Economics Explained – Part I: What Is Economics About?

This is the first installment of a long entry. I may revise it as I post later entries. The whole will be published as a page, for ease of reference.

Economics, as a discipline, often seems counterintuitive, when it is not downright paradoxical. Perhaps the most counterintuitive principle of economics is that unregulated markets are the best mechanism for meeting human wants, given limited resources. Despite that principle, most economists emulate politicians and rabble-rousers in their penchant for second-guessing market outcomes and devising ways of manipulating those outcomes. This penchant does not negate the principle; it merely underscores the unwarranted vanity of the “intellectual” class.

Economics is mysterious to laymen because its practitioners have embellished it with unduly complex mathematical theorizing. In other words, when economics is not counterintuitive it is simply incomprehensible.

There is no need for economics to be counterintuitive or mysterious. Many writers have essayed simple — and correct — expositions of the principles of economics. The most notable effort, perhaps, is Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. Another good source is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics at The Library of Economics and Liberty (a web site). (Good places to start there are “Basic Concepts” and “Ten Key Ideas“.)

Unfortunately, Hazlitt’s short book is more than 200 pages long. And the entries at The Library of Economics and Liberty are disjointed. What the world needs is a truly concise but coherent and comprehensive statement of the principles of economics. Thus this post, in which I use not a single equation or graph. Why? Because equations and graphs can be off-putting to readers who are not habituated to them. Moreover, equations and graphs imply a degree of precision that is not found in the real world; verbal explanations, hedged with qualifications, give a more accurate picture of reality (albeit one that necessarily remains incomplete).

I begin with the basic question: What is economics about? The answer to that question leads to observations about the principles of economics, which are shaped by politics and culture. From there, I illustrate the principles by working through an example that eventually takes them all into account.

What Is Economics About?

Economics is about the satisfaction of human wants through the production and exchange of goods (a term that encompasses information, services, and tangible products). That simple definition raises several issues, which are the fundamental subjects of economic inquiry:

  1. What are human wants, and how do they arise?
  2. Are all human wants (e.g., love) the proper domain of economics?
  3. By what mechanisms are resources transformed into goods and then matched (or not) to human wants?
  4. What determines the rate of output of all goods, that is, the aggregate degree of satisfaction of human wants?
  5. What is the proper role of government in the satisfaction of human wants?

The brief answers to these questions, upon which I elaborate below, are as follows:

1. Human wants arise from basic human requirements and impulses (e.g., the need for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and status). Another way to say it is that human wants are both biological and emotional. Particular human wants, therefore, arise from a combination of biological impulses and cultural influences. Some wants clearly are essential to life (e.g., food); some wants clearly are nonessential but nevertheless fill emotional needs (e.g., yachts and mansions). But, like mountains and molehills, the extremes are distinguishable but they are connected by many indistinguishable intermediate stages; that is, there is no telling when wants transition from essential, to beneficial, to frivolous. Moreover — and this is an essential point to which I will return — the striving to fulfill what might seem to be frivolous wants can lead (by steps to be discussed later) to the creation of jobs that yield income from which the job-holders are able to fulfill essential wants (and others, as well).

2. Some human wants arise from impulses that economists should be wary of trying to analyze and measure. The most obvious of these is the kind of love that leads to marriage, sex, and children. Yes, there are sexual arrangements outside marriage that are purely economic transactions. But love of the kind that leads to marriage, sex, and children (and thence to love of parents for their children) is beyond the ken of economics. So, too, are other relationships that are non-transactional, such as friendship and membership in various voluntary organizations (churches, clubs, etc.).

3. Economics is therefore about arms-length transactions — transactions that aren’t bound up in non-contractual relationships like marriage, family, friendship, church, and club. Voluntary exchange and prices are the default mechanisms for matching goods with wants in arms-length transactions. The simplest example is barter: Andy makes bread and wants butter to put on it; Babette makes butter and wants bread for it: Andy and Babette strike a bargain that yields a rate of exchange between bread and butter (i.e., a price for bread in terms of butter and vice versa); the exchange makes both Andy and Babette better off (i.e., there are mutual gains from trade). The prices established by Andy and Babette also serve as signals (provide information) to others who seek to exchange bread and butter; for example, Chuck (a potential producer of butter) might be willing to make butter and trade with Andy on more favorable terms than those offered by Babette.

4. There is no such thing as an aggregate measure of the output of goods — though aggregation is implicit in macroeconomic constructs (e.g., gross domestic product). Thinking only of the United States, for example, how is it possible to aggregate the value of myriad goods that are produced and bought by dozens of millions of businesses and individuals? Hint: Because statistical sampling is arbitrary and uncertain, the answer cannot be found in the common denominator of money. It is nevertheless possible for an economy to move generally in the direction of growth or decline, with exceptions around the trend. It is obvious, for example, that most Americans use goods that are superior in number and quality to the goods that most Americans enjoyed 50 years ago. It is also obvious that during the episode known at the Great Depression, most Americans were materially worse off than they had been before the depression began, and that relatively few became better off. How such things happen, and how economic growth can be sustained and economic declines can be reversed, are valid subjects of economic analysis.

