Month: July 2017

Another Angle on Alienation

In an earlier post about alienation I said that

the life of the hunter-gatherer, however fraught, is less rationalized than the kind of life that’s represented by intensive agriculture, let alone modern manufacturing and office work.

The hunter-gatherer isn’t “a cog in a machine”, he is the machine. He is the shareholder, the manager, the worker, and the consumer, all in one. His work with others is truly cooperative. It is like the execution of a game-winning touchdown by a football team, and unlike the passing of a product from stage to stage in an assembly line, or the passing of a virtual piece of paper from computer to computer.

What really matters in life — perhaps as much as love and friendship — is the sense of accomplishment that derives from producing something of value to others, something that they willingly pay for.

In decades of post-collegiate work, nothing gave me more satisfaction than the weekly publication of the Pennysaver that — in the late 1970s — I owned, operated, and poured my labor (and a large share of my savings) into for three years. “Publish or perish” was far truer of me than it is of the academics who exclaim it.

I bought the Pennysaver to escape the “rat race” of the D.C.-area government-contractor milieu: big-city anonymity, commuting, high taxes, and — most of all — disconnect between work and accomplishment. In fact, I doubted that the work that I and thousands of others like me accomplished anything but the appropriation of taxpayers’ money.

During the Pennysaver years I concentrated intensly on making a living. But more than that, I was producing something of real value — a publication supported by willing advertisers and eagerly awaited by local residents, who found it in their mailboxes every Wednesday.

I gave up the Pennysaver to return to the “rat race” of the D.C. area, so that I could earn enough to retire comfortably. (Life is full of choices; that was mine.) I often took pride in some of what I accomplished in the ensuing 18 years. But it wasn’t the same sense of accomplishment that I experienced as a business owner. It was just the satisfaction of doing a job well, even if the job wasn’t worth doing.

I worked hard in those final 18 years — from 60 to 70 hours a week until the end was nigh. But I was no longer the captain of my own ship, though I usually worked directly for the CEO. There were three of them in those years. The first one was deposed (deservedly) in a coup, brought about in part by internal opposition to his Queegish management. The second one was a careerist of high professional and ethical standards who steered the organization back to its roots as an empirical, objective, and apolitical operations research outfit.

Then along came the third one, and a new kind of alienation descended on me: I couldn’t even derive a sense of satisfaction from doing a useless job well because he corrupted the organization. Not in a criminal way, but — almost as bad — in a political way. He was prone to magical thinking (e.g., there should be a greater percentage of black Ph.D.s on the staff but standards shouldn’t be lowered), and he pushed the organization away from empirical research into “policy analysis” (a.k.a., advocacy bullshit) with a partisan edge. It was all in keeping with his proud self-identification as a “Carter Democrat”.

The stress of working for such a man became almost debilitating. So I arranged for early retirement on favorable terms before the stress became absolutely unbearable. My foreboding was borne out when, in the years after my retirement, the organization took an overtly political turn (e.g., backing for some of Obama’s domestic programs, “global warming” as a national-security issue).

Alienation comes in many forms. And it isn’t restricted to workers who are just “cogs in a machine”. Alienation is a sense of uselessness that can descend on anyone in any job at any income level.

Mettenheim on Einstein’s Relativity – Part I

I have added “Mettenheim on Einstein’s Relativity – Part I” to “Einstein’s Errors“. The new material draws on the Part I of Christoph von Mettenheim’s Popper versus Einstein: On the Philosophical Foundations of Physics (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998). Mettenheim strikes many telling blows against STR. These go to the heart of STR and Einstein’s view of science:

[T[o Einstein the axiomatic method of Euclidean geometry was the method of all science; and the task of the scientist was to find those fundamental truths from which all other statement of science could then be derived by purely logical inference. He explicitly said that the step from geometry to physics was to be achieved by simply adding to the axioms of Euclidean geometry one single further axiom, namely the sentence

Regarding the possibilities of their position solid physical bodies will behave like the bodies of Euclidean geometry.

Popper versus Einstein, p. 30

*     *     *

[T]he theory of relativity as Einstein stated it was a mathematical theory. To him the logical necessity of his theory served as an explanation of its results. He believed that nature itself will observe the rules of logic. His words were that

experience of course remains the sole criterion of the serviceability of a mathematical construction for physics, but the truly creative principle resides in mathematics.

Popper versus Einstein, pp. 61-62

*     *     *

There’s much, much more. Go there and see for yourself.

Who’s Obsessing, Professor McWhorter?

A black scholar named John McWhorter has issued a demand to “Stop Obsessing Over Race and IQ” (National Review, July 5, 2017). McWhorter opens with this:

Suppose it’s true.

Suppose that, at the end of the day, people of African descent have lower IQs on average than do other groups of humans, and that this gap is caused, at least in part, by genetic differences….

There is, however, a question that those claiming black people are genetically predisposed to have lower IQs than others fail to answer: What, precisely, would we gain from discussing this particular issue?

In fact, Jared Taylor addressed McWhorter’s challenge nine years before McWhorter issued it. This is from Taylor’s “Egalitarian Orthodoxy: Noble Fiction — Or Noxious Poison?” (VDARE.com, June 24, 2008):

It is … the dogma of equality that makes … policy mischief, because it requires identical racial outcomes. The notorious No Child Left Behind Act brands schools as failures if they cannot close the achievement gap between blacks (and Hispanics) and whites (and Asians). Because not one of the approximately 90,000 public schools in the country has managed to do this, every “diverse” school in America would be declared a failure—if the government followed its own rules….

But there is much worse. The “noble fiction” of racial equality does terrible damage to race relations. According to the fiction, blacks, Hispanics, whites, and Asians are all equally smart and hard-working. They are precisely, mathematically, geometrically equal. Even the slightest deviation in outcomes has only one cause: white racism, past and present. (The fact that Asians do better than whites is conveniently omitted from this argument.)

This means we are constantly telling blacks that white people are cheating them. If blacks are not as rich as whites, if they are more likely that whites to be in jail or on drugs or have AIDS or be on welfare or get shot or knocked up, it is because vicious, systematic racism did it to them. They are responsible for none of it….

[A]ccording to the “noble fiction,” blacks are never allowed to grow up. If they lost the race it was only because they were cheated. We tell them that if they are behind as a group, it is never their responsibility. It is because—and only because—whitey hates them and holds them down. If our goal were to teach blacks to hate white people, it would be hard to think of a better way to do it (along, of course, with constant reminders of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow).

I have addressed the issue several times. In “Race and Reason: The Victims of Affirmative Action“, I say this of affirmative action and other efforts to force racial equality:

[B]lameless Americans have been burdened with equal employment opportunity (EEO), about which more below; minority lending preferences, which contributed to the Great Recession by encouraging mortgage loans to low-income borrowers; public-accommodations laws, a.k.a. theft of property rights and denial of freedom of association; the expansion of the welfare state, which led to welfare dependency, broken families, and crime; and the prosecution and persecution of politically incorrect views as “hate crimes” and “inappropriate” expressions of thought.

Of those burdens, I am most familiar with EEO (a.k.a. affirmative action) because I had to contend with its enforcement and consequences in my job as the chief financial and administrative officer of a private, federally funded, research organization….

Blacks constitute the identity group most likely to seek “protection” under the rubric of  EEO.  On balance, the (effectively) forced hiring of under-qualified blacks causes significant economic damage — as well as resentment of and condescension toward blacks as “affirmative action hires.”…

Reverse discrimination in favor of blacks has victimized millions of Americans, in at least three ways:

  • The aforementioned combination of resentment and condescension has undoubtedly impeded the advance of racial harmony.
  • Many whites have suffered the loss of opportunities and income in the workplace — opportunities and income that would have been theirs if blacks were held to the same standards as whites with respect to hiring and promotion.
  • Many blacks have suffered, in the not-so-long run, because reverse discrimination has set them up for failure.

