A recent post at Policy of Truth by its proprietor, Irfan Khawaja, prompted me to compile a list of all of the posts that I have written about some of the blog posts and bloggers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. Though Khawaja and I disagree about a lot, I believe that we agree about the fatuousness of bleeding-heart libertarianism. (BTW, Khawaja’s flaming valedictory, on a different subject, is worth a read.)
Here’s the bibliography, arranged chronologically from March 9, 2011, to September 11, 2014:
The Meaning of Liberty
Peter Presumes to Preach
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
The Killing of bin Laden and His Ilk
In Defense of Subjectivism
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
What Is Libertarianism?
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
The Morality of Occupying Public Property
The Equal-Protection Scam and Same-Sex Marriage
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Bleeding-Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists
Enough with the Bleeding Hearts Already
Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism
Obama’s Big Lie
Bleeding-Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists (Redux)
Egoism and Altruism
A Case for Redistribution Not Made
A lot of people have said it, or something like it, though probably not Yogi Berra, to whom it’s often attributed.
Here’s another saying, which is also apt here: History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.
I am accordingly amused by something called cliodynamics, which is discussed at length by Amanda Rees in “Are There Laws of History?” (Aeon, May 2020). The Wikipedia article about cliodynamics describes it as
a transdisciplinary area of research integrating cultural evolution, economic history/cliometrics, macrosociology, the mathematical modeling of historical processes during the longue durée [the long term], and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Cliodynamics treats history as science. Its practitioners develop theories that explain such dynamical processes as the rise and fall of empires, population booms and busts, spread and disappearance of religions. These theories are translated into mathematical models. Finally, model predictions are tested against data. Thus, building and analyzing massive databases of historical and archaeological information is one of the most important goals of cliodynamics.
I won’t dwell on the methods of cliodynamics, which involve making up numbers about various kinds of phenomena and then making up models which purport to describe, mathematically, the interactions among the phenomena. Underlying it all is the practitioner’s broad knowledge of historical events, which he converts (with the proper selection of numerical values and mathematical relationships) into such things as the Kondratiev wave, a post-hoc explanation of a series of arbitrarily denominated and subjectively measured economic eras.
Here’s a simple demonstration of what’s going on with cliodynamics. Using the RANDBETWEEN function of Excel, I generated two columns of random numbers ranging in value from 0 to 1,000, with 1,000 numbers in each column. I designated the values in the left column as x variables and the numbers in the right column as y variables. I then arbitrarily chose the first 10 pairs of numbers and plotted them:
As it turns out, the relationship, even though it seems rather loose, has only a 21-percent chance of being due to chance. In the language of statistics, two-tailed p=0.21.
Of course, the relationship is due entirely to chance because it’s the relationship between two sets of random numbers. So much for statistical tests of “significance”.
Moreover, I could have found “more significant” relationships had I combed carefully through the 1,000 pairs of random number with my pattern-seeking brain.
But being an honest person with scientific integrity, I will show you the plot of all 1,000 pairs of random numbers:
I didn’t bother to find a correlation between the x and y values because there is none. And that’s the messy reality of human history. Yes, there have been many determined (i.e., sought-for) outcomes — such as America’s independence from Great Britain and Hitler’s rise to power. But they are not predetermined outcomes. Their realization depended on the surrounding circumstances of the moment, which were myriad, non-quantifiable, and largely random in relation to the event under examination (the revolution, the putsch, etc.). The outcomes only seem inevitable and predictable in hindsight.
Cliodynamics is a variant of the anthropic principle, which is that he laws of physics appear to be fine-tuned to support human life because we humans happen to be here to observe the laws of physics. In the case of cliodynamics, the past seems to consist of inevitable events because we are here in the present looking back (rather hazily) at the events that occurred in the past.
Cliodynametricians, meet Nostradamus. He “foresaw” the future long before you did.
Michael Anton inveighs against Big Tech and pseudo-libertarian collaborators in “Dear Avengers of the Free Market” (Law & Liberty, October 5, 2018):
Beyond the snarky attacks on me personally and insinuations of my “racism”—cut-and-paste obligatory for the “Right” these days—the responses by James Pethokoukis and (especially) John Tamny to my Liberty Forum essay on Silicon Valley are the usual sorts of press releases that are written to butter up the industry and its leaders in hopes of . . . what?…
… I am accused of having “a fundamental problem with capitalism itself.” Guilty, if by that is meant the reservations about mammon-worship first voiced by Plato and Aristotle and reinforced by the godfather of capitalism, Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (the book that Smith himself indicates is the indispensable foundation for his praise of capitalism in the Wealth of Nations). Wealth is equipment, a means to higher ends. In the middle of the last century, the Right rightly focused on unjust impediments to the creation and acquisition of wealth. But conservatism, lacking a deeper understanding of the virtues and of human nature—of what wealth is for—eventually ossified into a defense of wealth as an end in itself. Many, including apparently Pethokoukis and Tamny, remain stuck in that rut to this day and mistake it for conservatism.
Both critics were especially appalled by my daring to criticize modern tech’s latest innovations. Who am I to judge what people want to sell or buy? From a libertarian standpoint, of course, no one may pass judgment. Under this view, commerce has no moral content…. To homo economicus any choice that does not inflict direct harm is ipso facto not subject to moral scrutiny, yet morality is defined as the efficient, non-coercive, undistorted operation of the market.
Naturally, then, Pethokoukis and Tamny scoff at my claim that Silicon Valley has not produced anything truly good or useful in a long time, but has instead turned to creating and selling things that are actively harmful to society and the soul. Not that they deny the claim, exactly. They simply rule it irrelevant. Capitalism has nothing to do with the soul (assuming the latter even exists). To which I again say: When you elevate a means into an end, that end—in not being the thing it ought to be—corrupts its intended beneficiaries.
There are morally neutral economic goods, like guns, which can be used for self-defense or murder. But there are economic goods that undermine morality (e.g., abortion, “entertainment” that glamorizes casual sex) and fray the bonds of mutual trust and respect that are necessary to civil society. (How does one trust a person who treats life and marriage as if they were unworthy of respect?)
There’s a particular aspect of Anton’s piece that I want to emphasize here: Big Tech’s alliance with the left in its skewing of information.
Continuing with Anton:
The modern tech information monopoly is a threat to self-government in at least three ways. First its … consolidation of monopoly power, which the techies are using to guarantee the outcome they want and to suppress dissent. It’s working….
Second, and related, is the way that social media digitizes pitchforked mobs. Aristocrats used to have to fear the masses; now they enable, weaponize, and deploy them…. The grandees of Professorville and Sand Hill Road and Outer Broadway can and routinely do use social justice warriors to their advantage. Come to that, hundreds of thousands of whom, like modern Red Guards, don’t have to be mobilized or even paid. They seek to stifle dissent and destroy lives and careers for the sheer joy of it.
Third and most important, tech-as-time-sucking-frivolity is infantilizing and enstupefying society—corroding the reason-based public discourse without which no republic can exist….
But all the dynamism and innovation Tamny and Pethokoukis praise only emerge from a bedrock of republican virtue. This is the core truth that libertarians seem unable to appreciate. Silicon Valley is undermining that virtue—with its products, with its tightening grip on power, and with its attempt to reengineer society, the economy, and human life.
I am especially concerned here with the practice of tinkering with AI algorithms to perpetuate bias in the name of eliminating it (e.g., here). The bias to be perpetuated, in this case, is blank-slate bias: the mistaken belief that there are no inborn differences between blacks and whites or men and women. It is that belief which underpins affirmative action in employment, which penalizes the innocent and reduces the quality of products and services, and incurs heavy enforcement costs; “head start” programs, which waste taxpayers’ money; and “diversity” programs at universities, which penalize the innocent and set blacks up for failure. Those programs and many more of their ilk are generally responsible for heightening social discord rather than reducing it.
In the upside-down world of “social justice” an algorithm is considered biased if it is unbiased; that is, if it reflects the real correlations between race, sex, and ability in certain kinds of endeavors. Charles Murray’s Human Diversity demolishes the blank-slate theory with reams and reams of facts. Social-justice warriors will hate it, just as they hated The Bell Curve, even though they won’t read the later book, just as they didn’t read the earlier one.
I am plowing my way through Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology by William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, and I continue to doubt that it will inform my views about cosmology. I concluded my preliminary thoughts about the book with this:
Craig … sees the hand of God in the Big Bang. The presence of the singularity … had to have been created so that the Big Bang could follow. That’s all well and good, but what was God doing before the Big Bang, that is, in the infinite span of time before 15 billion years ago? (Is it presumptuous of me to ask?) And why should the Big Bang prove God’s existence any more than, say, a universe that came into being at an indeterminate time? The necessity of God (or some kind of creator) arises from the known character of the universe: material effects follow from material causes, which cannot cause themselves. In short, Craig pins too much on the Big Bang, and his argument would collapse if the Big Bang is found to be a figment of observational error.
Later, however, Craig adopts a more reasonable position:
The theist … has no vested interest in denominating the Big Bang as the moment of creation. He is convinced that God created all of space-time reality ex nihilo, and the Big Bang model provides a powerful suggestion as to when that was; on the other hand, if it can be demonstrated that our observable universe originated in a broader spacetime, so be it — in that case it was this wider reality that was the immediate object of God’s creation.
Many pages later, after rattling on almost unintelligibly, Smith gets down to brass tacks by offering an actual atheistic argument. It goes like this (with “premise” substituted for “premiss”):
(1) If God exists and there is an earliest state E of the universe, then God created E.
(2) If God created E, then E is ensured either to contain animate creatures or to lead to a subsequent state of the universe that contains animate creatures.
Premise (2) is entailed by two more basic theological premises, namely,
(3) God is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly benevolent.
(4) An animate universe is better than an inanimate universe….
(5) There is an earliest state of the universe and it is the Big Bang singularity….
The scientific ideas [1, 2, and 5] also give us this premise
(6) The earliest state of the universe is inanimate since the singularity involves the life-hostile conditions of infinite temperature, infinite curvature, and infinite density.
Another scientific idea … the principle of ignorance, give us the summary premise
(7) The Big Bang singularity is inherently unpredictable and lawless and consequently there is no guarantee that it will emit a maximal configuration of particles that will evolve into an animate state of the universe….
(5) and (7) entail
(8) The earliest state of the universe is not ensured to lead to an animate state of the universe.
We now come to the crux of our argument. Given (2), (6), and (8), we can now infer that God could not have created the earliest state of the universe. It then follows, by (1), that God does not exist.