5. Voluntary exchange, unalloyed, can leave some persons “behind” (e.g., those who are incapable of producing bread in exchange for butter, those whose output is worth less to buyers than it used to be). But there is another human impulse (call it “altruism” for now) that leads to the voluntary redistribution of wealth and income, thus enabling the beneficiaries of the redistribution to buy more goods than they can afford on their own. Government action taken in the name of altruism displaces and discourages private altruistic action. More generally, government action throttles economic vitality, causes and exacerbates economic disruptions, and interferes with the constructive resolution of those disruptions. The proper role of government is to provide a framework of defense and justice within which economic actors can operate voluntarily and with little fear that their efforts to improve their lot (and the lot of others less fortunate) will be stymied by force or fraud. Government intervenes legitimately only when it prevents or discourages force and fraud (e.g., defending foreign sources of oil, detecting and preventing terrorism on U.S. soil, prosecuting thieves and murderers, prosecuting “boiler room” operators).

No Tears for Cass Sunstein

Cass Sunstein is, among many things, the co-author (with Richard Thaler). of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. One reviewer says this about the book:

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler contend that the way public choices are framed and presented goes a long way toward determining the kinds of decisions people make. Summarizing some four decades of research in what they call “the emerging science of choice,” they show that people do not always act logically or in their own best interests….

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, they point out, but studies show that the choices we make tend to be unrealistically optimistic, biased toward the status quo, and undercut by a subtle and unthinking conformity.

What the research suggests, Sunstein and Thaler say, is that “choice architecture — like the architecture of a well-designed public space — can guide, or “nudge,” people toward making better choices. A nudge is a way of organizing and presenting choices “that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives,” according to Sunstein and Thaler….

By understanding the power of nudges, they argue, “choice architects” — those charged with the responsibility of organizing the context in which people make decisions — can help to coax people into making decisions that serve them better.

A key to nudging is an old technique known as framing: presenting options in a way that makes the presenter’s preferred option more attractive than the others. A clever used-car salesman, for example, will size up your preferences and pocketbook. He will then prepare you to make an offer on a car at the high end of your price range, or even above it, by showing you less-expensive cars that he believes you won’t like. When he takes you to the car that makes your eyes light up, you are so enchanted by it (because it’s so much better than the ones you’ve already seen) that you hardly blink at the sticker price. If you do make an offer that’s below the sticker price, the best you will do is arrive at the salesman’s reserve price — the lowest offer that he can accept. And you will probably end up paying a lot more than the reserve price. The mirror-image approach, which a salesman may use instead, is to start well above your price range, whet your appetite for something above your price range, and snag you with something that’s still above it but looks good to you because it’s cheaper than what you’ve already seen. The same techniques are employed by clever salesmen of all kinds, including — notably — real-estate salesmen.

I have addressed at length the political aspects of Sunstein and Thaler’s version of the framing technique (and other manipulative tricks), which they call “libertarian paternalism”. (See the list of related posts, below.) My bottom line: There is nothing “libertarian” about pushing people in the direction that you think is best for them. (Though it has become characteristically “libertarian” to urge the state to enact laws — same-sex marriage, for example — that trample on long-established, voluntary social norms and by their enactment to enable state persecution of persons whose beliefs are at odds with “libertarian” views.)

But I have digressed. A writer who seems bent on garnering sympathy for Sunstein uses framing as a way of trying to deflect much-deserved blame for Sunstein’s foray into authoritarianism. I am referring to Andrew Marantz, whose article “How a Liberal Scholar of Conspiracy Theories Became the Subject of a Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory” (New Yorker, December 27, 2017):

In 2010, Marc Estrin, a novelist and far-left activist from Vermont, found an online version of a paper by Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School and the most frequently cited legal scholar in the world. The paper, called “Conspiracy Theories,” was first published in 2008, in a small academic journal called the Journal of Political Philosophy. In it, Sunstein and his Harvard colleague Adrian Vermeule attempted to explain how conspiracy theories spread, especially online. At one point, they made a radical proposal: “Our main policy claim here is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories.” The authors’ primary example of a conspiracy theory was the belief that 9/11 was an inside job; they defined “cognitive infiltration” as a program “whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups.”