In “The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality” I give a lot of space to Richard Sander, who has shown that aspiring blacks are chief among the victims of the form of racial preferences. Five years ago, Sander was a guest blogger at The Volokh Conspiracy, where he posted thrice on the subject. In his first post, Sander writes:

As some readers will recall, a little more than seven years ago I published an analysis of law school affirmative action in the Stanford Law Review. The article was the first to present detailed data on the operation and effects of racial preferences in law schools (focusing on blacks).

I also laid out evidence suggesting that large preferences seemed to be worsening black outcomes. I argued that this was plausibly due to a “mismatch effect”; students receiving large preferences (for whatever reason) were likely to find themselves in academic environments where they had to struggle just to keep up; professor instruction would typically be aimed at the “median” student, so students with weaker academic preparation would tend to fall behind, and, even if they did not become discouraged and give up, would tend to learn less than they would have learned in an environment where their level of academic preparation was closer to the class median.

I suggested that the “mismatch effect” could explain as much as half of the black-white gap in first-time bar passage rates (the full gap is thirty to forty percentage points). I also suggested that “mismatch” might so worsen black outcomes that, on net, contemporary affirmative action was not adding to the total number of black lawyers, and might even be lowering the total number of new, licensed black attorneys.

This is from Sander’s second post:

Some of the most significant recent work on affirmative action concerns a phenomenon called “science mismatch”. The idea behind science mismatch is very intuitive: if you are a high school senior interested in becoming, for example, a chemist, you may seriously harm your chances of success by attending a school where most of the other would-be chemists have stronger academic preparation than you do. Professors will tend to pitch their class at the median student, not you; and if you struggle or fall behind in the first semester of inorganic chemistry, you will be in even worse shape in the second semester, and in very serious trouble when you hit organic chemistry. You are likely to get bad grades and to either transfer out of chemistry or fail to graduate altogether….

Duke economists Peter Arcidiacono, Esteban Aucejo, and Ken Spenner last year completed a study that looked at a number of ways that differences in admissions standards at Duke affected academic outcomes. In one of many useful analyses they did, they found that 54% of black men at Duke who, as freshmen, had been interested in STEM fields or economics, had switched out of those fields before graduation; the comparative rate for white men was 8%. Importantly, they found that “these cross-race differences in switching patterns can be fully explained by differences in academic background.” In other words, preferences – not race – was the culprit.

In research conducted by FTC economist Marc Luppino and me, using data from the University of California, we have found important peer effects and mismatch effects that affect students of all races; our results show that one’s chances of completing a science degree fall sharply, at a given level of academic preparation, as one attends more and more elite schools within the UC system. At Berkeley, there is a seven-fold difference in STEM degree completion between students with high and low pre-college credentials.

As is always the case with affirmative action, ironies abound. Although young blacks are about one-seventh as likely as young whites to eventually earn a Ph.D. in STEM fields, academically strong blacks in high school are more likely than similar whites to aspire to science careers. And although a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report in 2010 documented the “science mismatch” phenomenon in some detail, President Obama’s new initiative to improve the nation’s production of scientists neither recognizes nor addresses mismatch….

Science mismatch is, of course, relevant to the general affirmative action debate in showing that preferences can boomerang on their intended beneficiaries. But it also has a special relevance to Fisher v. University of Texas. The university’s main announced purpose in reintroducing racial preferences in 2004 was to increase “classroom” diversity. The university contended that, even though over a fifth of its undergraduates were black or Hispanic, many classrooms had no underrepresented minorities. It sought to use direct (and very large) racial preferences to increase campus URM numbers and thus increase the number of URMs in classes that lacked them. But science mismatch shows that this strategy, too, can be self-defeating. The larger a university’s preferences, the more likely it is that preferenced students will have trouble competing in STEM fields and other majors that are demanding and grade sternly. These students will tend to drop out of the tough fields and congregate in comparatively less demanding ones. Large preferences, in other words, can increase racial segregation across majors and courses within a university, and thus hurt classroom diversity.

And this is from Sander’s third post:

[In the previous post] I discussed a body of research – all of it uncontroverted – that documents a serious flaw in affirmative action programs pursued by elite colleges. Students who receive large preferences and arrive on campus hoping to major in STEM fields (e.g., Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) tend to migrate out of those fields at very high rates, or, if they remain in those fields, often either fail to graduate or graduate with very low GPAs. There is thus a strong tension between receiving a large admissions preference to a more elite school, and one’s ability to pursue a STEM career.

Is it possible for contemporary American universities to engage constructively with this type of research? …

Colleges and universities are committed to the mythology that diversity happens merely because they want it and put resources into it, and that all admitted students arrive with all the prerequisites necessary to flourish in any way they choose. Administrators work hard to conceal the actual differences in academic preparation that almost invariably accompany the aggressive use of preferences. Any research that documents the operation and effects of affirmative action therefore violates this “color-blind” mythology and accompanying norms; minority students are upset, correctly realizing that either the research is wrong or that administrators have misled them. In this scenario, administrators invariably resort to the same strategy: dismiss the research without actually lying about it; reassure the students that the researchers are misguided, but that the university can’t actually punish the researchers because of “academic freedom”….

Affirmative action and similar race-based preferences are harmful to blacks. But those preferences persist because most Americans do not understand that there are inherent racial differences that prevent blacks, on the whole, from doing as well as whites (and Asians) in school and in jobs that require above-average intelligence. But magical thinkers (like McWhorter) want to deny reality. He admits to being driven by hope: “I have always hoped the black–white IQ gap was due to environmental causes.” And this hope clearly colors his entire essay.

Magical thinking — which is rife on the left — plays into the hands of politicians, most of whom couldn’t care less about the truth. They just want the votes of those blacks who relish being told, time and again, that they are “down” because they are “victims”, and Big Daddy government will come to their rescue. But unless you are the unusual black of above-average intelligence, or the more usual black who has exceptional athletic skills, dependence on Big Daddy is self-defeating because (like a drug addiction) it only leads to more of the same. The destructive cycle of dependency can be broken only by willful resistance to the junk being peddled by cynical politicians.

It is for the sake of blacks that the truth about race and intelligence ought to be pursued — and widely publicized. If they read and hear the truth often enough, perhaps they will begin to realize that the best way to better themselves is to make the best of available opportunities instead of moaning abut racism and relying on preferences and handouts.

This advice is far from new, and it has been given by prominent blacks — who, for their candor, have been vilified. But that is no reason to deny the truth or cease to pursue it.

Leftism

Throughout this essay I use “left” and its cognates rather than “progressive” or “liberal” (in the modern, authoritarian sense). The latter terms exemplify doublespeak, an indispensable tool of leftism, inasmuch as “progressives” often endorse regressive economic and social policies, and “liberals” embrace a sanitized version of fascism. This essay draws on many years of reading and observation. Rather than weigh it down with links, I have listed some relevant and supporting books, essays, articles, and posts in the bibliography at the end.


Imagine all the people sharing all the world….

John Lennon

*     *     *

Make peace or I’ll kill you.

M.D. Haykin

*     *     *

Conservatives are the new liberals, and liberals the new fascists.

Bill Vallicella (Maverick Philosopher)


I often refer to the left and analyze the sources and consequences of leftist ideology. Here I will try to paint a comprehensive picture of leftism, as a reference point for future posts and as a guide to those readers who are open to the truth behind the “compassionate” facade of leftism. Specifically, I will address the left’s agenda, the assumptions and attitudes underlying it, the left’s strategic and tactical methods, the psychological underpinnings of leftism, the heavy economic and social costs of realizing the left’s agenda, and the remedy for leftism in America.