This is a terrible argument, and one that I expect to be demolished by Craig’s response, which I haven’t yet read. Here is my demolition: Smith’s premises (3) and (4) are superfluous to his argument; if they are worth anything it is to demonstrate the shallowness of his grasp of theistic arguments for the existence of God. Smith’s premise (2) is a non sequitur; the universe does contain animate creatures and might do so even if God didn’t exist. Smith’s (6), (7), and (8) are therefore irrelevant to Smith’s argument. And, by Smith’s own “logic”, God must exist because premise (2) is confirmed by reality.
Here is my counter-argument:
(I) If God exists:
(A) He must exist infinitely, that is, without beginning.
(B) He is necessarily apart from His creation; therefore, His essence is beyond human comprehension and cannot be characterized anthropomorphically nor judged by any of His creations, except to the extent that if God is a conscious essence, He may enable human beings to know His character and intentions by some means.
(II) The universe, as a material manifestation that is observable by human beings (in part, at least) must have been created by God because material things cannot create themselves. (The processes appealed to by atheists, such as quantum fluctuations and vacuum energy, operate on existing material.)
(III) The universe, as a creation of an infinite God, may have had an indeterminate beginning.
(IV) There is, therefore, no reason to suppose that the Big Bang and all that ensued in the observable universe is the whole of the universe created by God. Rather, the Big Bang, and all that ensued in the observable universe may be a manifestation of a broader spacetime that is forever beyond the ken of human beings.
(V) Human knowledge of the observable universe is limited to the physical “laws” that can be inferred from what is known of the observable universe since its apparent origin as a material entity.
(VI) It is therefore impossible for human beings to know what processes preceded the origin of the observable universe.
(VII) Because animate, conscious organisms exist in the observable universe, the physical processes (if any) involved in the origination of the observable universe must have been conducive to the development of such organisms. But, by (6), whether that was by “design” or accident is beyond the ken of human beings.
(VIII) But animate, conscious organisms may be the result of a deliberate act of God, who may enable human beings to know of His existence and his design.
This is an unscientific argument, in that it can’t be falsified by observation. By the same token, so too is Smith’s argument unscientific, despite his use of scientific jargon and “scientific” speculations. But the weakness of Smith’s argument is proof (of a kind) that God exists and that He created the universe. That is to say, Smith (and countless others like him) seem determined to refute the logically necessary existence of God, but their refutations fail because they are illogical.
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
The Thing about Science
Free Will: A Proof by Example?
A Theory of Everything, Occam’s Razor, and Baseball
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
Science, Logic, and God
Is “Nothing” Possible?
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
What Is Time?
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
The Tenth Dimension
The Big Bang and Atheism
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
The Greatest Mystery
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
A Digression about Probability and Existence
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
Not-So-Random Thoughts (II) (first item)
Mysteries: Sacred and Profane
Something from Nothing?
Something or Nothing
My Metaphysical Cosmology
Religion, Creation, and Morality
Atheistic Scientism Revisited
Through a Glass Darkly
Existence and Knowledge
I am in the early sections of Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology by William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, but I am beginning to doubt that it will inform my views about cosmology. (These are spelled out with increasing refinement here, here, here, and here.) The book consists of alternating essays by Craig and Smith, in which Craig defends the classical argument for a creation (the Kalām cosmological argument) against Smith’s counter-arguments.
For one thing, Smith — who takes the position that the universe wasn’t created — seems to pin a lot on the belief prevalent at the time of the book’s publication (1993) that the universe was expanding but at a decreasing rate. It is now believed generally among physicists that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. I must therefore assess Smith’s argument in light of the current belief.
For another thing, Craig and Smith (in the early going, at least) seem to be bogged down in an arcane argument about the meaning of infinity. Craig takes the position, understandably, that an actual infinity is impossible in the physical world. Smith, of course, takes the opposite position. The problem here is that Craig and Smith argue about what is an empirical (if empirically undecidable) matter by resorting to philosophical and mathematical concepts. The observed and observable facts are on Craig’s side: Nothing is known to have happened in the material universe without an antecedent material cause. Philosophical and mathematical arguments about the nature of infinity seem beside the point.
For a third thing, Craig seems to pin a lot on the Big Bang, while Smith is at pains to deny its significance. Smith seems to claim that the Big Bang wasn’t the beginning of the universe; rather, the universe was present in the singularity from which the Big Bang arose. The singularity might therefore have existed all along.
Craig, on the other hand, sees the hand of God in the Big Bang. The presence of the singularity (the original clump of material “stuff”) had to have been created so that the Big Bang could follow. That’s all well and good, but what was God doing before the Big Bang, that is, in the infinite span of time before 15 billion years ago? (Is it presumptuous of me to ask?) And why should the Big Bang prove God’s existence any more than, say, a universe that came into being at an indeterminate time? The necessity of God (or some kind of creator) arises from the known character of the universe: material effects follow from material causes, which cannot cause themselves. In short, Craig pins too much on the Big Bang, and his argument would collapse if the Big Bang is found to be a figment of observational error.
There’s much more to come, I hope.
Philosophical musings by a non-philosopher which are meant to be accessible to other non-philosophers.
I submit (with no claim to originality) that existence (what really is) is independent of knowledge (proposition A), but knowledge is impossible without existence (proposition B).
In proposition A, I include in existence those things that exist in the present, those things that have existed in the past, and the processes (happenings) by which past existences either end (e.g., death of an organism, collapse of a star) or become present existences (e.g., an older version of a living person, the formation of a new star). That which exists is real; existence is reality.
In proposition B, I mean knowledge as knowledge of that which exists, and not the kind of “knowledge” that arises from misperception, hallucination, erroneous deduction, lying, and so on. Much of what is called scientific knowledge is “knowledge” of the latter kind because, as scientists know (when they aren’t advocates) scientific knowledge is provisional. Proposition B implies that knowledge is something that human beings and other living organisms possess, to widely varying degrees of complexity. (A flower may “know” that the Sun is in a certain direction, but not in the same way that a human being knows it.) In what follows, I assume the perspective of human beings, including various compilations of knowledge resulting from human endeavors. (Aside: Knowledge is self-referential, in that it exists and is known to exist.)
An example of proposition A is the claim that there is a falling tree (it exists), even if no one sees, hears, or otherwise detects the tree falling. An example of proposition B is the converse of Cogito, ergo sum, I think, therefore I am; namely, I am, therefore I (a sentient being) am able to know that I am (exist).
Here’s a simple illustration of proposition A. You have a coin in your pocket, though I can’t see it. The coin is, and its existence in your pocket doesn’t depend on my act of observing it. You may not even know that there is a coin in your pocket. But it exists — it is — as you will discover later when you empty your pocket.
Here’s another one. Earth spins on its axis, even though the “average” person perceives it only indirectly in the daytime (by the apparent movement of the Sun) and has no easy way of perceiving it (without the aid of a Foucault pendulum) when it is dark or when asleep. Sunrise (or at least a diminution of darkness) is a simple bit of evidence for the reality of Earth spinning on its axis without our having perceived it.
Now for a somewhat more sophisticated illustration of proposition A. One interpretation of quantum mechanics is that a sub-atomic particle (really an electromagnetic phenomenon) exists in an indeterminate state until an observer measures it, at which time its state is determinate. There’s no question that the particle exists independently of observation (knowledge of the particle’s existence), but its specific characteristic (quantum state) is determined by the act of observation. Does this mean that existence of a specific kind depends on knowledge? No. It means that observation determines the state of the particle, which can then be known. Observation precedes knowledge, even if the gap is only infinitesimal. (A clear-cut case is the autopsy of a dead person to determine his cause of death. The autopsy didn’t cause the person’s death, but came after it as an act of observation.)
Regarding proposition B, there are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and unknown “knowns”. Examples:
Known knowns (real knowledge = true statements about existence) — The experiences of a conscious, sane, and honest person: I exist; am eating; I had a dream last night; etc. (Recollections of details and events, however, are often mistaken, especially with the passage of time.)
Known unknowns (provisional statements of fact; things that must be or have been but which are not in evidence) — Scientific theories, hypotheses, data upon which these are based, and conclusions drawn from them. The immediate causes of the deaths of most persons who have died since the advent of homo sapiens. The material process by which the universe came to be (i.e., what happened to cause the Big Bang, if there was a Big Bang).
Unknown unknowns (things that exist but are unknown to anyone) — Almost everything about the universe.
Unknown “knowns” (delusions and outright falsehoods accepted by some persons as facts) — Frauds, scientific and other. The apparent reality of a dream.
Regarding unknown “knowns”, one might dream of conversing with a dead person, for example. The conversation isn’t real, only the dream is. And it is real only to the dreamer. But it is real, nevertheless. And the brain activity that causes a dream is real even if the person in whom the activity occurs has no perception or memory of a dream. A dream is analogous to a movie about fictional characters. The movie is real but the fictional characters exist only in the script of the movie and the movie itself. The actors who play the fictional characters are themselves, not the fictional characters.
There is a fine line between known unknowns (provisional statements of fact) and unknown “knowns” (delusions and outright falsehoods). The former are statements about existence that are made in good faith. The latter are self-delusions of some kind (e.g., the apparent reality of a dream as it occurs), falsehoods that acquire the status of “truth” (e.g., George Washington’s false teeth were made of wood), or statements of “fact” that are made in bad faith (e.g., adjusting the historic temperature record to make the recent past seem warmer relative to the more distant past).
The moral of the story is that a doubting Thomas is a wise person.
“Not-So-Random Thoughts” is an occasional series in which I highlight writings by other commentators on varied subjects that I have addressed in the past. Other entries in the series can be found at these links: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII, and XXIV. For more in the same style, see “The Tenor of the Times” and “Roundup: Civil War, Solitude, Transgenderism, Academic Enemies, and Immigration“.
There was much celebration (on the right, at least) when it was announced that the official unemployment rate, as of November, is only 3.5 percent, and that 266,000 jobs were added to the employment rolls (see here, for example). The exultation is somewhat overdone. Yes, things would be much worse if Obama’s anti-business rhetoric and policies still prevailed, but Trump is pushing a big boulder of deregulation uphill.
In fact, the real unemployment rate is a lot higher than official figure I refer you to “Employment vs. Big Government and Disincentives to Work“. It begins with this:
The real unemployment rate is several percentage points above the nominal rate. Officially, the unemployment rate stood at 3.5 percent as of November 2019. Unofficially — but in reality — the unemployment rate was 9.4 percent.