Nowhere in the final version of the paper did Sunstein and Vermeule state the obvious fact that a government ban on conspiracy theories would be unconstitutional and possibly dangerous. (In a draft that was posted online, which remains more widely read, they emphasized that censorship is “inconsistent with principles of freedom of expression,” although they “could imagine circumstances in which a conspiracy theory became so pervasive, and so dangerous, that censorship would be thinkable.”)* “I was interested in the mechanisms by which information, whether true or false, gets passed along and amplified,” Sunstein told me recently. “I wanted to know how extremists come to believe the warped things they believe, and, to a lesser extent, what might be done to interrupt their radicalization. But I suppose my writing wasn’t very clear.”

On the contrary, Sunstein’s writing was quite clear. So clear that even leftists were alarmed by it. Returning to Marantz’s account:

When Barack Obama became President, in 2009, he appointed Sunstein, his friend and former colleague at the University of Chicago Law School, to be the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The O.I.R.A. reviews drafts of federal rules, and, using tools such as cost-benefit analysis, recommends ways to make them more efficient. O.I.R.A. administrator is the sort of in-the-weeds post that even lifelong technocrats might find unglamorous; Sunstein had often described it as his “dream job.” He took a break from academia and moved to Washington, D.C. It soon became clear that some of his published views, which he’d thought of as “maybe a bit mischievous, but basically fine, within the context of an academic journal,” could seem far more nefarious in the context of the open Internet.

Estrin, who seems to have been the first blogger to notice the “Conspiracy Theories” paper, published a post in January, 2010, under the headline “Got Fascism?” “Put into English, what Sunstein is proposing is government infiltration of groups opposing prevailing policy,” he wrote on the “alternative progressive” Web site the Rag Blog. Three days later, the journalist Daniel Tencer (Twitter bio: “Lover of great narratives in all their forms”) expanded on Estrin’s post, for Raw Story. Two days after that, the civil-libertarian journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote a piece for Salon headlined “Obama Confidant’s Spine-Chilling Proposal.” Greenwald called Sunstein’s paper “truly pernicious,” concluding, “The reason conspiracy theories resonate so much is precisely that people have learned—rationally—to distrust government actions and statements. Sunstein’s proposed covert propaganda scheme is a perfect illustration of why that is.” Sunstein’s “scheme,” as Greenwald put it, wasn’t exactly a government action or statement. Sunstein wasn’t in government when he wrote it, in 2008; he was in the academy, where his job was to invent thought experiments, including provocative ones. But Greenwald was right that not all skepticism is paranoia.

And then:

Three days after Estrin’s post was published on the Rag Blog, the fire jumped to the other side of the road. Paul Joseph Watson, writing for the libertarian conspiracist outfit InfoWars, linked to Estrin’s post and riffed on it, in a free-associative mode, for fifteen hundred words. “It is a firmly established fact that the military-industrial complex which also owns the corporate media networks in the United States has numerous programs aimed at infiltrating prominent Internet sites and spreading propaganda to counter the truth,” Watson wrote. His boss at InfoWars, Alex Jones, began expanding on this talking point on his daily radio show: “Cass Sunstein says ban conspiracy theories, and that’s whatever he says it is. That’s on record.”

At the time, Glenn Beck hosted both a daily TV show on Fox News and a syndicated radio show; according to a Harris poll, he was the country’s second-favorite TV personality, after Oprah Winfrey. Beck had been delivering impassioned rants against Sunstein for months, calling him “the most dangerous man in America.” Now he added the paper about conspiracy theories to his litany of complaints. In one typical TV segment, in April of 2010, he devoted several minutes to a close reading of the paper, which lists five possible ways that a government might respond to conspiracy theories, including banning them outright. “The government should ban them,” Beck said, over-enunciating to express his incredulity. “How a government with an amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech bans a conspiracy theory is absolutely beyond me, but it’s not beyond a great mind and a great thinker like Cass Sunstein.” In another show, Beck insinuated that Sunstein had been inspired by Edward Bernays, the author of a 1928 book called “Propaganda.” “I got a flood of messages that night, saying, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself, you’re a disciple of Bernays,’ ” Sunstein recalled. “The result was that I was led to look up this interesting guy Bernays, whom I might not have heard of otherwise.”

For much of 2010 and 2011, Sunstein was such a frequent target on right-wing talk shows that some Tea Party-affiliated members of Congress started to invoke his name as a symbol of government overreach. Earlier in the Obama Administration, Beck had targeted Van Jones, now of CNN, who was then a White House adviser on green jobs. After a few weeks of Beck’s attacks, Jones resigned. “Then Beck made it sort of clear that he wanted me to be next,” Sunstein said. “It wasn’t a pleasant fact, but I didn’t see what I could do about it. So I put it out of my mind.”