Ideologies breed in-groups. Most people like to belong to or identify with something bigger than themselves — clan, religion, social group, company, or nation, for example. Leftists are different only in what they identify with. Even libertarians, who claim to renounce the state — or more than a minimal state for the defense of citizens from force and fraud — are cliquish; they put great store in their self-identification, spend a lot of time ferreting out heresies against their creed, and spend a lot of time defending their various interpretations of libertarianism.

Only conservatism of a certain kind is non-ideological. This kind of conservatism can be described, but the description is that of a disposition toward politics in its broadest sense, which is

the process and method of decision-making for groups of human beings. Although it is generally applied to governments, politics is also observed in all human group interactions. [Wikipedia, as of December 11, 2004]

Michael Oakeshott describes conservatism as a disposition in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. I classify conservatism — of the true, traditional kind — as a kind of libertarianism (right-minarchism). But the classification is meant only to locate the conservative attitude toward the state in relation to other attitudes. I don’t mean to imply that conservatism of the kind described by Oakeshott is an ideology or creed with tokens of membership.

(There are many people who claim to be conservative, but who are not. I will address them at various places in this essay.)

Leftism also originates in a disposition, as I will discuss, but it ends in an ideology: a collection of particular (if often abstract and shifting) objectives toward which political outcomes should be directed, nay, coerced. Leftists are abetted in their efforts by enablers of various kinds, who may not be leftists by disposition but who lend support (intellectual and material) and votes to the leftist cause because of the allure of its proclaimed goals or promised benefits.

With that essential business out of the way, I turn to the several facets of leftism.

For the rest, go to the “Leftism” page of this blog.

Self-Made Victims

The author of Imlac’s Journal quotes Malcolm Muggeridge on George Bernard Shaw:

He wanted to make a lot of money without being considered rich.

Here is Theodore Dalrymple, writing in the same vein:

[D]uring the early years of the AIDS epidemic … it was demanded of us that we should believe incompatible things simultaneously, for example that it was simply a disease like any other and that it was a disease of unprecedented importance and unique significance; that it could strike anybody but that certain group were martyrs to it; that it must be normalized and yet treated differently….  It was a bit like living under a small version of a communist dictatorship, in which the law of noncontradiction had been abrogated in favor of dialectics, under which all contradictions were compatible, but which contradictions had to be accepted was a matter of the official policy of the moment….

The demand for recognition and nonrecognition at the same time is surely one of the reasons for the outbreak of mass self-mutilation in the Western world in an age of celebrity. A person who treats his face and body like an ironmongery store can hardly desire or expect that you fail to notice it, but at the same time demands that you make no comment about it, draw no conclusions from it, express no aversion toward it, and treat him no differently because of it. You must accept him as he is, however he is, because he has an inalienable right to such acceptance….

I think the same dynamic (if I may call it such) is at work in the current vogue for transsexualism: “You must recognize me and not recognize me at the same time.” In this way, people can simultaneously enjoy the fruits of being normal and very different. To be merely the same as others is a wound to the ego in an age of celebrity, and yet we are herd animals who do not want to wander too far from the herd. And in an age of powerlessness we want to exert power.

What will be the next attempted reconciliation of our incompatible desires? [“Everyday Snowflakes“, Taki’s Magazine, July 15, 2017]

Good question. I don’t have a ready answer, but I have some other examples of incompatible desiderata. Each entry in the list below has two parts: (on the left) an objective that most leftists would claim to support and (on the right) the left-wing policy that hinders attainment of the objective.

Ample employment opportunities for low-skill workers – Minimum wage

Vigorous economic growth – Regulation

Property rights* and freedom of association – Public-accommodation laws

Less crime – Strict gun control or confiscation of guns*

Peace – Less defense spending (and therefore lack of deterrence)

The result of each left-wing policy is to create victims, ranging from young black men to law-abiding citizens to most Americans. The left’s constant search for “victims” is evidently hindered by intellectual myopia.

Moreover, in many cases leftists are actual or potential victims of their own policy preferences. But their magical thinking (unconstrained vision) blinds them to the incompatibility of their desires.


* There are many hypocrites on the left (like Shaw) who would vigorously defend their property rights while proclaiming their attachment to socialism, and who employ guards (with guns) to protect their property.


More posts about the left and magical thinking:
The Left and Its Delusions
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
America: Past, Present, and Future
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality
“And the Truth Shall Set You Free”
The Transgender Fad and Its Consequences

Liberty in Chains

I continue to add items to the list of related readings at the bottom of this post.

Liberty is a good thing, and not just because most people like to feel unconstrained by anything but their moral obligations and principles. (And it’s a good thing for liberty that it doesn’t depend entirely on self-control.) Liberty fosters constructive competition and, in the terminology of pop psychology, self-actualization; for example: the trial-and-error emergence of social norms that advance cooperation and comity; the trial-and-error emergence (and dissolution) of businesses that advance consumers’ interests; the freedom to work where one chooses (according to one’s ability), to live where one chooses (within one’s means), to marry the person of one’s choosing (consistent with public health and the wisdom embedded in voluntarily evolved social norms), to have as many children as a couple can provide for without imposing involuntary burdens on others; and the freedom to associate with persons of one’s own choosing, including the persons with whom one does business.

It’s no secret that those manifestations of liberty haven’t held throughout the United States and throughout its history. It’s also no secret that none of them is sharply and permanently defined in practice. In some jurisdictions, for example, a businessperson is forced by law to provide certain services or pay a stiff fine. The argument for such treatment takes a one-sided view of freedom of association, and grants it only to the person seeking the services, while denigrating the wishes of the person who is forced to provide them. The liberty of the customer is advanced at the expense of the liberty of the businessperson. It is an approach, like that of civil-rights law generally, which favors positive rights and dismisses negative ones. It is therefore anti-libertarianism in the name of liberty, as I explain in a recent post.

In sum, liberty isn’t a simple thing. It’s certainly not as simple or simplistic as J.S. Mill’s harm principle (a.k.a. non-aggression principle), as I have explained many times (e.g. here). In fact, it’s impossible for everyone to be satisfied that they’re living in a state of liberty. This is partly because so many people believe that they possess positive rights — entitlements provided at the expense of others.

More generally, liberty has been and continues to be invoked as a justification for anti-libertarian acts, beyond the creation and enforcement of positive rights. There is the problem of freedom of speech, for example, which has been interpreted to allow advocacy of anti-libertarian forms of government — most notably America’s present de facto blend of socialism and fascism.

This problem, which is actually a constitutional catastrophe, is closely related to the problem of democracy. There are many who advocate unbridled democratic control of private institutions through government power. One such person is Nancy MacLean, whose recent book, Democracy in Chains, seems to be a mindless defense of majority opinion. The Wikipedia entry for the book (as of today’s writing) seems fair and balanced (links and footnotes omitted):

In June 2017 MacLean published Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, focusing on the Nobel Prize winning political economist James McGill Buchanan, Charles Koch, George Mason University and the libertarian movement in the U.S, who, she argues, have undertaken “a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and national levels back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.” According to MacLean, Buchanan represents “the true origin story of today’s well-heeled radical right.”….