The explanation is that the labor-force participation rate has declined drastically since peaking in January 2000. When the official unemployment rate is adjusted to account for that decline (and for a shift toward part-time employment), the result is a considerably higher real unemployment rate.
Arnold Kling recently discussed the labor-force participation rate:
[The] decline in male labor force participation among those without a college degree is a significant issue. Note that even though the unemployment rate has come down for those workers, their rate of labor force participation is still way down.
Economists on the left tend to assume that this is due to a drop in demand for workers at the low end of the skill distribution. Binder’s claim is that instead one factor in declining participation is an increase in the ability of women to participate in the labor market, which in turn lowers the advantage of marrying a man. The reduced interest in marriage on the part of women attenuates the incentive for men to work.
Could be. I await further analysis.
Angelo Codevilla peers into his crystal ball:
Since 2016, the ruling class has left no doubt that it is not merely enacting chosen policies: It is expressing its identity, an identity that has grown and solidified over more than a half century, and that it is not capable of changing.
That really does mean that restoring anything like the Founders’ United States of America is out of the question. Constitutional conservatism on behalf of a country a large part of which is absorbed in revolutionary identity; that rejects the dictionary definition of words; that rejects common citizenship, is impossible. Not even winning a bloody civil war against the ruling class could accomplish such a thing.
The logical recourse is to conserve what can be conserved, and for it to be done by, of, and for those who wish to conserve it. However much force of what kind may be required to accomplish that, the objective has to be conservation of the people and ways that wish to be conserved.
That means some kind of separation.
As I argued in “The Cold Civil War,” the natural, least stressful course of events is for all sides to tolerate the others going their own ways. The ruling class has not been shy about using the powers of the state and local governments it controls to do things at variance with national policy, effectively nullifying national laws. And they get away with it.
For example, the Trump Administration has not sent federal troops to enforce national marijuana laws in Colorado and California, nor has it punished persons and governments who have defied national laws on immigration. There is no reason why the conservative states, counties, and localities should not enforce their own view of the good.
Not even President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would order troops to shoot to re-open abortion clinics were Missouri or North Dakota, or any city, to shut them down. As Francis Buckley argues in American Secession: The Looming Breakup of the United States, some kind of separation is inevitable, and the options regarding it are many.
I would like to believe Mr. Codevilla, but I cannot. My money is on a national campaign of suppression, which will begin the instant that the left controls the White House and Congress. Shooting won’t be necessary, given the massive displays of force that will be ordered from the White House, ostensibly to enforce various laws, including but far from limited to “a woman’s right to an abortion”. Leftists must control everything because they cannot tolerate dissent.
As I say in “Leftism“,
Violence is a good thing if your heart is in the “left” place. And violence is in the hearts of leftists, along with hatred and the irresistible urge to suppress that which is hated because it challenges leftist orthodoxy — from climate skepticism and the negative effect of gun ownership on crime to the negative effect of the minimum wage and the causal relationship between Islam and terrorism.
There’s more in “The Subtle Authoritarianism of the ‘Liberal Order’“; for example:
[Quoting Sumantra Maitra] Domestically, liberalism divides a nation into good and bad people, and leads to a clash of cultures.
The clash of cultures was started and sustained by so-called liberals, the smug people described above. It is they who — firmly believing themselves to be smarter, on the the side of science, and on the side of history — have chosen to be the aggressors in the culture war.
Hillary Clinton’s remark about Trump’s “deplorables” ripped the mask from the “liberal” pretension to tolerance and reason. Clinton’s remark was tantamount to a declaration of war against the self-appointed champion of the “deplorables”: Donald Trump. And war it has been. much of it waged by deep-state “liberals” who cannot entertain the possibility that they are on the wrong side of history, and who will do anything — anything — to make history conform to their smug expectations of it.
This is a sequel to an item in the previous edition of this series: “More Evidence for Why I Don’t Believe in Climate Change“.
Dave Middleton debunks the claim that 50-year-old climate models correctly predicted the susequent (but not steady) rise in the globe’s temperature (whatever that is). He then quotes a talk by Dr. John Christy of the University of Alabama-Huntsville Climate Research Center:
We have a change in temperature from the deep atmosphere over 37.5 years, we know how much forcing there was upon the atmosphere, so we can relate these two with this little ratio, and multiply it by the ratio of the 2x CO2 forcing. So the transient climate response is to say, what will the temperature be like if you double CO2– if you increase at 1% per year, which is roughly what the whole greenhouse effect is, and which is achieved in about 70 years. Our result is that the transient climate response in the troposphere is 1.1 °C. Not a very alarming number at all for a doubling of CO2. When we performed the same calculation using the climate models, the number was 2.31°C. Clearly, and significantly different. The models’ response to the forcing – their ∆t here, was over 2 times greater than what has happened in the real world….
There is one model that’s not too bad, it’s the Russian model. You don’t go to the White House today and say, “the Russian model works best”. You don’t say that at all! But the fact is they have a very low sensitivity to their climate model. When you look at the Russian model integrated out to 2100, you don’t see anything to get worried about. When you look at 120 years out from 1980, we already have 1/3 of the period done – if you’re looking out to 2100. These models are already falsified [emphasis added], you can’t trust them out to 2100, no way in the world would a legitimate scientist do that. If an engineer built an aeroplane and said it could fly 600 miles and the thing ran out of fuel at 200 and crashed, he might say: “I was only off by a factor of three”. No, we don’t do that in engineering and real science! A factor of three is huge in the energy balance system. Yet that’s what we see in the climate models….
Theoretical climate modelling is deficient for describing past variations. Climate models fail for past variations, where we already know the answer. They’ve failed hypothesis tests and that means they’re highly questionable for giving us accurate information about how the relatively tiny forcing … will affect the climate of the future.
Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels, M.D.) is on the case:
The problem alluded to in [a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics] is, of course, the consequence of a fiction, namely that a man who claims to have changed sex actually has changed sex, and is now what used to be called the opposite sex. But when a man who claims to have become a woman competes in women’s athletic competitions, he often retains an advantage derived from the sex of his birth. Women competitors complain that this is unfair, and it is difficult not to agree with them….
Man being both a problem-creating and solving creature, there is, of course, a very simple way to resolve this situation: namely that men who change to simulacra of women should compete, if they must, with others who have done the same. The demand that they should suffer no consequences that they neither like nor want from the choices they have made is an unreasonable one, as unreasonable as it would be for me to demand that people should listen to me playing the piano though I have no musical ability. Thomas Sowell has drawn attention to the intellectual absurdity and deleterious practical consequences of the modern search for what he calls “cosmic justice.”…
We increasingly think that we live in an existential supermarket in which we pick from the shelf of limitless possibilities whatever we want to be. We forget that limitation is not incompatible with infinity; for example, that our language has a grammar that excludes certain forms of words, without in any way limiting the infinite number of meanings that we can express. Indeed, such limitation is a precondition of our freedom, for otherwise nothing that we said would be comprehensible to anybody else.
That is a tour de force typical of the good doctor. In the span of three paragraphs, he addresses matters that I have treated at length in “The Transgender Fad and Its Consequences” (and later in the previous edition of this series), “Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice“, and “Writing: A Guide” (among other entries at this blog).
Big Tech is giving capitalism a bad name, as I discuss in “Why Is Capitalism Under Attack from the Right?“, but it’s still the best game in town. Even oligopoly and its big brother, monopoly, aren’t necessarily bad. See, for example, my posts, “Putting in Some Good Words for Monopoly” and “Monopoly: Private Is Better than Public“. Arnold Kling makes the essential point here:
Do indicators of consolidation show us that the economy is getting less competitive or more competitive? The answer depends on which explanation(s) you believe to be most important. For example, if network effects or weak resistance to mergers are the main factors, then the winners from consolidation are quasi-monopolists that may be overly insulated from competition. On the other hand, if the winners are firms that have figured out how to develop and deploy software more effectively than their rivals, then the growth of those firms at the expense of rivals just shows us that the force of competition is doing its work.
Randal O’Toole takes aim at the planners of Austin, Texas, and hits the bullseye:
Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, and the city of Austin and Austin’s transit agency, Capital Metro, have a plan for dealing with all of the traffic that will be generated by that growth: assume that a third of the people who now drive alone to work will switch to transit, bicycling, walking, or telecommuting by 2039. That’s right up there with planning for dinner by assuming that food will magically appear on the table the same way it does in Hogwarts….
[W]hile Austin planners are assuming they can reduce driving alone from 74 to 50 percent, it is actually moving in the other direction….
Planners also claim that 11 percent of Austin workers carpool to work, an amount they hope to maintain through 2039. They are going to have trouble doing that as carpooling, in fact, only accounted for 8.0 percent of Austin workers in 2018.
Planners hope to increase telecommuting from its current 8 percent (which is accurate) to 14 percent. That could be difficult as they have no policy tools that can influence telecommuting.
Planners also hope to increase walking and bicycling from their current 2 and 1 percent to 4 and 5 percent. Walking to work is almost always greater than cycling to work, so it’s difficult to see how they plan to magic cycling to be greater than walking. This is important because cycling trips are longer than walking trips and so have more of a potential impact on driving.
Finally, planners want to increase transit from 4 to 16 percent. In fact, transit carried just 3.24 percent of workers to their jobs in 2018, down from 3.62 percent in 2016. Changing from 4 to 16 percent is a an almost impossible 300 percent increase; changing from 3.24 to 16 is an even more formidable 394 percent increase. Again, reality is moving in the opposite direction from planners’ goals….
Planners have developed two main approaches to transportation. One is to estimate how people will travel and then provide and maintain the infrastructure to allow them to do so as efficiently and safely as possible. The other is to imagine how you wish people would travel and then provide the infrastructure assuming that to happen. The latter method is likely to lead to misallocation of capital resources, increased congestion, and increased costs to travelers.
Austin’s plan is firmly based on this second approach. The city’s targets of reducing driving alone by a third, maintaining carpooling at an already too-high number, and increasing transit by 394 percent are completely unrealistic. No American city has achieved similar results in the past two decades and none are likely to come close in the next two decades.
Well, that’s the prevailing mentality of Austin’s political leaders and various bureaucracies: magical thinking. Failure is piled upon failure (e.g., more bike lanes crowding out traffic lanes, a hugely wasteful curbside composting plan) because to admit failure would be to admit that the emperor has no clothes.