Sunstein was never asked to resign. He served as the head of O.I.R.A. for three years, then returned to Harvard, in 2012. Two years later, he published an essay collection called “Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas.” The first chapter was a revised version of the “Conspiracy Theories” paper, with several qualifications added and with Vermeule’s name removed. But the revisions did nothing to improve Sunstein’s standing on far-right talk shows, where he had already earned a place, along with Saul Alinsky and George Soros and Al Gore, in the pantheon of globalist bogeymen. Beck referred to Sunstein as recently as last year, on his radio show, while discussing the Obama Administration’s “propaganda” in favor of the Iran nuclear deal. “We no longer have Jefferson and Madison leading us,” Beck said. “We have Saul Alinsky and Cass Sunstein. Whatever it takes to win, you do.” Last December, Alex Jones—who is, improbably, now taken more seriously than Beck by many conservatives, including some in the White House—railed against a recent law, the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, claiming, speciously, that it would “completely federalize all communications in the United States” and “put the C.I.A. in control of media.” According to Jones, blame for the law rested neither with the members of Congress who wrote it nor with President Obama, who signed it. “I was sitting here this morning . . . And I keep thinking, What are you looking at that’s triggered a memory here?” Jones said. “And then I remembered, Oh, my gosh! It’s Cass Sunstein.”

Cue the tears for Sunstein:

Recently, on the Upper East Side, Sunstein stood behind a Lucite lectern and gave a talk about “#Republic.” Attempting to end on a hopeful note, he quoted John Stuart Mill: “It is hardly possible to overrate the value . . . of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves.” He then admitted, with some resignation, that this describes the Internet we should want, not the Internet we have.

After the talk, we sat in a hotel restaurant and ordered coffee. Sunstein has a sense of humor about his time in the spotlight—what he calls not his fifteen minutes of fame but his Two Minutes Hate, an allusion to “1984”—and yet he wasn’t sure what lessons he had learned from the experience, if any. “I can’t say I spent much time thinking about it, then or now,” he said. “The rosy view would be that it says something hopeful about us—about Americans, that is. We’re highly distrustful of anything that looks like censorship, or spying, or restriction of freedom in any way. That’s probably a good impulse.” He folded his hands on the table, as if to signal that he had phrased his thoughts as diplomatically as possible.

I’m not buying it. Sunstein deserves every bit of blame that came his way, and I certainly wouldn’t buy a car or house from him. He was attacked from the left and right for good reason, and portraying his attackers as kooks and extremists doesn’t change the facts of the matter. Sunstein’s 2010 article wasn’t a one-off thing. Six years earlier he published “The Future of Free Speech” in the March-April 2004 issue of The Little Magazine, a South Asian journal (thus the British English spellings in the quotations below). Hold your nose and follow Sunstein’s argument in these quotations from “The Future of Free Speech”:

My purpose here is to cast some light on the relationship between democracy and new communications technologies. I do so by emphasising the most striking power provided by emerging technologies: the growing power of consumers to “filter” what it is that they see. In the extreme case, people will be fully able to design their own communications universe. They will find it easy to exclude, in advance, topics and points of view that they wish to avoid. I will also provide some notes on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.

An understanding of the dangers of filtering permits us to obtain a better sense of what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression. Above all, I urge that in a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance…. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a much more difficult time addressing social problems; people may even find it hard to understand one another….

Imagine … a system of communications in which each person has unlimited power of individual design…. Our communications market is moving rapidly toward this apparently utopian picture…. [A]s of this writing, a number of newspapers allow readers to create filtered versions, containing exactly what they want, and excluding what they do not want….

I seek to defend a particular conception of democracy — a deliberative conception — and to evaluate, in its terms, the outcome of a system with perfect power of filtering. I also mean to defend a conception of freedom, associated with the deliberative conception of democracy, and oppose it to a conception that sees consumption choices by individuals as the very embodiment of freedom….

The US Supreme Court has … held that streets and parks must be kept open to the public for expressive activity. Hence governments are obliged to allow speech to occur freely on public streets and in public parks — even if many citizens would prefer to have peace and quiet, and even if it seems irritating to come across protesters and dissidents whom one would like to avoid….

A distinctive feature of this idea is that it creates a right of speakers’ access, both to places and to people. Another distinctive feature is that the public forum doctrine creates a right, not to avoid governmentally imposed penalties on speech, but to ensure government subsidies of speech…. Thus the public forum represents one place in which the right to free speech creates a right of speakers’ access to certain areas and also demands public subsidy of speakers….

[T]he public forum doctrine increases the likelihood that people generally will be exposed to a wide variety of people and views. When you go to work, or visit a park, it is possible that you will have a range of unexpected encounters, however fleeting or seemingly inconsequential. You cannot easily wall yourself off from contentions or conditions that you would not have sought out in advance, or that you would have chosen to avoid if you could. Here too the public forum doctrine tends to ensure a range of experiences that are widely shared — streets and parks are public property — and also a set of exposures to diverse circumstances. A central idea here must be that these exposures help promote understanding and perhaps in that sense freedom. And all of these points can be closely connected to democratic ideals, as we soon see….