Booklist, which gave the book a starred review, wrote that Democracy in Chains … is “perhaps the best explanation to date of the roots of the political divide that threatens to irrevocably alter American government.” Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “MacLean constructs an erudite searing portrait of how the late political economist James McGill Buchanan (1919 – 2013) and his deep-pocketed conservative allies have reshaped–and undermined–American democracy.” Kirkus said “MacLean offers a cogent yet disturbing analysis of libertarians’ current efforts to rewrite the social contract and manipulate citizens’ beliefs.”

In The Atlantic, Sam Tanenhaus called Democracy in Chains, “A vibrant intellectual history of the radical right.” Genevieve Valentine wrote on NPR: “This sixty-year campaign to make libertarianism mainstream and eventually take the government itself is at the heart of Democracy in Chains.”

Democracy in Chains was criticized by libertarians. David Bernstein disputed MacLean’s portrayal of Buchanan and George Mason University, where Bernstein is and Buchanan was a professor. Jonathan H. Adler noted allegations of serious errors and misleading quotations in Democracy in Chains raised by Russ Roberts, David R. Henderson, Don Boudreaux and others. Ilya Somin disagreed that libertarianism was uniquely anti-democratic, arguing that libertarians and left-liberals alike believed in constraining democratic majorities regarding “abortion, privacy rights, robust definitions of free speech… and freedom of religion, extensive protections for criminal defendants, and limitations on the powers of law enforcement personnel”. George Vanberg argued that MacLean’s portrayal of Buchanan as wishing to “preserve (or enhance) the power of a white, wealthy elite at the expenses of marginalized social groups … represents a fundamental misunderstanding”. Michael Munger wrote that Democracy in Chains “is a work of speculative historical fiction” while Phillip Magness argued that MacLean had “simply made up an inflammatory association” concerning Buchanan and the Southern Agrarians. In response MacLean argued she was the target of a “coordinated and interlinked set of calculated hit jobs” from “the Koch team of professors who don’t disclose their conflicts of interest and the operatives who work fulltime for their project to shackle our democracy.”

Henry Farrell and Steven Teles wrote that “while we do not share Buchanan’s ideology … we think the broad thrust of the criticism is right. MacLean is not only wrong in detail but mistaken in the fundamentals of her account.”

The writers cited in the second and third paragraphs are far better qualified than I am to defend Buchanan’s integrity and ideas. (See “Related Reading”, below.) I will focus on MacLean’s ideas.

Why does MacLean claim that democracy is in chains? In what follows I draw on Alex Shephard’s interview of MacLean for The New Republic. MacLean is especially interested in preserving “liberal democracy”. What is it, according to Maclean? She doesn’t say in the interview, and mentions it only once:

[I]f you block off the political process from answering people’s needs, as the radical right managed to do throughout Barack Obama’s two terms on so many major issues, then people get frustrated. They get frustrated that politics has become so polarized between right and left and they believe that liberal democracy does not work—they start to believe that we need a radical alternative.

MacLean seems to have the same view of “liberal democracy” as her European counterparts. It is a mechanism through which government takes some people’s money, property rights, and jobs to buy other people’s votes. It is democracy only in the sense that a majority of voters can be counted on to demand other people’s money, property rights, and jobs. It confers on “liberal” politicians and their bureaucratic minions the image of being “compassionate”, and enables them to characterize their opponents — people who don’t support legalized theft — as mean-spirited. It is asymmetrical ideological warfare in action, with an unsurprising result: the victory of “liberal democracy”.

This sample of MacLean’s thinking (to dignify her knee-jerk leftism) is consistent with her assumption that she knows what “the people” really want; for example:

On issue after issue you see vast majorities of Republicans who actually agree on some of the fundamental needs of the country: They support a progressive income tax, they want to address global warming, they care about the preservation of Medicare and Social Security as originally construed as social insurance, they care about public education…. But they have been riled up by this apparatus [“radical right” libertarianism], and by very cynical Republican leaders, to support a party that is undermining the things that they seek.

What does the purported (and dubious) existence of “vast majorities of Republicans” have to do with anything? To the extent that there are voters who identify themselves as Republicans and who favor those programs that benefit them (or so they believe), that simply makes them part of the problem: another interest-group trying to spend other people’s money, and thus spending their own because every “favor” requires repayment in the realpolitik of Washington.

Also, as evidenced by many of the items listed below in “Related Reading”, MacLean’s discussion of “the fundamental needs of the country” and how they can best be met is deeply flawed. Further, her generalization about “vast majorities” is dubious given that (a) not a single Republican member of Congress voted for Obamacare but (b) Republicans made large gains in both houses of Congress in the election that followed the enactment of Obamacare.

There’s a bigger problem that MacLean doesn’t seem to grasp or acknowledge, namely, the debilitating effects of “liberal democracy” on liberty and prosperityeveryone’s liberty and prosperity, contrary to MacLean’s “right-wing conspiracy” theory. Even the poorest of today’s Americans would be far better off had the United States not become a “liberal democracy”. As for liberty, social and economic liberty are indivisible; taxation and regulation diminish prosperity and liberty (the ability to choose where one lives, with whom one associates, etc.).

In any event, by MacLean’s logic the demise of liberty and decline of prosperity are acceptable if a majority of the American people want it. Certainly, by the mid-1930s a vast majority of the German people wanted Adolph Hitler to remain in power, and it’s likely that similar majorities of the Russian and Chinese people felt the same way about Stalin and Mao. (The devil you know, etc.) The difference between “liberal democracy” and the totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and their ilk is only a matter of degree.

MacLean would no doubt respond that there is a proper limit on government power, a limit that is respected in a “liberal democracy” but not in a dictatorship. But there is no limit, not even in a “liberal democracy”, except for the limit that those in power actually observe. In the end, it is up to those in power to observe that limit — and they won’t.

The Framers of the Constitution, who understood human nature very well, knew that venality and power-lust would prevail if the new government wasn’t constrained by rigorous checks and balances. (Those words don’t occur in the Constitution, but it is nevertheless replete with checks on the power of the central government and balances of power within the central government and between it and the States.) But the checks and balances have all but disappeared under the onslaught of decades’ worth of unconstitutional legislation, executive usurpation, and judicial malfeasance. The election of Donald Trump — leftist hysteria to the contrary notwithstanding — is all that saved America (temporarily, at least) from its continued spiral into hard despotism. Hillary Clinton would no doubt have redoubled Barack Obama’s penchant for government by executive fiat, given her expansive view of the role of the central government and her own dictatorial personality. (As far as I know, for all the hysteria about Mr. Trump’s supposed “fascism”, he has yet to defy court orders enjoining his executive actions, despite the apparent unconstitutionality of some of the judicial interventions.)

MacLean’s hysteria is badly misplaced. “Liberal democracy” isn’t under siege. Liberty and prosperity are, and have been for a long time. The siege continues, in the form of resistance to Mr. Trump’s administration by legislators, judges, the media, much of the academy, and the usual left-wing rabble. It’s all part of a vast, left-wing conspiracy.


Related reading (listed chronologically):

Jason Brennan, “Conspire Me This: Is Nancy MacLean a Hired Gun for the Establishment?“, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, June 23, 2017 (See grant number FA-57183-13, awarded to MacLean by the National Endowment for the Humanities.)