You want to learn more about Austin? You’ve got it:
Driving and Politics (1)
Life in Austin (1)
Life in Austin (2)
Life in Austin (3)
Driving and Politics (2)
AGW in Austin?
Democracy in Austin
AGW in Austin? (II)
The Hypocrisy of “Local Control”
Amazon and Austin
In “Good News from the Federal Government” I sarcastically endorse the move to grant all federal workers 12 weeks of paid parental leave:
The good news is that there will be a lot fewer civilian federal workers on the job, which means that the federal bureaucracy will grind a bit more slowly when it does the things that it does to screw up the economy.
The next day, Audacious Epigone put some rhetorical and statistical meat on the bones of my informed prejudice in “Join the Crooks and Liars: Get a Government Job!“:
That [the title of the post] used to be a frequent refrain on Radio Derb. Though the gag has been made emeritus, the advice is even better today than it was when the Derb introduced it. As he explains:
The percentage breakdown is private-sector 76 percent, government 16 percent, self-employed 8 percent.
So one in six of us works for a government, federal, state, or local.
Which group does best on salary? Go on: see if you can guess. It’s government workers, of course. Median earnings 52½ thousand. That’s six percent higher than the self-employed and fourteen percent higher than the poor shlubs toiling away in the private sector.
If you break down government workers into two further categories, state and local workers in category one, federal workers in category two, which does better?
Again, which did you think? Federal workers are way out ahead, median earnings 66 thousand. Even state and local government workers are ahead of us private-sector and self-employed losers, though.
Moral of the story: Get a government job! — federal for strong preference.
Though it is well known that a government gig is a gravy train, opinions of the people with said gigs is embarrassingly low as the results from several additional survey questions show.
First, how frequently the government can be trusted “to do what’s right”? [“Just about always” and “most of the time” badly trail “some of the time”.]
Why can’t the government be trusted to do what’s right? Because the people who populate it are crooks and liars. Asked whether “hardly any”, “not many” or “quite a few” people in the federal government are crooked, the following percentages answered with “quite a few” (“not sure” responses, constituting 12% of the total, are excluded). [Responses of “quite a few” range from 59 percent to 77 percent across an array of demographic categories.]
Accompanying a strong sense of corruption is the perception of widespread incompetence. Presented with a binary choice between “the people running the government are smart” and “quite a few of them don’t seem to know what they are doing”, a solid majority chose the latter (“not sure”, at 21% of all responses, is again excluded). [The “don’t know what they’re doing” responses ranged from 55 percent to 78 percent across the same demographic categories.]
Are the skeptics right? Well, most citizens have had dealings with government employees of one kind and another. The “wisdom of crowds” certainly applies in this case.
I became fan of David Berlinksi, who calls himself a secular Jew, after reading The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, described on Berlinkski’s personal website as
a biting defense of faith against its critics in the New Atheist movement. “The attack on traditional religious thought,” writes Berlinski, “marks the consolidation in our time of science as the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith, and if not their faith, then certainly their devotion.”
Here is most of what I say in “Atheistic Scientism Revisited” about The Devil’s Delusion:
Berlinski, who knows far more about science than I do, writes with flair and scathing logic. I can’t do justice to his book, but I will try to convey its gist.
Before I do that, I must tell you that I enjoyed Berlinski’s book not only because of the author’s acumen and biting wit, but also because he agrees with me. (I suppose I should say, in modesty, that I agree with him.) I have argued against atheistic scientism in many blog posts (see below).
Here is my version of the argument against atheism in its briefest form (June 15, 2011):
- In the material universe, cause precedes effect.
- Accordingly, the material universe cannot be self-made. It must have a “starting point,” but the “starting point” cannot be in or of the material universe.
- The existence of the universe therefore implies a separate, uncaused cause.
There is no reasonable basis — and certainly no empirical one — on which to prefer atheism to deism or theism. Strident atheists merely practice a “religion” of their own. They have neither logic nor science nor evidence on their side — and eons of belief against them.
As for scientism, I call upon Friedrich Hayek:
[W]e shall, wherever we are concerned … with slavish imitation of the method and language of Science, speak of “scientism” or the “scientistic” prejudice…. It should be noted that, in the sense in which we shall use these terms, they describe, of course, an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from the scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it. [The Counter Revolution Of Science]
As Berlinski amply illustrates and forcibly argues, atheistic scientism is rampant in the so-called sciences. I have reproduced below some key passages from Berlinski’s book. They are representative, but far from exhaustive (though I did nearly exhaust the publisher’s copy limit on the Kindle edition). I have forgone the block-quotation style for ease of reading, and have inserted triple asterisks to indicate (sometimes subtle) changes of topic. [Go to my post for the excerpts.]
On the strength of The Devil’s Delusion, I eagerly purchased Berlinski’s latest book, Human Nature. I have just finished it, and cannot summon great enthusiasm for it. Perhaps that is so because I expected a deep and extended examination of the title’s subject. What I got, instead, was a collection of 23 disjointed essays, gathered (more or less loosely) into seven parts.
Only the first two parts, “Violence” and “Reason”, seem to address human nature, but often tangentially. “Violence” deals specifically with violence as manifested (mainly) in war and murder. The first essay, titled “The First World War”, is a tour de force — a dazzling (and somewhat dizzying) reconstruction of the complex and multi-tiered layering of the historical precedent, institutional arrangements, and personalities that led to the outbreak of World War I.
Aha, I thought to myself, Berlinkski is warming to his task, and will flesh out the relevant themes at which he hints in the first essay. And in the second and third essays, “The Best of Times” and “The Cause of War”, Berlinski flays the thesis of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. But my post, “The Fallacy of Human Progress“, does a better job of it, thanks to the several critics and related sources quoted therein.
Berlinski ends the third essay with this observation:
Men go to war when they think that they can get away with murder.
Which is tantamount to an admission that Berlinski has no idea why men go to war, or would rather not venture an opinion on the subject. There is much of that kind of diffident agnosticism throughout the book, which is captured in his reply to an interviewer’s question in the book’s final essay:
Q. Would you share with us your hunches and suspicions about spiritual reality, the trend in your thinking, if not your firm beliefs?
A. No. Either I cannot or I will not. I do not know whether I am unable or unwilling. The question elicits in me a stubborn refusal. Please understand. It is not an issue of privacy. I have, after all, blabbed my life away: Why should I call a halt here? I suppose that I am by nature a counter-puncher. What I am able to discern of the religious experience often comes about reactively. V. S. Naipaul remarked recently that he found the religious life unthinkable.
He does? I was prompted to wonder. Why does he?
His attitude gives rise to mine. That is the way in which I wrote The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions.
Is there anything authentic in my religious nature?
That is a legitimate reply, but — I suspect — an evasive one.
Returning to the book’s ostensible subject, the second part, “Reason”, addresses human nature mainly in a negative way, that is, by pointing out (in various ways) flaws in the theory of evolution. There is no effort to knit the strands into a coherent theme. The following parts stray even further from the subject of the book’s title, and are even more loosely connected.
This isn’t to say that the book fails to entertain, for it often does that. For example, buried in a chapter on language, “The Recovery of Case”, is this remark:
Sentences used in the ordinary give-and-take of things are, of course, limited in their length. Henry James could not have constructed a thousand-word sentence without writing it down or suffering a stroke. Nor is recursion needed to convey the shock of the new. Four plain-spoken words are quite enough: Please welcome President Trump.
(I assume, given Berlinski’s track record for offending “liberal” sensibilities, that the italicized words refer to the shock of Trump’s being elected, and are not meant to disparage Trump.)
But the book also irritates, not only by its failure to deliver what the title seems to promise, but also by Berlinski’s proclivity for using the abstruse symbology of mathematical logic where words would do quite nicely and more clearly. In the same vein — showing off — is the penultimate essay, “A Conversation with Le Figaro“, which reproduces (after an introduction by Berlinksi) of a transcript of the interview — in French, with not a word of translation. Readers of the book will no doubt be more schooled in French than the typical viewer of prime-time TV fare, but many of them will be in my boat. My former fluency in spoken and written French has withered with time, and although I could still manage with effort to decipher the meaning of the transcript, it proved not to be worth the effort so I gave up on it.
There comes a time when once-brilliant persons can summon flashes of their old, brilliant selves but can no longer emit a sustained ray of brilliance. Perhaps that is true of Berlinski. I hope not, and will give him another try if he gives writing another try.
This post is prompted by a recent offering from Irfan Khawaja, who styles himself an ex-libertarian and tries to explain his apostasy. Khawaja abandoned libertarianism (or his version of it) because it implies a stance toward government spending that isn’t consistent with the desideratum of another ethical system.
Rather than get bogged down in the details of Khawaja’s dilemma, I will merely point out what should be obvious to him (and to millions of other true believers in this or that ethical system): Any system that optimizes on a particular desideratum (e.g., minimal coercion, maximum “social” welfare by some standard) will clash with at least one other system that optimizes a different desideratum.
Further, the various desiderata usually are overly broad. And when the desiderata are defined narrowly, what emerges is not a single, refined desideratum but two or more. Which means that there are more ethical systems and more opportunities for clashes between systems. Those clashes sometimes occur between systems that claim to optimize on the same (broad) desideratum. (I will later take up an example.)
What are the broad and refined desiderata of various ethical systems? The following list is a start, though it is surely incomplete:
Freedom from all restraint
Freedom from governmental restraint
Freedom to do as one chooses, consistent with traditional social norms (some of which may be enforced by government)
Freedom to do as one chooses, regardless of one’s endowment of intelligence, talent, effort, wealth, etc.
Equal treatment under the law
Economic equality, regardless of one’s intelligence, talent, effort, wealth, etc.
Economic and social equality, regardless of one’s intelligence, talent, effort, wealth, etc.
Participation in governmental decisions through the election of officials whose powers are limited to those deemed necessary to provide for the defense of innocent citizens from force and fraud
Participation in governmental decisions through the election of officials who have the power to bring about economic and social equality
Governmental outcomes that enact the “will of the people” (i.e., the desiderata of each group that propounds this kind of democracy)
- Human welfare
The maximization of the sum of all human happiness, perhaps with some lower limit on the amount of happiness enjoyed by those least able to provide for themselves
The maximization of the sum of all human happiness, as above, but only with respect to specific phenomena viewed as threats (e.g., “climate change”, “overpopulation”, resource depletion)
- Animal welfare (including but far from limited to human welfare)
Special protections for animals to prevent their mistreatment
Legal recognition of animals (or some of them) as “persons” with the same legal rights as human beings
No use of animals to satisfy human wants (e.g., food, clothing, shelter)
It would be pedantic of me to explain the many irreconcilable clashes between the main headings, between the subsidiary interpretations under each main heading, and between the subsidiary interpretations under the various main headings. They should be obvious to you.