The public forum doctrine is an odd and unusual one, especially insofar as to create a kind of speakers’ access right to people and places, subsidised by taxpayers. But the doctrine is closely associated with a longstanding constitutional ideal, one that is far from odd: that of republican self-government. From the beginning, the American constitutional order was designed to be a republic, as distinguished from a monarchy or a direct democracy. We cannot understand the system of freedom of expression, and the effects of new communications technologies and filtering, without reference to this ideal….

The specifically American form of republicanism … involved an effort to create a “deliberative democracy.” In this system, representatives would be accountable to the public at large, but there was also supposed to be a large degree of reflection and debate, both within the citizenry and within government itself. The system of checks and balances — evident in the bicameral system, the Senate, the Electoral College and so forth — had, as its central purpose, a mechanism for promoting deliberation within the government as a whole….

We are now in a position to distinguish between two conceptions of sovereignty. The first involves consumer sovereignty; the second involves political sovereignty. The first ideal underlies enthusiasm for “the Daily Me.” The second ideal underlies the democratic challenge to this vision, on the ground that it is likely to undermine both self-government and freedom, properly conceived.

Of course, the two conceptions of sovereignty are in potential tension. A commitment to consumer sovereignty may well compromise political sovereignty — if, for example, free consumer choices result in insufficient understanding of public problems, or if they make it difficult to have anything like a shared culture….

Group polarisation is highly likely to occur on the Internet. Indeed, it is clear that the Internet is serving, for many, as a breeding ground for extremism, precisely because like-minded people are deliberating with one another, without hearing contrary views….

The most reasonable conclusion is that it is extremely important to ensure that people are exposed to views other than those with which they currently agree, in order to protect against the harmful effects of group polarisation on individual thinking and on social cohesion….

The adverse effects of group polarization…show that with respect to communications, consumer sovereignty is likely to produce serious problems for individuals and society at large — and these problems will occur by a kind of iron logic of social interactions….

The phenomenon of group polarisation is closely related to the widespread phenomenon of ‘social cascades’. No discussion of social fragmentation and emerging communications technologies would be complete without a discussion of that phenomenon….

[O]ne group may end up believing something and another the exact opposite, because of rapid transmission of information within one group but not the other. In a balkanised speech market, this danger takes on a particular form: different groups may be led to dramatically different perspectives, depending on varying local cascades.

I hope this is enough to demonstrate that for citizens of a heterogeneous democracy, a fragmented communications market creates considerable dangers. There are dangers for each of us as individuals; constant exposure to one set of views is likely to lead to errors and confusions. And to the extent that the process makes people less able to work cooperatively on shared problems, there are dangers for society as a whole.

In a heterogeneous society, it is extremely important for diverse people to have a set of common experiences….

This is hardly a suggestion that everyone should be required to participate in the same thing. We are not speaking of requirements at all. In any case a degree of plurality, with respect to both topics and points of view, is also highly desirable. My only claim is that a common set of frameworks and experiences is valuable for a heterogeneous society, and that a system with limitless options, making for diverse choices, will compromise the underlying values.

The points thus far raise questions about whether a democratic order is helped or hurt by a system of unlimited individual choice with respect to communications. It is possible to fear that such a system will produce excessive fragmentation, with group polarisation as a frequent consequence. It is also possible to fear that such a system will produce too little by way of solidarity goods, or shared experiences. But does the free speech principle bar government from responding to the situation? If that principle is taken to forbid government from doing anything to improve the operation of the speech market, the answer must be a simple Yes.

I believe, however, that this is a crude and unhelpful understanding of the free speech principle, one that is especially ill-suited to the theoretical and practical challenges of the next decades and beyond. If we see the Free Speech Principle through a democratic lens, we will be able to make a great deal more progress.

There should be no ambiguity on the point: free speech is not an absolute. The government is allowed to regulate speech by imposing neutral rules of property law, telling would-be speakers that they may not have access to certain speech outlets…. Government is permitted to regulate unlicensed medical advice, attempted bribery, perjury, criminal conspiracies (“Let’s fix prices!”), threats to assassinate the President, criminal solicitation (“Might you help me rob this bank?”), child pornography, false advertising, purely verbal fraud (“This stock is worth $100,000”), and much more…. And if one or more of these forms of speech can be regulated, free speech absolutism is a kind of fraud, masking the real issues that must be confronted in separating protected speech from unprotected speech….

If the discussion thus far is correct, there are three fundamental concerns from the democratic point of view. These include:
• the need to promote exposure to materials, topics, and positions that people would not have chosen in advance, or at least enough exposure to produce a degree of understanding and curiosity;
• the value of a range of common experiences;
• the need for exposure to substantive questions of policy and principle, combined with a range of positions on such questions.

Of course, it would be ideal if citizens were demanding, and private information providers were creating, a range of initiatives designed to alleviate the underlying concerns…. But to the extent that they fail to do so, it is worthwhile to consider government initiatives designed to pick up the slack….