Russell Roberts, “Nancy MacLean Owes Tyler Cowen an Apology“, Medium, June 25, 2017

Don Boudreaux, Cafe Hayek — begin with “Russ Roberts on Nancy MacLean on Tyler Cowen on Democracy” (June 26, 2017) and continue through dozens of relevant and eloquent posts about MacLean’s outright errors, mental sloppiness, and argumentative slipperiness

David Henderson, “Nancy MacLean’s Distortion of James Buchanan’s Statement“, EconLog, June 27, 2017

Philip W. Magness, “How Nancy MacLean Went Whistlin’ Dixie“, Philip W. Magness, June 27, 2017

Ramesh Ponnuru, “Nancy MacLean’s Methods“, National Review Online, The Corner, June 27, 2017

Johnathan H. Adler, “Does ‘Democracy in Chains’ Paint an Accurate Picture of James Buchanan?“, The Volokh Conspiracy, June 28, 2017 (Adler updates this often)

David Bernstein, “Some Dubious Claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, June 28, 2017

Steve Horwitz, “MacLean on Nutter and Buchanan on Universal Education“, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, June 28, 2017

David Bernstein, “Some Dubious Claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains,’ Continued“, The Volokh Conspiracy, June 29, 2017

Philip W. Magness, “Nancy MacLean’s Calhounite Imagination“, Philip W. Magness, June 29, 2017

Michael C. Munger, “On the Origins and Goals of Public Choice“, Independent Institute (forthcoming in The Independent Review), June 29, 2017

Daniel Bier, “The Juvenile ‘Research’ of ‘Historian’ Nancy MacLean“, The Skeptical Libertarian, July 5, 2017

David Boaz, “Another Misleading Quotation in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’“, Cato At Liberty, July 5, 2017

David Bernstein, “Yet More Dubious Claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 6, 2017

Michael Giberson, “Fun With Footnotes (A Game of Scholarly Diversity)“, Knowledge Problem, July 9, 2017

David Gordon, “MacLean on James Buchanan: Fake History for an Age of Fake News“, Mises Wire, July 10, 2017

Ilya Somin, “Who Wants to Put Democracy in Chains?“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 10, 2017

David Bernstein, “Nancy MacLean’s Conspiratorial Response to Criticism of ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 11, 2017

Don Boudreaux, “Quotation of the Day…“, Cafe Hayek, July 12, 2017

Don Boudreaux, “Nancy MacLean Should Get Back in Touch with Reality“, Cafe Hayek, July 12, 2017

Steve Horwitz, “A Devastating Review of Nancy MacLean’s Book on the Klan“, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, July 12, 2017

Jeffrey A. Tucker, “This Confused Conspiracy Theory Gets the Agrarians All Wrong“, FEE, Articles, July 12, 2017

David Bernstein, “Duke Professor Georg Vanberg on ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 14, 2017

Henry Farrell and Steven Teles, “Even the Intellectual Left Is Drawn to Conspiracy Theories about the Right.Resist Them.“, Vox, July 14, 2017

Jonathan H. Adler, “‘Why Have So Many Embraced Such an Obviously Flawed Book?’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 15, 2017

Sarah Skwire, “MacLean Is Not Interested in a Fair Fight“, FEE, Articles, July 15, 2017

Steven Hayward, “The Scandal of the Liberal Mind“, Power Line, July 16, 2017

Steven Hayward, “When You’ve Lost Rick Perlstein…“, Power Line, July 19, 2017

Jonathan H. Adler, “Nancy MacLean Responds to Her Critics“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 20, 2017

Charlotte Allen, “They’re Out to Get Her?“, The Weekly Standard, July 20, 2017

Dave Bernstein, “Did Nancy MacLean Make Stuff Up in ‘Democracy in Chains’?“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 20, 2017

Brian Doherty, “What Nancy MacLean Gets Wrong about James Buchanan“, reason.com, July 20, 2017

Arnold Kling, “Nancy MacLean: Ignoring the Central Ethical Issue“, askblog, July 20, 2017

Greg Weiner, “Nancy MacLean’s Ad Hominem Ad Hominem“, Library of Law & Liberty, July 25, 2017

Jon Cassidy, “Render Them Unable: More on Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The American Spectator, July 27, 2017

Bayesian Irrationality

I just came across a strange and revealing statement by Tyler Cowen:

I am frustrated by the lack of Bayesianism in most of the religious belief I observe. I’ve never met a believer who asserted: “I’m really not sure here. But I think Lutheranism is true with p = .018, and the next strongest contender comes in only at .014, so call me Lutheran.” The religious people I’ve known rebel against that manner of framing, even though during times of conversion they may act on such a basis.

I don’t expect all or even most religious believers to present their views this way, but hardly any of them do. That in turn inclines me to think they are using belief for psychological, self-support, and social functions.

I wouldn’t expect anyone to say something like “Lutheranism is true with p = .018”. Lutheranism is either true or false. Just as a person on trial is either guilty or innocent. One may have doubts about the truth of Lutheranism or the guilt of a defendant, but those doubts have nothing to do with probability. Neither does Bayesianism.

In defense of probability, I will borrow heavily from myself. According to Wikipedia (as of December 19, 2014):

Bayesian probability represents a level of certainty relating to a potential outcome or idea. This is in contrast to a frequentist probability that represents the frequency with which a particular outcome will occur over any number of trials.

An event with Bayesian probability of .6 (or 60%) should be interpreted as stating “With confidence 60%, this event contains the true outcome”, whereas a frequentist interpretation would view it as stating “Over 100 trials, we should observe event X approximately 60 times.”

Or consider this account:

The Bayesian approach to learning is based on the subjective interpretation of probability.   The value of the proportion p is unknown, and a person expresses his or her opinion about the uncertainty in the proportion by means of a probability distribution placed on a set of possible values of p….

“Level of certainty” and “subjective interpretation” mean “guess.” The guess may be “educated.” It’s well known, for example, that a balanced coin will come up heads about half the time, in the long run. But to say that “I’m 50-percent confident that the coin will come up heads” is to say nothing meaningful about the outcome of a single coin toss. There are as many probable outcomes of a coin toss as there are bystanders who are willing to make a statement like “I’m x-percent confident that the coin will come up heads.” Which means that a single toss doesn’t have a probability, though it can be the subject of many opinions as to the outcome.

Returning to reality, Richard von Mises eloquently explains frequentism in Probability, Statistics and Truth (second revised English edition, 1957). Here are some excerpts:

The rational concept of probability, which is the only basis of probability calculus, applies only to problems in which either the same event repeats itself again and again, or a great number of uniform elements are involved at the same time. Using the language of physics, we may say that in order to apply the theory of probability we must have a practically unlimited sequence of uniform observations. [P. 11]

*     *     *

In games of dice, the individual event is a single throw of the dice from the box and the attribute is the observation of the number of points shown by the dice. In the game of “heads or tails”, each toss of the coin is an individual event, and the side of the coin which is uppermost is the attribute. [P. 11]

*     *     *

We must now introduce a new term…. This term is “the collective”, and it denotes a sequence of uniform events or processes which differ by certain observable attributes…. All the throws of dice made in the course of a game [of many throws] from a collective wherein the attribute of the single event is the number of points thrown…. The definition of probability which we shall give is concerned with ‘the probability of encountering a single attribute in a given collective’. [Pp. 11-12]

*     *     *

[A] collective is a mass phenomenon or a repetitive event, or, simply, a long sequence of observations for which there are sufficient reasons to believe that the relative frequency of the observed attribute would tend to a fixed limit if the observations were indefinitely continued. The limit will be called the probability of the attribute considered within the collective. [P. 15, emphasis in the original]

*     *     *

The result of each calculation … is always … nothing else but a probability, or, using our general definition, the relative frequency of a certain event in a sufficiently long (theoretically, infinitely long) sequence of observations. The theory of probability can never lead to a definite statement concerning a single event. The only question that it can answer is: what is to be expected in the course of a very long sequence of observations? [P. 33, emphasis added]

Cowen has always struck me a intellectually askew — looking at things from odd angles just for the sake of doing so. In that respect he reminds me of a local news anchor whose suits, shirts, ties, and pocket handkerchiefs almost invariably clash in color and pattern. If there’s a method to his madness, other than attention-getting, it’s lost on me — as is Cowen’s skewed, attention-getting way of thinking.