But I will show that even a subsidiary interpretation of a broad desideratum can be rife with internal inconsistencies. Bear with me while I entertain you with a few examples, based on Khawaja’s dilemma — the conflict between his versions of welfarism and libertarianism.
Welfarism, according to Khawaja, means that a government policy, or a change in government policy, should result in no net loss of lives. This implies that that it is all right if X lives are lost, as long as Y lives are gained, where Y is greater than X. Which is utilitarianism on steroids — or, in the words of Jeremy Bentham (the godfather of utilitarianism), nonsense upon stilts (Bentham’s summary dismissal of the doctrine of natural rights). To see why, consider that the blogger’s desideratum could be accomplished by a ruthless dictator who kills people by the millions, while requiring those spared to procreate at a rate much higher than normal. Nirvana (not!).
A broader approach to welfare, and one that is more commonly adopted, is an appeal to the (fictional) social-welfare function. I have written about it many times. All I need do here, by way of dismissal, is to summarize it metaphorically: Sam obtains great pleasure from harming other people. And if Sam punches Joe in the nose, humanity is better off (that is, social welfare is increased) if Sam’s pleasure exceeds Joe’s pain. It should take you a nanosecond to understand why that is nonsense upon stilts.
In case it took you longer than a nanosecond, here’s the nonsense: How does one measure the pleasure and pain of disparate persons? How does one then sum those (impossible) measurements?
More prosaically: If you are Joe, and not a masochist, do you really believe that Sam’s pleasure somehow cancels your pain or compensates for it in the grand scheme of things? Do you really believe that there is a scoreboard in the sky that keeps track of such things? If your answer to both questions is “no”, you should ask yourself what gives anyone the wisdom to decree that Sam’s punch causes an increase in social welfare. The philosopher’s PhD? You were punched in the nose. You know that Sam’s pleasure doesn’t cancel or compensate for your pain. The philosopher (or politician or economist) who claims (or implies) that there is a social-welfare function is either a fool (the philosopher or economist) or a charlatan (the politician).
I turn now to libertarianism, which almost defies analysis because of its manifold variations and internal contradictions (some of which I will illustrate). But Khawaja’s account of it as a prohibition on the initiation of force (the non-aggression principle, a.k.a. the harm principle) is a good entry point. It is clear that Khawaja understands force to include government coercion of taxpayers to fund government programs. That’s an easy one for most libertarians, but Khawaja balks because the prohibition of government coercion might mean the curtailment of government programs that save lives. (Khawaja thus reveals himself to have been a consequentialist libertarian, that is, one who favors liberty because of its expected results, not necessarily because it represents a moral imperative. This is yet another fault line within libertarianism, but I won’t explore it here.)
Khawaja cites the example of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) program that might cure cystic fibrosis or alleviate its symptoms. But Khawaja neglects the crucial matter of opportunity cost (a strange omission for a consequentialist). Those whose taxes fund government programs usually aren’t those who benefit from them. Taxpayers have other uses for their money, including investments in scientific and technological advances that improve and lengthen life. The NIH (for one) has no monopoly on life-saving and life-enhancing research. To put it succinctly, Khawaja has fallen into the intellectual trap described by Frédéric Bastiat, which is to focus on that which is seen (the particular benefits of government programs) and to ignore the unseen (the things that could be done instead through private action, including — not trivially — the satisfaction of personal wants). When the problem is viewed in that way, most libertarians would scoff at Khawaja’s narrow view of libertarianism.
Here’s a tougher issue for libertarians (the extreme pacifists among them excluded): Does the prohibition on the initiation of force extend to preemptive self-defense against an armed thug who is clearly bent on doing harm? If it does, then libertarianism is unadulterated hogwash.
Let’s grant that libertarianism allows for preemptive self-defense, where the potential victim (or his agent) is at liberty to decide whether preemption is warranted by the threat. Let’s grant, further, that the right of preemptive self-defense includes the right to be prepared for self-defense, because there is always the possibility of a sudden attack by a thug, armed robber, or deranged person. Thus the right to bear arms at all times, and in all places should be unrestricted (unabridged, in the language of the Second Amendment).
Along comes Nervous Nellie, who claims that the sight of all of those armed people around her makes her fear for her life. But instead of arming herself, Nellie petitions government for the confiscation of all firearms from private persons. The granting of Nellie’s petition would constrain the ability of others to defend themselves against (a) private persons who hide their firearms successfully; (b) private persons who resort to other lethal means of attacking other persons, and (c) armed government agents who abuse their power.
The resulting dilemma can’t be resolved by appeal to the non-aggression principle. The principle is violated if the right of self-defense is violated, and (some would argue) it is also violated if Nellie lives in fear for her life because the right of self-defense is upheld.
Moreover, the ability of government to decide whether persons may be armed — indeed, the very existence of government — violates the non-aggression principle. But without government the non-aggression principle may be violated more often.
Thus we see more conflicts, all of which take place wholly within the confines of libertarianism, broadly understood.
The examples could go on an on, but enough is enough. The point is that ethical systems that seek to optimize on a single desideratum, however refined and qualified it might be, inevitably clash with other ethical systems. Those clashes illustrate Kurt Gödel‘s incompleteness theorems:
Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that demonstrate the inherent limitations of every formal axiomatic system capable of modelling basic arithmetic….
The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an effective procedure (i.e., an algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the arithmetic of natural numbers. For any such consistent formal system, there will always be statements about natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that the system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.
There is the view that Gödel’s theorems aren’t applicable in fields outside of mathematical logic. But any quest for ethical certainties necessarily involves logic, however flawed it might be.
Persons who devise and purvey ethical systems, assuming their good intentions (often a bad assumption), are simply fixated on particular aspects of human behavior rather than taking it whole. (They cannot see the forest because they are crawling on the ground, inspecting tree roots.)
Given such myopia, you might wonder how humanity manages to coexist cooperatively and peacefully as much as it does. Yes, there are many places on the globe where conflict is occasioned by what could be called differences of opinion about ultimate desiderata (including religious ones). But most human beings (though a shrinking majority, I fear) don’t give a hoot about optimizing on a particular desideratum. That is to say, most human beings aren’t fanatical about a particular cause or belief. And even when they are, they mostly live among like persons or keep their views to themselves and do at least the minimum that is required to live in peace with those around them.
It is the same for persons who are less fixated (or not at all) on a particular cause or belief. Daily life, with its challenges and occasional pleasures, is enough for them. In the United States, at least, fanaticism seems to be confined mainly to capitalism’s spoiled children (of all ages), whether they be ultra-rich “socialists”, affluent never-Trumpers, faux-scientists and their acolytes who foresee a climatic apocalypse, subsidized students (e.g., this lot), and multitudes of other arrant knights (and dames) errant.
Atheists are fond of saying that religion is evil because it spawns hatred and violence. Such sentiments would be met with bitter laughter from the hundreds of millions of victims of atheistic communism, were not most of them dead or still captive to the ethical system known variously as socialism and communism, which promises social and economic equality but delivers social repression and economic want. Religion (in the West, at least) is a key facet of liberty.
Which brings me to the point of this essay. When I use “liberty” I don’t mean the sterile desideratum of so-called libertarians (who can’t agree among themselves about its meaning or prerequisites). What I mean is the mundane business of living among others, getting along with them (or ignoring them, if that proves best), treating them with respect or forbearance, and observing the norms of behavior that will cause them to treat you with respect or forbearance.
It is that — and not the fanatical (unto hysterical) rallying around the various desiderata of cramped ethical systems — which makes for social comity and economic progress. The problem with silver bullets (Dr. Ehrlich’s “magic” one being a notable exception) is that they ricochet, causing more harm than good — often nothing but harm, even to those whom they are meant to help.
Related pages and posts:
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Democracy and Liberty
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Accountants of the Soul
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
Facets of Liberty
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Why Conservatism Works
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Libertarianism and the State
My View of Libertarianism
The Principles of Actionable Harm
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The War on Conservatism
Old America, New America, and Anarchy
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Social Justice vs. Liberty
The Left and “the People”
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
Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Political Correctness
My View of Mill, Endorsed
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and Leviathan
Suicide or Destiny?
O.J.’s Glove and the Enlightenment
James Burnham’s Misplaced Optimism
Libertarianism’s Fatal Flaw
The Golden Rule and Social Norms
The Left-Libertarian Axis
Rooted in the Real World of Real People
Conservatism, Society, and the End of America
Conservatism vs. Leftism and “Libertarianism” on the Moral Dimension
Free Markets and Democracy
“Libertarianism”, the Autism Spectrum, and Ayn Rand
A Paradox for Liberals
Rawls vs. Reality
The Subtle Authoritarianism of the “Liberal Order”
Liberty: Constitutional Obligations and the Role of Religion
Society, Culture, and America’s Future
I have never understood the high esteem in which John Rawls‘s “original position” is held by many who profess political philosophy. Well, I understand that the original position supports redistribution of income and wealth — a concept beloved of the overpaid faux-socialist professoriate — but it is a logical and empirical absurdity that shouldn’t be esteemed by anyone who thinks about it rigorously. (Which tells me a lot about the intelligence, rigor, and honesty of those who pay homage to it.)
What is the original position? According to Wikipedia it is
a hypothetical situation developed by … Rawls as a thought experiment to replace the imagery of a savage state of nature of prior political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes.
In the original position, the parties select principles that will determine the basic structure of the society they will live in. This choice is made from behind a veil of ignorance, which would deprive participants of information about their particular characteristics: their ethnicity, social status, gender and, crucially, Conception of the Good (an individual’s idea of how to lead a good life). This forces participants to select principles impartially and rationally.
As a thought experiment, the original position is a hypothetical position designed to accurately reflect what principles of justice would be manifest in a society premised on free and fair cooperation between citizens, including respect for liberty, and an interest in reciprocity.
In the state of nature, it might be argued that certain persons (the strong and talented) would be able to coerce others (the weak and disabled) by virtue of the fact that the stronger and more talented would fare better in the state of nature. This coercion is sometimes thought to invalidate any contractual arrangement occurring in the state of nature. In the original position, however, representatives of citizens are placed behind a “veil of ignorance”, depriving the representatives of information about the individuating characteristics of the citizens they represent. Thus, the representative parties would be unaware of the talents and abilities, ethnicity and gender, religion or belief system of the citizens they represent. As a result, they lack the information with which to threaten their fellows and thus invalidate the social contract they are attempting to agree to….