1. Producers of communications might be subject … to disclosure requirements…. On a quarterly basis, they might be asked to say whether and to what extent they have provided educational programming for children, free airtime for candidates, and closed captioning for the hearing impaired. They might also be asked whether they have covered issues of concern to the local community and allowed opposing views a chance to be heard…. Websites might be asked to say if they have allowed competing views a chance to be heard….

2. Producers of communications might be asked to engage in voluntary self-regulation…. [T]here is growing interest in voluntary self-regulation for both television and the Internet…. Any such code could, for example, call for an opportunity for opposing views to speak, or for avoiding unnecessary sensationalism, or for offering arguments rather than quick ‘sound-bytes’ whenever feasible.

3. The government might subsidise speech, as, for example, through publicly subsidised programming or Websites…. Perhaps government could subsidise a ‘public.net’ designed to promote debate on public issues among diverse citizens — and to create a right of access to speakers of various sorts.

4. If the problem consists in the failure to attend to public issues, the government might impose “must carry” rules on the most popular Websites, designed to ensure more exposure to substantive questions. Under such a program, viewers of especially popular sites would see an icon for sites that deal with substantive issues in a serious way…. Ideally, those who create Websites might move in this direction on their own. If they do not, government should explore possibilities of imposing requirements of this kind, making sure that no program draws invidious lines in selecting the sites whose icons will be favoured….

5. The government might impose “must carry” rules on highly partisan Websites, designed to ensure that viewers learn about sites containing opposing views…. Here too the ideal situation would be voluntary action. But if this proves impossible, it is worth considering regulatory alternatives….

Emerging technologies are hardly an enemy here…. But to the extent that they weaken the power of general interest intermediaries, and increase people’s ability to wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they create serious dangers….

So let’s all put on our brown shirts and march to a public rally at which we will be “allowed” to shout: “Dark is light; black is white; Sunstein is right.”

I once said that Cass Sunstein is to the integrity of constitutional law as Pete Rose is to the integrity of baseball. It’s worse than that: Sunstein’s willingness to abuse constitutional law in the advancement of a statist agenda reminds me of Hitler’s abuse of German law to advance his repugnant agenda.

There is remorse for having done something wrong, and there is chagrin at having been caught doing something wrong. Sunstein’s conversation-over-coffee with Marantz reads very much like the latter.


Related posts:
Sunstein at the Volokh Conspiracy
More from Sunstein
Cass Sunstein’s Truly Dangerous Mind
An (Imaginary) Interview with Cass Sunstein
Libertarian Paternalism
A Libertarian Paternalist’s Dream World
Slippery Sunstein
The Short Answer to Libertarian Paternalism
Second-Guessing, Paternalism, Parentalism, and Choice
Another Thought about Libertarian Paternalism
Sunstein and Executive Power
The Feds and “Libertarian Paternalism”
Another Voice Against the New Paternalism
A Further Note about “Libertarian” Paternalism
Apropos Paternalism
Another Entry in the Sunstein Saga
The Sunstein Effect Is Alive and Well in the White House
Sunstein the Fatuous
Richard Thaler, Nobel Laureate
Thaler’s Non-Revolution in Economics
Another (Big) Problem with “Nudging”

“Solomon” Horowitz Cuts the Baby in Half

If you don’t “get” the title, you should read this.

“Solomon” Horowitz is Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz, of course. According to many sources (including this one), the report that he issued today

criticizes some of the FBI’s actions in beginning an investigation of the Trump campaign’s connection with Russian election meddling, but does not conclude that political bias drove the agency’s probe.

Given the preponderance of evidence that political bias permeated the instigators and participants in the so-called investigation, Horowitz has to go down in history as the man who couldn’t see that the emperor was naked.

Horowitz, instead of getting at the truth, obviously tried to keep both of the warring camps happy, with the result that neither of them is happy. Discretion is seldom the better part of wisdom. It certainly wasn’t in this case. The truth is already out, but it will be underscored and reinforced when U.S. Attorney John Durham is finished with his probe.

Notably, Durham’s office issued a statement about the Horowitz report, which says in part:

Our investigation has included developing information from other persons and entities, both in the U.S. and outside of the U.S. Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing, last month we advised the Inspector General that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.

Attorney General William Barr weighed in with this damning interpretation of the Horowitz report:

The Inspector General’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken. It is also clear that, from its inception, the evidence produced by the investigation was consistently exculpatory. Nevertheless, the investigation and surveillance was pushed forward for the duration of the campaign and deep into President Trump’s administration. In the rush to obtain and maintain FISA surveillance of Trump campaign associates, FBI officials misled the FISA court, omitted critical exculpatory facts from their filings, and suppressed or ignored information negating the reliability of their principal source. The Inspector General found the explanations given for these actions unsatisfactory. While most of the misconduct identified by the Inspector General was committed in 2016 and 2017 by a small group of now-former FBI officials, the malfeasance and misfeasance detailed in the Inspector General’s report reflects a clear abuse of the FISA process.