The Invention of Rights

Negative rights are those rights that do not impose claims against others. Such rights include:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement.

A negative right, in sum, is the right to be left alone by others as long as one is not violating the negative rights of others.

Negative rights aren’t self-enforcing, though they may be widely observed through adherence to the Golden Rule. Because negative rights aren’t self-enforcing, it is necessary to provide for government protection of negative rights (though an anarchist would say that it isn’t necessary). Government protection includes:

  • deterrence of rights violations by citizens through swift and sure detection, prosecution, and punishment (including restitution and compensation, where feasible)
  • deterrence of rights violations by non-citizens through armed defense, including the preemption of imminent violations.

Negative rights aren’t free-floating essences that persons possess by the mere act of being alive. Such rights would be “natural rights”, which I have argued do not exist (e.g., here). Negative rights are simply rights that can be recognized and exercised universally within a polity, without imposing a burden on anyone (other than the general burden of enforcement). I emphasize within because negative rights are of no practical value unless they are enforced.

Thus, for example, unlike American citizens who may freely move about within the United States, foreigners do not possess a right to cross into the United States without permission from the government of the United States. Whatever the legal reasons for such a restriction, there is a reason based on the concept of negative rights: Unrestricted immigration imposes costs on at least some Americans (e.g., the payment of taxes to provide schooling and subsidies) even as it may benefit other Americans (e.g., those who benefit from the low wage rates of immigrant laborers).

Positive rights are negative rights turned upside down. They imply claims against others, for the benefit of the “possessors” of positive rights. Some positive rights are compatible with and arise from negative rights, but only in limited circumstances. For example, two persons may enter into a voluntary employment contract. The employer undertakes to pay the employee certain compensation in return for the performance of certain duties. The negative right, freedom of contract, encompasses and legitimates the positive rights mutually conveyed: the obligation of the employee to perform certain duties and the obligation of the employer to pay certain compensation in return.

But positive rights can only coexist with negative rights when the positive rights are created voluntarily by persons who are exercising their negative rights. Where positive rights are created by government action, they necessarily conflict with and nullify negative rights. Returning to the question of illegal immigration: Where there are government-run schools and welfare programs, illegal immigration (and a lot of legal immigration) necessarily forces some taxpayers to support immigrants. That is quite a different thing than a system which would allow immigration only by persons who have demonstrated that they can support themselves, or who are sponsored by persons or organizations that undertake to subsidize the immigrants’ schooling, medical care, training, etc. I must emphasize that the violation of negative rights stems from the existence of government-run schools and welfare programs, the use of which bestows positive rights not only on illegal immigrants but also on many Americans.

In sum:

  • The exercise of a negative right by one person doesn’t demand something of another person, other than forbearance, at times.
  • Negative rights will therefore reflect prevailing social norms; they will not exist in a vacuum or arise without social approbation.
  • Government action may be required to protect negative rights, but they can (and do) exist independently of government action.
  • The exercise of a positive right by one person necessarily demands something of another person.
  • Two or more persons may create positive rights that they, and only they, are obliged to observe.
  • But the creation of a positive right by an outside party (e.g., government) necessarily results in the involuntary (forceful) imposition of demands on persons other than those who exercise the right.

Negative rights are timeless. For example, freedom of association could (and did) exist in the United States of 1789. Its exercise didn’t depend on the size of the nation’s GDP, the existence of public schools, the invention of a cornucopia of beneficial drugs, the existence of automobiles, or any of the other trappings of life in today’s United States.

Positive rights tend to come into existence by force (i.e., government action) only when the means to provide them have come into existence. Thus the “right” to an education (i.e. government-approved indoctrination) arose after the forceful creation of public schools and universities. The “right” to health care came into existence only after the development of a robust, inventive, and effective system of health care in the United States, mainly through voluntary, private action (and despite the dead hand of occupational licensing and death-dealing drug-approval procedures). The “right” to housing came into existence only after do-gooders, politicians, and bureaucrats decided in recent, relatively affluent decades that it should exist … just because. The “right” to free public transportation came into existence only after the invention of the automobile and the creation of government-owned and government-franchised transit systems. And on and on.

All rights are invented. Negative rights arise from social agreement. Positive rights (other than those granted voluntarily by consenting parties) arise from the force of government action. Negative rights are the only ones that can be enjoyed by everyone in a polity at no material cost to anyone else in the polity.


Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Inventing “Liberalism”
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
Nature Is Unfair
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Liberty and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World
Natural Law and Natural Rights Revisited
If Men Were Angels

Death of a Nation

More than 50 years ago I heard a white woman say of blacks “They’re not Americans.” I was appalled by that statement, for it contradicted what I had been taught to believe about America, namely, this:

“America is not just a country,” said the rock singer Bono, in Pennsylvania in 2004: “It’s an idea.”

That’s the opening of John O’Sullivan’s essay, “A People, Not Just an Idea” (National Review, November 19, 2015).

Bono is a decent, thoughtful, and public-spirited man. I didn’t choose his quotation to suggest that this view of America is a kind of pop opinion. It just happened that in my Google search his name came ahead of many others, from George Will to Irving Kristol to almost every recent presidential candidate, all of whom had described America either as an idea or as a “proposition nation,” to distinguish it from dynastic realms or “blood and soil” ethnicities. This philosophical definition of America is now the conventional wisdom of Left and Right, at least among people who write and talk of such things.

Indeed, we have heard variations on Bono’s formulation so many times that we probably fail to notice how paradoxical it is. But listen to how it sounds when reversed: “America is not just an idea; it is a nation.” Surely that version has much more of the ring of common sense. For a nation is plainly something larger, more complex, and richer than an idea. A nation may include ideas. It may have evolved under the influence of a particular set of ideas. But because it encompasses so many other things — notably the laws, institutions, language of the nation; the loyalties, stories, and songs of the people; and above all Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” — the nation becomes more than an idea with every election, every battle, every hero, every heroic tale, every historical moment that millions share.

That is not to deny that the United States was founded on some very explicit political ideas, notably liberty and equality, which Jefferson helpfully wrote down in the Declaration of Independence. To be founded on an idea, however, is not the same thing as to be an idea. A political idea is not a destination or a conclusion but the starting point of an evolution — and, in the case of the U.S., not really a starting point, either. The ideas in the Declaration on which the U.S. was founded were not original to this country but drawn from the Anglo-Scottish tradition of Whiggish liberalism. Not only were these ideas circulating well before the Revolution, but when the revolutionaries won, they succeeded not to a legal and political wasteland but to the institutions, traditions, and practices of colonial America — which they then reformed rather than abolished….

As John Jay pointed out, Americans were fortunate in having the same religion (Protestantism), the same language, and the same institutions from the first. Given the spread of newspapers, railways, and democratic debate, that broad common culture would intensify the sense of a common American identity over time. It was a cultural identity more than an ethnic one, and one heavily qualified by regional loyalties… And the American identity might have become an ethnic one in time if it had not been for successive waves of immigration that brought other ethnicities into the nation.

That early American identity was robust enough to absorb these new arrivals and to transform them into Americans. But it wasn’t an easy or an uncomplicated matter. America’s emerging cultural identity was inevitably stretched by the arrivals of millions of people from different cultures. The U.S. government, private industry, and charitable organizations all set out to “Americanize” them. It was a great historical achievement and helped to create a new America that was nonetheless the old America in all essential respects….