Rawls specifies that the parties in the original position are concerned only with citizens’ share of what he calls primary social goods, which include basic rights as well as economic and social advantages. Rawls also argues that the representatives in the original position would adopt the maximin rule as their principle for evaluating the choices before them. Borrowed from game theory, maximin stands for maximizing the minimum, i.e., making the choice that produces the highest payoff for the least advantaged position. Thus, maximin in the original position represents a formulation of social equality.
The social contract, citizens in a state of nature contract with each other to establish a state of civil society. For example, in the Lockean state of nature, the parties agree to establish a civil society in which the government has limited powers and the duty to protect the persons and property of citizens. In the original position, the representative parties select principles of justice that are to govern the basic structure of society. Rawls argues that the representative parties in the original position would select two principles of justice:
- Each citizen is guaranteed a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all others;
- Social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions:
- to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (the difference principle);
- attached to positions and offices open to all.
The reason that the least well off member gets benefited is that it is assumed that under the veil of ignorance, under original position, people will be risk-averse. This implies that everyone is afraid of being part of the poor members of society, so the social contract is constructed to help the least well off members.
There are objections aplenty to Rawls’s creaky construction, some of which are cited in the Wikipedia piece:
In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick argues that, while the original position may be the just starting point, any inequalities derived from that distribution by means of free exchange are equally just, and that any re-distributive tax is an infringement on people’s liberty. He also argues that Rawls’s application of the maximin rule to the original position is risk aversion taken to its extreme, and is therefore unsuitable even to those behind the veil of ignorance.
In Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong, Iain King argues that people in the original position should not be risk-averse, leading them to adopt the Help Principle (Help someone if your help is worth more to them than it is to you) rather than maximin.
In Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Michael Sandel has criticized Rawls’s notion of veil of ignorance, pointing out that it is impossible, for an individual, to completely prescind from [his] beliefs and convictions … as … required by Rawls’s thought experiment.
There is some merit in those objections, but they they don’t get to the root error of Rawls’s concoction. For that’s what it is, a concoction that has nothing to do with real people in the real world. The original position is an exercise in moral masturbation.
To begin at the beginning, the ostensible aim of Rawls’s formulation is to outline the “rules” by which a society can attain social justice — or, more accurately, social justice as Rawls defines it. (In what follows, when I refer to social justice in the context of Rawls’s formulation, the reader should mentally add the qualifier “as Rawls defines it”.)
Rawls presumably didn’t believe that there could be an original position, let alone a veil of ignorance. So his real aim must have been to construct a template for the attainment of social justice. The actual position of a society could then (somehow) be compared with the template to determine what government policies would move society toward the Rawlsian ideal.
Clearly, Rawls believed that his template could be justified only if he arrived at it through what he thought would be a set of unexceptionable assumptions. Otherwise, he could simply have promulgated the template (the maximin distribution of primary social goods), and left it at that. But to have done so would have been to take a merely political position, not one that pretends to rest on deep principles and solid logic.
What are those principles, and what is the logic that leads to Rawls’s template for a just society? Because there is no such thing as an original position or veil of ignorance, Rawls assumes (implicitly) that the members of a society should want social justice to prevail, and should behave accordingly, or authorize government to behave accordingly on their behalf. The idea is to make it all happen without coercion, as if the maximin rule were obviously the correct route to social justice.
To make it happen without coercion, Rawls must adopt unrealistic assumptions about the citizens of his imaginary society: pervasive ignorance of one’s own situation and extreme risk-aversion. Absent those constraints, some kind of coercion would be required for the members of the society to agree on the maximin rule. Effectively, then, Rawls assumes the conclusion toward which he was aiming all along, namely, that the maximin rule should govern society’s treatment of what he calls primary social goods — or, rather, government’s treatment of those goods, as it enforces the consensus of a society of identical members.
What is that treatment? This, as I understand it:
- Guarantee each citizen a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all others.
- Tolerate only those inequalities with respect to social and economic outcomes that yield the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged.
- Tolerate only those inequalities that derive from positions and offices that are open to all citizens.
Rawls’s scheme is superficially attractive to anyone who understands that forced equality is inimical to economic progress (not to mention social comity and liberty), and that it harms the least-advantaged (because they “share” in a smaller “pie”) as well as those who would otherwise be among the more-advantaged. Similarly, the idea that all citizens have the same basic rights and social advantages seems unexceptionable.
But many hard questions lurk beneath the surface of Rawls’s plausible concoction.
What is an adequate scheme of basic liberties? The two weasel-words — “adequate” and “basic” — mean that the scheme can be whatever government officials would prefer it to be, unless the clone-like populace defines the scheme in advance. But the populace can’t be clone-like, except in Rawls’s imagination, so government can’t be constrained by a definition of basic liberties that is conceived in the original position. Thus government must (and certainly will) adopt a scheme that reflects the outcome of intra-governmental bargaining (satisficing various popular and bureaucratic interests) — not a scheme that is the consensus of a clone-like citizenry lusting after social justice.
Do basic liberties entail equal rights under law? Yes, and they have been enshrined in American law for a century-and-a-half. Or have they? It seems that rights are a constantly evolving and malleable body of entitlements, which presently (in the view of many) include (inter alia) the right to defecate on public property, the right to be given addictive drugs, the right not to be offended or “triggered” emotionally, and the right not to be shunned by persons whose preferences don’t run to sodomy and “gender fluidity”.
The failure to provide equal rights– whatever they may be at the moment — isn’t a failure that can be remedied by magically reverting to the original position, where actual human beings aren’t to be found. The rights of the moment must be enforced by government. But government enforcement necessarily involves coercion, and certainly involves arbitrariness of a kind that might even offend Rawls. For government, in the real world, is a blunt instrument wielded by politicians and bureaucrats who strike crude bargains on behalf of the sundry interest groups to which they are beholden.
Turning to economic inequality, how does one define the least-advantaged? Are the least-advantaged those whose incomes fall below a certain level? For how long? Who defines the level? If raising incomes to that level reduces the rewards of economically productive work (e.g., invention, innovation, investment, entrepreneurship) through taxation, and thereby reduces the opportunities available to the least-advantaged, by what complex computation will the “right” level of taxation by determined? Surely not by citizens in the original position, operating behind the veil of ignorance, nor — it must be admitted — by government, the true nature of which is summarized in the final sentence of the preceding paragraph.
And what about wealth? How much wealth? Wealth at what stage of one’s life? When a person is still new to the work force but, like most workers, will earn more and accrue wealth? What about wealth that may be passed from generation to generation? Or is such wealth something that isn’t open to all and therefore forbidden? And if it is forbidden, what does that do to the incentives of wealth-builders to do things that advance economic growth, which benefits all citizens including the least-advantaged?
In both cases — income and wealth — we are dealing in arbitrary distinctions that must fall to government to decide, and to enforce by coercion. There is no question of deciding such things in the original position, even behind a veil of ignorance, unless the citizenry consists entirely of Rawls’s omniscient clones.
I must ask, further, why the least-advantaged — if they could be defined objectively and consistently — should be denied incentives to earn more income and build wealth? (Redistribution schemes do just that.) Is that social justice? No, it’s a particular kind of social justice that sees only the present and condescends toward the least-advantaged (whoever they might be).
What about the least-advantaged socially? If social status is directly correlated with income or wealth, there is no need to delve deeper. But if it is something else, the question arises: What is it, how can it be measured, and how can it be adjusted so that the least-advantaged are raised to some minimal level of social standing? How is that level defined and who defines it? Surely not Rawls’s clones operating in complete ignorance of such things. The task therefore, and again, must fall to government, the failings and coerciveness of which I have already addressed adequately.
Why should the least-advantaged on any dimension, if they can be defined, have privileges (i.e., government interventions in their favor) that are denied and harmful to the rest of the citizenry? Favoring the least-advantaged is, of course, “the right thing to do”. So all that Rawls accomplished by his convoluted, pristine “reasoning” was to make a plausible (but deeply flawed) case for something like the welfare state that already exists in the United States and most of the world. As for his conception of liberty and equal rights, Rawls cleverly justifies trampling on the liberty and equal rights of the more-advantaged by inventing like-minded clones who “authorize” the state to trample away.
Rawls put a lot of hard labor into his justification for welfare-statism in the service of “social justice”. The real thing, which was staring him in the face, amounts to this: Government intervenes in voluntarily cooperative social and economic arrangements only to protect citizens from force and fraud, where those terms are defined by long-standing social norms and applied by (not reworked or negated by) legislative, executive, and judicial acts. Which norms? The ones that prevailed in America before the 1960s would do just fine, as long as laws forbidding intimidation and violence were uniformly enforced across the land.
Perfection? Of course not, but attainable. The Framers of the original Constitution did a remarkable job of creating a template by which real human beings (not Rawls’s clones) could live in harmony and prosperity. Real human beings have a penchant for disharmony, waste, fraud, and abuse — but they’re all we have to work with.
Children, at some age, will begin to understand that there is death, the end of a human life (in material form, at least). At about the same time, in my experience, they will begin to speculate about the possibility that they might have been someone else: a child born in China, for instance.
Death eventually loses its fascination, though it may come to mind from time to time as one grows old. (Will I wake up in the morning? Is this the day that my heart stops beating? Will I be able to break my fall when the heart attack happens, or will I just go down hard and die of a fractured skull?)
But after careful reflection, at some age, the question of being been born as someone else is answered in the negative.
For each person, there is only one “I”, the unique “me”. If I hadn’t been born, I wouldn’t be “I” — there wouldn’t be a “me”. I couldn’t have been born as someone else: a child born in China, instance. A child born in China — or at any place and time other than where and when my mother gave birth to me — must be a different “I’. not the one I think of as “me”.
(Inspired by Sir Roger Scruton’s On Human Nature, for which I thank my son.)
This much of Marx’s theory of alienation bears a resemblance to the truth:
The design of the product and how it is produced are determined, not by the producers who make it (the workers)….
[T]he generation of products (goods and services) is accomplished with an endless sequence of discrete, repetitive, motions that offer the worker little psychological satisfaction for “a job well done.”