The Federalist is all over the story. See this, this, this, this, this, this, and this, for example. See also my page, “Spygate (a.k.a. Russiagate)“), in which I outlined the conspiracy many moons ago.

As for Horowitz, it’s possible (but unbelievable) that his job description kept him from spilling the whole truckload of beans about malfeasance in the FBI and Department of Justice. It’s more likely that he’s a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, a tenured hack who hasn’t the backbone to tell it straight, even though he is in a cushy job from which he can retire quite comfortably. I say this as someone who took the risk of getting two incompetent bosses fired when I was not in a cushy position or anywhere near retirement age. I have no patience with mealy-mouthed cowards like Horowitz.

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XXV)

“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“.

CONTENTS

The Real Unemployment Rate and Labor-Force Participation

Is Partition Possible?

Still More Evidence for Why I Don’t Believe in “Climate Change”

Transgenderism, Once More

Big, Bad Oligopoly?

Why I Am Bunkered in My Half-Acre of Austin

“Government Worker” Is (Usually) an Oxymoron


The Real Unemployment Rate and Labor-Force Participation

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.


Is Partition Possible?

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.


Still More Evidence for Why I Don’t Believe in “Climate Change”

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.

For a lot more in this vein, see my pages “Climate Change” and “Modeling and Science“.


Transgenderism, Once More

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, Bad Oligopoly?

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.


Why I Am Bunkered in My Half-Acre of Austin

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


“Government Worker” Is (Usually) an Oxymoron

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.

Dangerous Millennials?

I return to Joel Kotkin’s essay, “America’s Drift Toward Feudalism“ (American Affairs Journal, Winter 2019), which I quoted recently and favorably. This is from the final passages of the essay:

In the world envisioned by the oligarchs [the ultrarich, especially the czars of Big Tech and financial institutions] and the clerisy [affluent professionals and members of the academic-goverment-information-media complex], the poor and much of the middle class are destined to become more dependent on the state. This dependency could be accelerated as their labor is devalued both by policy hostile to the industrial economy, and by the greater implementation of automation and artificial intelligence.

Opposing these forces will be very difficult, particularly given the orientation of our media, academia, and the nonprofit world, as well as the massive wealth accumulated by the oligarchs. A system that grants favors and entertainment to its citizens but denies them prop­erty expects little in return. This kind of state, Tocqueville suggested, can be used to keep its members in “perpetual childhood”; it “would degrade men rather than tormenting them.”

Reversing our path away from a new feudalism will require, among other things, a rediscovery of belief in our basic values and what it means to be an American. Nearly 40 percent of young Ameri­cans, for example, think the country lacks “a history to be proud of.” Fewer young people than previous generations place an emphasis on family, religion, or patriotism. Rather than look at what binds a dem­ocratic society together, the focus on both right and left has been on narrow identities incapable of sustaining a democratic and pluralistic society. The new generation has become cut off from the traditions and values of our past. If one does not even know of the legacies underpinning our democracy, one is not likely to notice when they are lost. Recovering a sense of pride and identification with Ameri­ca’s achievements is an essential component of any attempt to recover the drive, ambition, and self-confidence that propelled the United States to the space age. If we want to rescue the future from a new and pernicious form of feudalism, we will have to recover this ground.

To reverse neo-feudalism, the Third Estate—the class most threat­ened by the ascendency of the oligarchs and the clerisy—needs to re­invigorate its political will, just as it did during the Revolution and in the various struggles that followed. “Happy the nation whose people has not forgotten to how to rebel,” noted the British historian R. H. Tawney. Whether we can understand and defy the new feudalism will determine the kind of world our children will inherit.

There is altogether too much reification going on here. Take the final paragraph, for example, where Kotkin says that the Third Estate (the poor and middle class) “needs to invigorate its political will”. The Third Estate is an abstraction, not an actual association of persons united for the purpose of taking collective action.

Individual members of the Third Estate will do whatever it is that they choose to do and are capable of doing. One frightening possibility is that enough of them will take to the polls and increasingly tip the balance toward left-wing politicians who promise to share the wealth. Having followed Kotkin’s blog for some time, I doubt that that is an outcome he prefers, inasmuch as efforts to share the wealth are economically destructive — especially for members of the Third Estate.

For more about the economic status of Millennials (as an abstract group), see Timothy Taylor’s “About Millennials“.

Good News from the Federal Government

According to The Wall Street Journal,

Congress has struck a tentative bipartisan agreement that would authorize 12 weeks of paid parental leave for all federal workers, in a potentially historic deal negotiated with the White House.