By World War II, … all but the most recent migrants had become culturally American. So when German commandos were wandering behind American lines in U.S. uniforms during the Battle of the Bulge, the G.I.s testing their identity asked not about … the First Amendment but questions designed to expose their knowledge (or ignorance) of American life and popular culture….

Quite a lot flows from this history. Anyone can learn philosophical Americanism in a civics class; for a deeper knowledge and commitment, living in America is a far surer recipe…. Americans are a distinct and recognizable people with their own history, culture, customs, loyalties, and other qualities that are wider and more various than the most virtuous summary of liberal values….

… If Americans are a distinct people, with their own history, traditions, institutions, and common culture, then they can reasonably claim that immigrants should adapt to them and to their society rather than the reverse. For most of the republic’s history, that is what happened. And in current circumstances, it would imply that Muslim immigrants should adapt to American liberty as Catholic immigrants once did.

If America is an idea, however, then Americans are not a particular people but simply individuals or several different peoples living under a liberal constitution.

For a long time the “particular people” were not just Protestants but white Protestants of European descent. As O’Sullivan points out, Catholics (of European descent) eventually joined the ranks of “particular people”. But there are others — mostly blacks and Hispanics — who never did and never will join those ranks. Whatever the law may say about equality, access to housing, access to public accommodations, and so on, membership in the ranks of “particular people” is up to those who are already members.

The woman who claimed that blacks weren’t Americans was a member. She was a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner, but her attitude wasn’t untypical of the attitudes of many white Americans — Northern and Southern, past and present. Like it or not, the attitude remains prevalent in the country. (Don’t believe polls that purport to demonstrate racial comity; there’s a well-known aversion to giving a “wrong” answer to a pollster.)

The revealed preference of most whites (a preference shared by most blacks) is for racial segregation. Aggregate statistics hide the real story, which is the gentrification of some parts of inner cities (i.e., the creation of white enclaves) and “white flight” from suburbs to which inner-city blacks are fleeing. (See this article, for instance.)

The taste for segregation shows up in statistics about public-school enrollment. (See this article, for instance.) White parents (and affluent blacks) are more often keeping their children out of local public schools with large “minority” enrollments by choosing one of the alternatives legally available to them (e.g., home schooling). (Presidents with school-age children — including Barack Obama — have done the same thing to avoid sending their children to the public schools of the District of Columbia, whose students are predominantly black and Hispanic.)

I have focused on voluntary racial segregation because it underscores the fact — not lost on the white, Southern woman of my acquaintance — that the United States was once built upon the “blood and soil” ethnicity of whites whose origins lay in Europe. Blacks can never be part of that nation. Neither can Hispanics, who now outnumber blacks in America. Blacks and Hispanics belong to the “proposition” nation.

They have been joined by the large numbers of Americans who no longer claim allegiance to the “blood and soil” nation, regardless of their race or ethnicity — leftists, in other words. Since the 1960s leftists have played an ever-larger, often dominant, role in the governance of America. They have rejected the “history, culture, customs, [and] loyalties” which once bound most Americans. In fact they are working daily — through the academy, the media, and the courts — to transform America fundamentally by erasing the “history, culture, customs, [and] loyalties” of Americans from the people’s consciousness and the nation’s laws.

Pat Buchanan, who is usually too strident for my taste, hits it on the head:

In Federalist No. 2, John Jay writes of them as “one united people . . . descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs . . .”

If such are the elements of nationhood and peoplehood, can we still speak of Americans as one nation and one people?

We no longer have the same ancestors. They are of every color and from every country. We do not speak one language, but rather English, Spanish and a host of others. We long ago ceased to profess the same religion. We are Evangelical Christians, mainstream Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, agnostics and atheists.

Federalist No. 2 celebrated our unity. Today’s elites proclaim that our diversity is our strength. But is this true or a tenet of trendy ideology?

After the attempted massacre of Republican Congressmen at that ball field in Alexandria, Fareed Zakaria wrote: “The political polarization that is ripping this country apart” is about “identity . . . gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation (and) social class.” He might have added — religion, morality, culture and history.

Zakaria seems to be tracing the disintegration of our society to that very diversity that its elites proclaim to be its greatest attribute: “If the core issues are about identity, culture and religion … then compromise seems immoral. American politics is becoming more like Middle Eastern politics, where there is no middle ground between being Sunni or Shiite.”

Among the issues on which we Americans are at war with one another — abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, white cops, black crime, Confederate monuments, LGBT rights, affirmative action.

America is no longer a nation whose inhabitants are bound mainly by “blood and soil”. Worse than that, it was — until the election of 2016 — fast becoming a nation governed by the proposition that liberty is only what leftists say it is: the liberty not to contradict the left’s positions on climate, race, intelligence, economics, religion, marriage, the right to life, and government’s intrusive role in all of those things and more. The resistance to Donald Trump is fierce and unforgiving because his ascendancy threatens what leftists have worked so hard to achieve in the last 50 years: the de-Americanization of America.

Is all of this just the grumbling of white men of European descent? I think not. Measures of national unity are hard to come by. Opinion polls, aside from their relatively brief history (compared with the age of the Union), are notoriously unreliable. Presidential elections are more meaningful because (some degree of chicanery aside) they reflect voters’ feelings about the state of the Union. Regardless of the party affiliation of the winning candidate, a strong showing usually reflects broad satisfaction with the nation’s direction; a weak showing usually reflects the opposite.

Popular votes were first recorded in the election of 1824. Here is a graphical history of the winning candidate’s percentages of the vote in each election from 1824 through 2016 (with the exclusion of 1864, when the South wasn’t in the Union):


Derived from this table in this article at Wikipedia.

Election-to-election variations reflect the personal popularity of some candidates, the strength of third-party movements, and various other transitory factors. The 5-election average smooths those effects and reveals what is (to me) an obvious story: national disunity in the years before and after the Civil War; growing unity during the first half of the 20th century, peaking during the Great Depression and World War II; modest post-war decline followed by stability through the 1980s; and rapid decline since then because of the left’s growing power and the rapid rise of the Hispanic population.

The graph underscores what I already knew: The America in which I was born and raised — the America of the 1940s and 1950s — has been beaten down. It is more likely to die than it is to revive. And even if it revives to some degree, it will never be the same.


Related posts:
Academic Bias
Intellectuals and Capitalism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Are You in the Bubble?
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
The Culture War
Ruminations on the Left in America
Academic Ignorance
The Euphemism Conquers All
Defending the Offensive
Superiority
Whiners
A Dose of Reality
God-Like Minds
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Retrospective Virtue-Signalling
The Left and Violence
Four Kinds of “Liberals”
Leftist Condescension
Class in America
A Word of Warning to Leftists (and Everyone Else)
Another Thought or Two about Class
The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy
The Left and Evergreen State: Reaping What Was Sown

Modeling Revisited

Arnold Kling comments on a post by John Taylor, who writes about the Macroeconomic Modelling and Model Comparison Network (MMCN), which

is one part of a larger project called the Macroeconomic Model Comparison Initiative (MMCI)…. That initiative includes the Macroeconomic Model Data Base, which already has 82 models that have been developed by researchers at central banks, international institutions, and universities. Key activities of the initiative are comparing solution methods for speed and accuracy, performing robustness studies of policy evaluations, and providing more powerful and user-friendly tools for modelers.

Kling says: “Why limit the comparison to models? Why not compare models with verbal reasoning?” I say: a pox on economic models, whether they are mathematical or verbal.

That said, I do harbor special disdain for mathematical models, including statistical estimates of such models. Reality is nuanced. Verbal descriptions of reality, being more nuanced than mathematics, can more closely represent reality than can be done with mathematics.