These statements are true not only of assembly-line manufacturing. They’re also true of much “white collar” work — certainly routine office work and even a lot of research work that requires advanced degrees in scientific and semi-scientific disciplines (e.g., economics). They are certainly true of “blue collar” work that is rote, and in which the worker has no ownership stake.
There’s a relevant post at West Hunter which is short enough to quote in full:
Many have noted how difficult it is to persuade hunter-gatherers to adopt agriculture, or more generally, to get people to adopt a more intensive kind of agriculture.
It’s worth noting that, given the choice, few individuals pick the more intensive, more ‘civilized’ way of life, even when their ancestors have practiced it for thousands of years.
Benjamin Franklin talked about this. “When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”
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, transportation, wholesaling, retailing, and office work.
The hunter-gatherer isn’t a cog in a machine, he is the machine: the shareholder, the co-manager, the co-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.
The hunter-gatherer’s social milieu was truly societal:
Hunter-gatherer bands in the [Pleistocene] were in the range of 25 to 150 individuals: men, women, and children. These small bands would have sometimes formed larger agglomerations of up to a few thousand for the purpose of mate-seeking and defense, but this would have been unusual. The typically small size for bands meant that interactions within the group were face-to-face, with everyone knowing the name and something of the reputation and character of everyone else. Though group members would have engaged in some specialization of labor beyond the normal sex distinctions (men as hunters, women as gatherers), specialization would not have been strict: all men, for example, would haft adzes, make spears, ﬁnd game, kill, and dress it, and hunt in bands of ten to twenty individuals. [From Denis Dutton’s review of Paul Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom.]
Nor is the limit of 150 unique to hunter-gatherer bands:
[C]ommunal societies — like those our ancestors lived in, or in any human group for that matter — tend to break down at about 150. Such is perhaps due to our limited brain capacity to know any more people that intimately, but it’s also due to the breakdown of reciprocal relationships like those discussed above — after a certain number (again, around 150).
A great example of this is given by Richard Stroup and John Baden in an old article about communal Hutterite colonies. (Hutterites are sort of like the Amish — or more broadly like Mennonites — but settled in different areas of North America.) Stroup, an economist at Montana State University, shared with me his Spring 1972 edition of Public Choice, wherein he and political scientist John Baden write:
In a relatively small colony, the proportional contribution of each member is greater. Likewise, surveillance of him by each of the others is more complete and an informal accounting of contribution is feasible. In a colony, there are no elaborate systems of formal controls over a person’s contribution. Thus, in general, the incentive and surveillance structures of a small or medium-size colony are more effective than those of a large colony and shirking is lessened.
Interestingly, according to Stroup and Baden, once the Hutterites reach Magic Number 150, they have a tradition of breaking off and forming another colony. This idea is echoed in Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, wherein he discusses successful companies that use 150 in their organizational models.
Had anyone known about this circa 1848, someone might have told Karl Marx that his theory [communism] could work, but only up to the Magic Number. [From Max Borders’s “The Stone Age Trinity“.]
What all of this means, of course, is that for the vast majority of people there’s no going back. How many among us are willing — really willing — to trade our creature comforts for the “simple life”? Few would be willing when faced with the reality of what the “simple life” means; for example, catching or growing your own food, dawn-to-post-dusk drudgery, nothing resembling culture as we know it (high or low), and lives that are far closer to nasty, brutish, and short than today’s norms.
Given that, it is important (nay, crucial) to cultivate an inner life of intellectual or spiritual satisfaction. Only that inner life — and the love and friendship of a small circle of fellows — can hold alienation at bay. Only that inner life — and love and close friendships — can give us serenity as civilization crumbles around us.
According to consequentialism, an act (or a refusal to act in a particular way) should be judged by its consequences. But consequences can only follow from an act (or lack of action). So consequentialism is really founded on hope, with perhaps some justification in experience — if certain types of act (or inaction) are known to have certain consequences.
But even the simplest acts — those with a direct connection between their commission and the desired outcomes — can have unforeseen and unwanted consequences. Murder committed in the heat of the moment, but with the intention to kill, may land the murderer in prison or an execution chamber, neither of which outcome the murderer had in mind when he pulled the trigger or plunged the knife into his victim. Less dramatically, the outcome of a marriage proposal may — and usually does — lead not only to marital bliss (though perhaps not for as long as intended) but also to complications that hadn’t been contemplated (e.g., the raising of difficult children, financial stress, affairs, and other irritants large and small that strain the marriage).
Governance on the basis of consequentialism has proven time and time again to be foolish, when not treacherous. Social Security, for example, which was meant to be a boon to indigent old people has become a vast, economically draining, disincentivizing middle-to-lower-class welfare program. Social Security led to other vast and wasteful schemes, including Medicare and Medicaid and expansion through Obamacare, whose proponents made this fraudulent promise:
If you like the plan you have, you can keep it. If you like the doctor you have, you can keep your doctor, too. The only change you’ll see are falling costs as our reforms take hold.
Even successful wars — World War II, notably and uniquely in the American experience — have led to massive waste in lives and treasure. An annotated list of the ill-conceived and mis-conceived government ventures in the history of the United States would (and does) fill volumes.
I am not suggesting that persons refrain from taking action for fear that things won’t turn out as hoped for. (Government is entirely a different matter, and if most of it were abolished Americans would be far better off than they are.) What I am saying is that judging an action by its consequences can be done only after the fact, when all of the ramifications of the action have played out. Moreover, and crucially, similar actions can have wildly different consequences.
In sum: Consequentialism is an empty philosophical construct. “Good” consequences justify the actions that lead to them, but the actions have already been taken, and similar actions often have different consequences.
The fatal flaw is the reliance on reason. As Wikipedia puts it,
The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of knowledge….
Where reason is
the capacity of consciously making sense of things, establishing and verifying facts, applying logic, and adapting or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.
So much of life is — of necessity — conducted in a realm beyond “reason”, where instincts and customs come into play in a universe that is but dimly understood.
By contrast, as the Wikipedia article admits, the Enlightenment — like its contemporary manifestations in pseudo-science (e.g., Malthusianism, Marxism, “climate change”), politics (e.g., “social justice”), and many other endeavors — relies on reductionism, which is
the practice of oversimplifying a complex idea or issue to the point of minimizing or distorting it.
Reason relies on verbalization (or its mathematical equivalent), but words (and numbers) fail us:
Love, to take a leading example, is a feeling that just is. The why and wherefore of it is beyond our ability to understand and explain. Some of the feelings attached to it can be expressed in prose, poetry, and song, but those are superficial expressions that don’t capture the depth of love and why it exists.
The world of science is of no real help. Even if feelings of love could be expressed in scientific terms — the action of hormone A on brain region X — that would be worse than useless. It would reduce love to chemistry, when we know that there’s more to it than that. Why, for example, is hormone A activated by the presence or thought of person M but not person N, even when they’re identical twins?
The world of science is of no real help about “getting to the bottom of things.” Science is an infinite regress. S is explained in terms of T, which is explained in terms of U, which is explained in terms of V, and on and on. For example, there was the “indivisible” atom, which turned out to consist of electrons, protons, and neutrons. But electrons have turned out to be more complicated than originally believed, and protons and neutrons have been found to be made of smaller particles with distinctive characteristics. So it’s reasonable to ask if all of the particles now considered elementary are really indivisible. Perhaps there other more-elementary particles yet to be hypothesized and discovered. And even if all of the truly elementary particles are discovered, scientists will still be unable to explain what those particles really “are.”
Reason is valuable when it consists of the narrow application of logic to hard facts. But it has almost nothing to do with most of life — and especially not with politics.
Just as words fail us, so has the Enlightenment and much of what came in its wake.
As exemplified by this “child of the enlightenment”:
Sometimes. If, for example, the end is the preservation of innocent human life, and the means (or some of them) are the prohibition of abortion and the right to bear arms.
Sometimes not. If for example, the end is “equality” and the means are such things as racial preferences and income redistribution. Stealing from others doesn’t make a person equal to them, except perhaps ephemerally — a job is gained (though probably to be lost), a certain amount of income is gained (though probably to be squandered). “Equality” is just a slogan, a sloppy excuse for theft. It is not the moral equivalent of preserving innocent human life.
Sometimes. If the end is liberty and the means include killing to gain or defend it.
Sometimes not. If the end is the subjugation of others and the means include killing, enslavement, muzzling, threatening, or otherwise oppressing those others.
The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.
By their ends you shall know them.
In yesterday’s post I touched on epistemology, “the study of the nature of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief”. I have been touching on the subject for a while. (See, for example, “Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge“, “Further Pretensions of Knowledge“, “The Fragility of Knowledge“, “Deduction, Induction, and Knowledge“, “The Pretence of Knowledge“, and especially “Words Fail Us“.)
The most compelling writer on the subject is Alfred North Whitehead, whose concept of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” I apply in “Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge“. The fallacy, as described by Wikipedia, is this:
[O]ne commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness when one mistakes an abstract belief, opinion, or concept about the way things are for a physical or “concrete” reality.
What, then, is physical reality? According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Whitehead sees it thus (citations omitted):
Whitehead was dissatisfied with Hume’s reduction of perception to sense perception because, as Hume discovered, pure sense perception reveals a succession of spatial patterns of impressions of color, sound, smell, etc. (a procession of forms of sense data), but it does not reveal any causal relatedness to interpret it (any form of process to render it intelligible)….
Whitehead rejected Newton’s conception of nature as the succession of instants of spatial distribution of bits of matter for two reasons. First: the concept of a “durationless” instant, “without reference to any other instant”, renders unintelligible the concepts of “velocity at an instant” and “momentum at an instant” as well as the equations of motion involving these concepts. Second: the concept of self-sufficient and isolated bits of matter, having “the property of simple location in space and time”, cannot “give the slightest warrant for the law of gravitation” that Newton postulated….
In Whitehead’s eyes, however, the development of Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism constituted an antidote to Newton’s scientific materialism, for it led him to conceive the whole universe as “a field of force—or, in other words, a field of incessant activity”. The theory of electromagnetism served Whitehead to overcome Newton’s “fallacy of simple location”, that is, the conception of nature as a universe of self-sufficient isolated bits of matter. Indeed, we cannot say of an electromagnetic event that it is
here in space, and here in time, or here in space-time, in a perfectly definite sense which does not require for its explanation any reference to other regions of space-time.
