the only significant industrialised area in the island of Ireland, and most of the Republic was dirt-poor. But since around 1990 Ireland has undergone rapid economic growth, to the point where its GDP per capita is much higher not only than that of Northern Ireland, but of the UK as a whole. Nationalists moving to Ireland nowadays would most likely improve their standard of living.

Social costs are the long-term changes to one's social life that are necessitated by moving. These can exist in both losing old friends, and losing access to activities that one enjoyed but no longer has access to. Such costs can indeed be substantial - but they are not plausibly especially large for most Northern Irish Catholics contemplating a move south. They would not be moving far - Belfast and Dublin are only two hour's drive apart, absolutely fine for regular weekend visits home to see family and friends. The cultural life available to a Northern Irish Catholic is not tremendously different from that available to a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. If people really care, you might well persuade a lot of people to move south with you!

The legal barriers are close to non-existent. UK citizens born in Ireland are entitled to Irish citizenship, and do not have to give up their British citizenship to acquire it. The border is unguarded, indeed in most places unmarked. Perhaps there might be some problems for former IRA members, given that the Republic was generally quite successful in keeping the IRA out of Ireland. That said, I'd guess that since 1998 with the general amnesty available, this should not have been an issue. In any case, most Northern Irish Catholics were not members of the IRA.

Finally, the transitional costs. There are genuine costs to finding a new house and a new job, even if you are moving into a higher standard of living. But what proportion of Northern Irish Catholics have lived in the same house for all of the last twenty years? Perhaps members of the older generations have significant attachments and no reason to move beyond nationalist sentiment, but for any adult below the age of forty (and probably most above that age) they have surely had an opportunity to move to the Republic of Ireland at no permanent material cost, minimal social cost, with no legal barriers, and no transitional costs beyond those which they would have faced anyway in moving between two houses in Northern Ireland.

In sum, the revealed preference of Northern Irish Catholics is that they don't care all that much about whether they live in the UK or the Republic of Ireland. The overwhelming majority could have moved south at minimal cost, perhaps even at a gain, and have chosen not to do so.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Review: The Music Man

The Music Man is a fantastically catchy musical set in 1912 Iowa, in which conman "Professor Harold Hill" persuades a town to purchase large numbers of musical instruments and uniforms on the pretense that he will operate a marching band for their children, but his plans to defraud the town go awry when he falls in love with the town's fierce but socially unpopular librarian and music teacher, Marian Paroo. It won five Tony Awards in the year of its release including Best Musical, despite having as a competitor the greatest work of music ever written. More pertinently to how I first encountered it, it plays a minor role in the Rorshach's Blot classic Larceny, Lechery, and Luna Lovegood! as the play to which Fred drags Angelina on every one of their dates. eso theatricals were recently putting on a run of the play, and having previously enjoyed their Sweeney Todd, I was eager to see this too.

Again, the performance was clearly that of amateurs rather than professionals. That said, the set and costume design were absolutely fine, the acting and music adequate and the singing good (except for some unfortunately consistent disharmony in the school board barbershop quartet, whose source I was unable to ascertain). The weakest part of the performance was the generally unimaginative choreography, which often was nothing more than characters marching round the stage and raising their arms in synchronisation. To be fair, it is my understanding that someone had to step into the role of choreographer at a late stage, which suggests that they probably didn't have all that much time to rehearse the dancing either, and therefore had to remain on the easier side of things.

There were odd moments - for example, when a very Dutch woman exclaimed of herself and her two children (both played by Hungarians) "Oh, but we are Irish!" But overall, the performance was enjoyable; it did a better job of conveying the energy of the musical than its beauty, but did a quite reasonable job of the latter too.

(Incidentally, a more mainstream reference to The Music Man than Harry Potter fanfiction: Marge vs. the Monorail)

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Listening to American Pop Music and Buying Their Blue Jeans

One of my favourite Marginal Revolution posts is "The Baffling Politics of Paid Maternity Leave in India". Alex Tabarrok, currently making use of his sabbatical from GMU to teach in Mumbai, observes that Indians often favour policies which make sense in an American context, but not at all in India. Quoting directly:

When I gave a lecture at a local university, for example, I apparently shocked the students when I said matter-of-factly:
India would be a better country if it were richer and more unequal.
I think India’s extreme poverty makes this obviously true in a utilitarian sense, i.e. better for Indians, but it wasn’t so obvious to the students some-of-whom discussed inequality in terms that could easily have been duplicated at Berkeley. The inequality conversation has jumped the pond in ways that seem to me to be completely inappropriate.
Writing in the Times of India, Rupa Subramanya gives another example, a bill for paid maternity leave that has just passed the Indian parliament (waiting only on the president’s signature). As I pointed out earlier, by far the majority of Indians are self-employed and in the informal sector. The very idea of paid maternity leave, therefore, is bizarre.
I'll stick with the example of inequality. The USA, having one of the highest GDP-per-capita-s on Earth, can afford significant redistribution and may find it appropriate to do so even if this harms growth. (This is a moral mistake, of course, but we'll bracket that for now). India, being around 9 or 10 times poorer than the US, should be concerned with achieving greater wealth first and foremost; if this increases inequality, then so be it. Become rich now and redistribute later is immensely preferabe to redistributing now and never becoming rich. This ought not, one would hope, to be too controversial when presented in its entirety.
(I am of course presuming that there is a trade-off between redistribution and economic growth. This is not a claim to which I am married, we're just taking it for the sake of argument here.)
(Also, note that the UK is distinctly at the lower end of high-income countries. If we were part of the US, we would be the poorest state. Does this mean that, although not to the same extent as India, we ought also to prioritise growth over combating inequality?)
Yet because inequality is an issue in the US, other countries follow the lead. Tabarrok attributes this to a desire for positive PR: these policies are not aimed at combating the objective problems faced by India, but at showing to the west that India is an enlightened, modern and progressive nation. This, I think, attributes too much intelligence and strategic thought to the Indian political class. Is it not simpler to model most people as having a one-size-fits-all view of politics: the policies which suit the US must also be the policies which suit the India, with perhaps an allowance for past history and the dangers of changing too quickly?
I think similar dynamics are at play in the UK: people hear or read things which were true or at least plausible when describing the US, but are simply false on this side of the Atlantic. This seems the most charitable way to understand talk of "rising inequality": by the best measure we have, the Gini coefficient, UK income inequality fell sharply following the crash of 2008, rose ever so slightly for a couple of years, and then went back to falling quickly. Admittedly the data only goes up to 2012, but that which we have is emphatic. Duncan Weldon, no right-winger, has commented that "insisting that UK inequality rose in the last decade is basically the intellectual equivalent of climate change denial". It seems fair to suspect that many people who learn their politics from US sources implicitly assume that US institutions, norms, and indicators must be universal - or at least, fail to explicitly consider different countries separately. This is especially bad in countries such as the UK and India where English is a main language of politics.

Why MRAs should avoid Julian Assange

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

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

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

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

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

A Plea For Bullshit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 14 May 2017

How Have My Political Views Changed Over Time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Given the supposition of a government:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Scientology-Shaped Hole in our Hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 24 April 2017

Should the UK #SpendTheSix?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 13 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christiano then boils the debate to the following argument:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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