Mathematical modelers are quick to point out that a mathematical model can express complex relationships which are difficult to express in words. True, but the words must always precede the mathematics. Long usage may enable a person to grasp the meaning of 2 + 2 = 4 without consciously putting it into words, but only because he already done so and committed the formula to memory.

Do you remember word problems? As I remember them, the words came first:

John is twenty years younger than Amy, and in five years’ time he will be half her age. What is John’s age now?

Then came the math:

Solve for J [John’s age]:

J = A − 20
J + 5 = (A + 5) / 2

[where A = Amy’s age]

What would be the point of presenting the math, then asking for the words?

Mathematics is a man-made tool. It probably started with counting. Sheep? Goats? Bananas? It doesn’t matter what it was. What matters is that the actual thing, which had a spoken name, came before the numbering convention that enabled people to refer to three sheep without having to draw or produce three actual sheep.

But … when it came to bartering sheep for loaves of bread, or whatever, those wily ancestors of ours knew that sheep come in many sizes, ages, fecundity, and states of health, and in two sexes. (Though I suppose that the LGBTQ movement has by now “discovered” homosexual and transgender sheep, and transsexual sheep may be in the offing.) Anyway, there are so many possible combinations of sizes, ages, fecundity, and states of health that it was (and is) impractical to reduce them to numbers. A quick, verbal approximation would have to do in the absence of the real thing. And the real thing would have to be produced before Grog and Grok actually exchanged X sheep for Y loaves of bread, unless they absolutely trusted each other’s honesty and descriptive ability.

Things are somewhat different in this age of mass production and commodification. But even if it’s possible to add sheep that have been bred for near-uniformity or nearly identical loaves of bread or Paper Mate Mirado Woodcase Pencils, HB 2, Yellow Barrel, it’s not possible to add those pencils to the the sheep and the loaves of bread. The best that one could do is to list the components of such a conglomeration by name and number, with the caveat that there’s a lot of variability in the sheep, goats, banana, and bread.

An economist would say that it is possible to add a collection of disparate things: Just take the sales price of each one, multiply it by the quantity sold, and if you do that for every product and service produced in the U.S. during a year you have an estimate of GDP. (I’m being a bit loose with the definition of GDP, but it’s good enough for the point I wish to make.) Further, some economists will tout this or that model which estimates changes in the value of GDP as a function of such things as interest rates, the rate of government spending, and estimates of projected consumer spending.

I don’t disagree that GDP can be computed or that economic models can be concocted. But it is to say that such computations and models, aside from being notoriously inaccurate (even though they deal in dollars, not in quantities of various products and services), are essentially meaningless. Aside from the errors that are inevitable in the use of sampling to estimate the dollar value of billions of transactions, there is the essential meaninglessness of the dollar value. Every transaction represented in an estimate of GDP (or any lesser aggregation) has a different real value to each participant in the transaction. Further, those real values, even if they could be measured and expressed in “utils“, can’t be summed because “utils” are incommensurate — there is no such thing as a social-welfare function.

Quantitative aggregations are not only meaningless, but their existence simply encourages destructive government interference in economic affairs. Mathematical modeling of “aggregate economic activity” (there is no such thing) may serve as an amusing and even lucrative pastime, but it does nothing to advance the lives and fortunes of the vast majority of Americans. In fact, it serves to retard their lives and fortunes.

All of that because pointy-headed academics, power-lusting politicians, and bamboozled bureaucrats believe that economic aggregates and quantitative economic models are meaningful. If they spent more than a few minutes thinking about what those models are supposed to represent — and don’t and can’t represent — they would at least use them with a slight pang of conscience. (I hold little hope that they would abandon them. The allure of power and the urge to “do something” are just too strong.)

Economic aggregates and models gain meaning and precision only as their compass shrinks to discrete markets for closely similar products and services. But even in the quantification of such markets there will always be some kind of misrepresentation by aggregation, if only because tastes, preferences, materials, processes, and relative prices change constantly. Only a fool believes that a quantitative economic model (of any kind) is more than a rough approximation of past reality — an approximation that will fade quickly as time marches on.

Economist Tony Lawson puts it this way:

Given the modern emphasis on mathematical modelling it is important to determine the conditions in which such tools are appropriate or useful. In other words we need to uncover the ontological presuppositions involved in the insistence that mathematical methods of a certain sort be everywhere employed. The first thing to note is that all these mathematical methods that economists use presuppose event regularities or correlations. This makes modern economics a form of deductivism. A closed system in this context just means any situation in which an event regularity occurs. Deductivism is a form of explanation that requires event regularities. Now event regularities can just be assumed to hold, even if they cannot be theorised, and some econometricians do just that and dedicate their time to trying to uncover them. But most economists want to theorise in economic terms as well. But clearly they must do so in terms that guarantee event regularity results. The way to do this is to formulate theories in terms of isolated atoms. By an atom I just mean a factor that has the same independent effect whatever the context. Typically human individuals are portrayed as the atoms in question, though there is nothing essential about this. Notice too that most debates about the nature of rationality are beside the point. Mainstream modellers just need to fix the actions of the individual of their analyses to render them atomistic, i.e., to fix their responses to given conditions. It is this implausible fixing of actions that tends to be expressed though, or is the task of, any rationality axiom. But in truth any old specification will do, including fixed rule or algorithm following as in, say, agent based modelling; the precise assumption used to achieve this matters little. Once some such axiom or assumption-fixing behaviour is made economists can predict/deduce what the factor in question will do if stimulated. Finally the specification in this way of what any such atom does in given conditions allows the prediction activities of economists ONLY if nothing is allowed to counteract the actions of the atoms of analysis. Hence these atoms must additionally be assumed to act in isolation. It is easy to show that this ontology of closed systems of isolated atoms characterises all of the substantive theorising of mainstream economists.

It is also easy enough to show that the real world, the social reality in which we actually live, is of a nature that is anything but a set of closed systems of isolated atoms (see Lawson, [Economics and Reality, London and New York: Routledge] 1997, [Reorienting Economics, London and New York: Routledge] 2003).

Mathematical-statistical descriptions of economic phenomena are either faithful (if selective) depictions of one-off events (which are unlikely to recur) or highly stylized renditions of complex chains of events (which almost certainly won’t recur). As Arnold Kling says in his review of Richard Bookstaber’s The End of Theory,

people are assumed to know, now and for the indefinite future, the entire range of possibilities, and the likelihood of each. The alternative assumption, that the future has aspects that are not foreseeable today, goes by the name of “radical uncertainty.” But we might just call it the human condition. Bookstaber writes that radical uncertainty “leads the world to go in directions we had never imagined…. The world could be changing right now in ways that will blindside you down the road.”

I’m picking on economics because it’s an easy target. But the “hard sciences” have their problems, too. See, for example, my work in progress about Einstein’s special theory of relativity.


Related reading:

John Cochrane, “Mallaby, the Fed, and Technocratic Illusions“, The Grumpy Economist, July 5, 2017

Vincent Randall: “The Uncertainty Monster: Lessons from Non-Orthodox Economics“, Climate Etc., July 5, 2017

Related posts:

Modeling Is Not Science
Microeconomics and Macroeconomics
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
Baseball Statistics and the Consumer Price Index
The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math
Further Thoughts about the Keynesian Multiplier
The Wages of Simplistic Economics
The Essence of Economics
Economics and Science
Economists As Scientists
Mathematical Economics
Economic Modeling: A Case of Unrewarded Complexity
Economics from the Bottom Up
Unorthodox Economics: 1. What Is Economics?
Unorthodox Economics: 2. Pitfalls
Unorthodox Economics: 3. What Is Scientific about Economics?
Unorthodox Economics 4: A Parable of Political Economy