Whitehead … noticed that, in a sense, physicists are even more reductionist than Hume. In practice they rely on sense data, but in theory they abstract from most of the data of our five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) to focus on the colorless, soundless, odorless, and tasteless mathematical aspects of nature. Consequently, in a worldview inspired not by the actual practices of physicists, but by their theoretical speculations, nature—methodologically stripped from its ‘tertiary’ qualities (esthetical, ethical, and religious values)—is further reduced to the scientific world of ‘primary’ qualities (mathematical quantities and interconnections such as the amplitude, length, and frequency of mathematical waves), and this scientific world is bifurcated from the world of ‘secondary’ qualities (colors, sounds, smells, etc.). Moreover, the former world is supposed, ultimately, to fully explain the latter world (so that, for example, colors end up as being nothing more than electromagnetic wave-frequencies)….
Whitehead’s alternative is fighting “the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness”—the “error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete”—because “this fallacy is the occasion of great confusion in philosophy”. The fallacy of misplaced concreteness is committed each time abstractions are taken as concrete facts, and “more concrete facts” are expressed “under the guise of very abstract logical constructions”. This fallacy lies at the root of the modern philosophical confusions of scientific materialism and progressive bifurcation of nature. Indeed, the notion of simple location in Newton’s scientific materialism is an instance of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness—it mistakes the abstraction of in essence unrelated bits of matter as the most concrete reality from which to explain the relatedness of nature.
Inasmuch as human beings are incapable of knowing the true essence of reality, true knowledge is beyond our ken. We can only see the world through a glass darkly.
This post has been updated and moved to “Favorite Posts“.
Ben Shapiro, arguing against the use of emergency powers to fund the border wall, says this:
Proponents of President Donald Trump would like to see power centralized in the presidency; antagonists of Trump would like to see power centralized in the FBI.
Trump’s allies seem eager for Trump to declare a national emergency in order to appropriate funds for a border wall….
It’s good that the legislative branch checks the executive branch, and it’s good that the executive branch must remain in control of executive branch agencies.
Here’s the easy test: How would you feel if the situations were reversed?
I must note, first, that Shapiro badly overstates the case when he asserts that Trump’s proponents ” would like to see power centralized in the presidency,” and that “antagonists of Trump would like to see power centralized in the FBI.” Trump’s proponents would like to see power exercised responsibly, and most of the Democrats in Congress (as well as many Republicans) routinely fail to do that. Refusal to fund the border wall, merely to thwart Trump, is just a current and egregious example of that failure. Those same Democrats want the FBI to have power only when it comes to Trump; otherwise, they would prefer to emasculate the FBI. Democrats’ embrace of the FBI is a matter of political convenience, not principled conviction.
Now for the fallacy, which is implicit in Shapiro’s question, “How would you feel if the situations were reversed?” That question implies the following syllogism:
It is bad for the executive to use emergency powers.
The use of emergency powers is dictated by precedent.
Therefore, if Trump desists from using emergency powers, a future president (even a Democrat) will also desist and thereby avoid doing a bad thing.
The syllogism is logically valid, in that the conclusion follows from the premises. But the conclusion is arguably false because a Democrat — an Obama, for instance — is unlikely to be swayed by precedent in the matter of emergency powers.
Be sure to see the related-reading list at the end of this post.
If you pay much attention to the posturings of the left — and how could you not? — you probably have concluded that leftism is a quasi-religious* cult.
Leftism, as we know it today, is quasi-religious because of its strongly moralistic bent, given its readiness to condemn anything that can be associated (by leftists) with white supremacy/white privilege/racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, climate-change denialism, elitism, etc., etc., etc. (Condemnation of elitism, coming from leftist elites, epitomizes irony.)
Leftism of yore was aimed mainly at the realization of a material heaven on Earth through communism, socialism, and various forms of income and wealth redistribution. Today’s leftism, without having abandoned the objective of economic equality (or less inequality), has conjoined that objective to social equality.
In both cases, the left rejects the obvious fact that inequality is due mainly to innate differences that have deep roots in genetic inheritance, as influenced by eons of selection for traits deemed socially and economically desirable. It is possible to have equality under the law (though not when the law is written to favor certain groups), but that is the end of it. Leftists implicitly acknowledge this through their insufferably paternalistic words and deeds.
Leftists nevertheless try to impose economic and social equality because it is their desideratum. It is their religion-substitute, if you will. Why is this so? What drives leftists? I refer you to “Leftism” for at least some of the answers.
Force is necessarily required to attain equality, which is otherwise unattainable. The force wielded by government is supplemented by the power and influence of oligopolistic institutions controlled by leftists: public schools, universities, the “news” and “entertainment” media, and the information-technology industry. It has never been truer that knowledge (or, more properly, propaganda) is power.
The imposition of social and economic equality (or something nearer to it than is possible in a state of liberty), requires the abasement of those who are deemed superior (elite leftists excluded, of course). Leftism, in other words, embodies an inherently envious, vindictive, and destructive worldview. As a quasi-religion, leftism is in a league with militant Islam. The bombs and guns are at hand in the arsenal of the state, just not deployed on a massive scale — yet.
was marked by religious activism in American history and spans the late 1850s to the early 20th century. It affected pietistic Protestant denominations and had a strong element of social activism. It gathered strength from the postmillennial belief that the Second Coming of Christ would occur after mankind had reformed the entire earth. It was affiliated with the Social Gospel Movement, which applied Christianity to social issues and gained its force from the awakening, as did the worldwide missionary movement. New groupings emerged, such as the Holiness movement and Nazarene movements, and Christian Science.
The era saw the adoption of a number of moral causes, such as the abolition of slavery and prohibition.
The delineation of historical epochs is arbitrary, Movements such as the one described above don’t appear from nowhere, and don’t suddenly or completely end. Born-Again Christianity, which overlaps and parallels the Great Awakenings, has been around for at least 300 years, and was prominent in the U.S. in the latter decades of the twentieth century. It is still going strong, though less prominently than a few decades ago.
The same is true of the Progressive movement, which “officially” lasted from the 1880s to the 1920s. That version of Progressivism attracted many religious figures and personages of a strong religious bent. William Jennings Bryan, for example, was not just a politician who held high office and ran thrice for the presidency as a Democrat. He injected his religious fervor into his practice of politics, which set the stage for his late-life role as a Bible-thumping anti-evolutionist. (Movie buffs will remember Fredric March’s portrayal of Bryan as the “villain” of the Scopes trial in Inherit the Wind.)
The Progressive movement, though it seemed to end in the 1920s, never really died. Its agenda, has in fact been adopted wholesale, in law and by a vast majority of the populace. The New Deal had a lot to do with it, but not everything by any means. Politicians before and after FDR rose to power and held onto it by discovering “problems” and promising to “solve” them. These “problems” have ranged from the so-called trusts (monopolies and cartels) of the late 19th century — trusts that in fact made the lives of working Americans easier — to the so-called crisis of “climate change” to the seemingly endless litany of perceived “injustices” due to skin color, gender, place of birth, and so on. (Genetic inheritance and personal responsibility are of no account to a person who has the time and inclination to find injustice everywhere, except among groups that he condescends to see as oppressed.) Those few “progressive” causes that seemed to have failed, such as prohibition and eugenics, merely resurfaced in the anti-tobacco, anti-sex (of the normal kind), and pro-abortion movements.
The zombie-like nature of Progressivism is openly (if unwittingly) acknowledged by leftists. Having rejected “liberal” as a besmirched label, most of them now proudly call themselves “progressives”, albeit uncapitalized ones. So-called progressives are distinguishable from overt socialists only in their wise refusal to embrace all-out socialism, inasmuch as they are mostly from the upper echelons of the income and wealth distributions. But as affluent children of capitalism, they are willing to embrace some amount of income redistribution, just as long as their huge homes, gas-guzzling vehicles, and gross consumerism aren’t jeopardized.
The standard-issue progressive is nevertheless indistinguishable from a socialist in his unextinguishable faith in the power of the state to create heaven on Earth. Thus we have the Fourth Great Awakening.
It is, however, an Awakening with a decidedly anti-theistic ethos, and an especially anti-Christian one. The anti-Christian, neo-Pharisees of the left believe that it is right for the state to impose Christian charity, Christian “love” for one’s neighbor (as long as the neighbor is gender-confused or of another land, race, or ethnicity). Coerced “charity” is not charity, of course, but the contradiction that is lost on “progressives”.
There’s a lot more to “progressivism” than “charity”, of course. But all of its causes have the same thing in common: the worship of Power to attain the nirvana of social and economic equality (as long as the elites remain more equal than the rest).
* I say “quasi-religious” because of my respect for Bill Vallicella’s arguments about the misuse of “religion” as a descriptor of a secular worldview. Vallicella rejects “religion” as a label for a worldview that doesn’t satisfy his seven point definition of religion, which begins with this:
The belief that there is what William James calls an “unseen order.” (Varieties of Religious Exerience, p. 53) This is a realm of absolute reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their instrumental extensions. It is also inaccessible to inner sense or introspection. It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents.
A religion, in Vallicella’s view, must be founded on a belief in a supernatural being — a being that is, if nothing else, responsible for the creation and design of the sensible (material) order. All else, in Vallicella’s view, flows from that belief; thus:
[T]here is a supreme good for humans and that “our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves” to the “unseen order.” (Varieties, p. 53) …
[W]e are morally deficient, and … this deficiency impedes our adjustment to the unseen order….
[O]ur moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by our own efforts to afford us ready access to the unseen order.
[A]djustment to the unseen order requires moral purification/transformation.
[H]elp from the side of the unseen order is available to bring about this purification and adjustment.
[T]he sensible order … is ontologically and axiologically derivative. It is a manifestation or emanation or creation of the unseen order.
Graham Dennis, “Pawns in Tabloid Kingdom of Likes“, The Public Discourse, November 19, 2018
Ross Douthat, “The Huxley Trap“, The New York Times, November 18, 2018
Jim Goad, “Talking Down to the Blacks“, Taki’s Magazine, December 3, 2018
Thomas Jackson, “The Religion of anti-Racism“, American Renaissance, April 1999
Arnold Kling, “Social Justice and Moral Tribalism“, askblog, January 7, 2019
Theodore Kupfer, “What’s the Matter with White Liberals?“, National Review, November 29, 2018
Gerald J. Russello, “Our New Religion“, City Journal, December 6, 2018
Gilbert T. Sewall, “Pitrim Sirokin Revisited“, The American Conservative, January 8, 2019
Joanna Szurmak and Pierre Desrochers, “The One-sided Worldview of Eco-Pessimists“, Quillette, December 3, 2018