Draft language for a must-pass annual defense policy bill includes a provision that would allow 2.1 million civilians who work for the U.S. government across the country to take paid leave to care for a new baby after birth, adoption or the initiation of foster care, according to multiple people familiar with the deal.

Under current law, military service members can take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a new child, while civilian federal employees get 12 weeks leave without pay. Civilian employees are paid during that 12-week period by using accrued annual or sick leave.

The change, if adopted, will mean that whenever a male federal worker qualifies for the benefit, he will almost always claim it. Currently, he is discouraged from taking time off because he must use annual leave or sick 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.

Come to think of it, all civilian federal workers should be given paid annual leave of 250 days (i.e., 50 weeks). That amount of paid leave, plus the two weeks’ worth of paid federal holidays, would allow the entire civilian federal work force to loaf full-time — but not at the office, where just going through the motions is damaging to the economy.

An even better idea is to abolish most of the civilian federal workforce and spend the money on defense. That would make us a lot better off, and more secure into the bargain.

Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled? A Footnote

Near the end of Sir Roger Scruton’s On Human Nature, I came upon a discussion that bears directly on my post, “Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled?“. Scruton’s point is essential and merits a spotlight. Further, it applies not only to libertarianism (i.e., classical liberalism) but also to its offshoot — modern “liberalism” — neither of which, as rationalistic philosophies, bear any resemblance to conservatism, properly understood.

Here is the essential difference between conservatism and the varieties of liberalism, in Scruton’s words:

[W]e find near-universal agreement among American moral philosophers that individual autonomy and respect for rights are the root conceptions of moral order, with the state conceived either as an instrument for safeguarding autonomy or — if given a larger role — as an instrument for rectifying disadvantage in the name of “social justice.” The arguments given for these positions are invariably secular, egalitarian, and founded in an abstract idea of rational choice. And they are attractive arguments, since they justify both a public morality and a shared political order in ways that allow for the peaceful coexistence of people with different faiths, different commitments, and deep metaphysical disagreements. The picture of the moral life that I have presented is largely compatible with these arguments. But it also points to two important criticisms that might be made of them.

The first criticism is that the contractarian position fails to take our situation as organisms seriously. We are embodied beings, and our relations are mediated by our bodily presence. All of our most important emotions are bound up with this: erotic love, the love of children and parents, the attachment to home, the fear of death and suffering, the sympathy for others in their pain or fear — none of these things would make sense if it were not for our situation as organisms…. If we were disembodied rational agents — “noumenal selves“… — then our moral burdens would be lightly worn and would amount only to the side constraints required to reconcile the freedom of each of us with the equal freedom of our neighbors. But we are embodied beings, who are drawn to each other as such, trapped into erotic and familial emotions that create radical distinctions, unequal claims, fatal attachments, and territorial needs, and much of moral life is concerned with the negotiation of these dark regions of the psyche.

The second criticism is that our obligations are not and cannot be reduced to those that guarantee our mutual freedom. Noumenal selves come into a world unencumbered by ties and attachments for the very reason that they do not come into the world at all…. For us humans, who enter a world marked by the joys and sufferings of those who are making room for us, who enjoy protection in our early years and opportunities in our maturity, the field of obligation is wider than the field of choice.  We are bound by ties that we never chose, and our world contains values and challenges that intrude from beyond the comfortable arena of our agreements. In the attempt to encompass these values and challenges, human beings ahve developed concepts that have little or no place in liberal theories of the social contract — concepts of the sacred and the sublime, of evil and redemption, that suggest a completely different orientation to the world than that assumed by modern moral philosophy.

(See also “The Shallowness of Secular Ethical Systems” and “Rawls vs. Reality“.)

The Trump Disadvantage

I keep a database of statistics compiled by Rasmussen Reports. One of the statistics is based on a weekly poll in which likely voters are asked about the direction of the country; specifically, whether it is going in the right direction or is on the wrong track. That’s a vague question, which leaves it up to the respondent to define what’s right and what’s wrong. A respondent might, for example, reply according to how he is feeling at the moment about the performance of the president. Whatever the case, I compute a weekly value for the ratio right direction/wrong track.

A second statistic is a direct measure of the president’s popularity. It is given by the following ratio: fraction of respondents strongly approving the president’s performance/fraction of respondents either approving or disapproving of the president’s performance. (This ratio disregards persons not venturing an opinion pro or con.)

(For more about these two metrics, see this post.)

Take Obama’s eight years as president (please!). Excluding the first several weeks of Obama’ first term, when his stratospheric approval ratings had more to do with hope than performance, here’s the relationship between the two metrics (with right direction/wrong track on the horizontal axis):

There’s a strong but not perfect relationship, which suggests that factors other than the president’s performance affect respondents’ views of the state of the nation. But it is evident that perceptions of the state of the nation do have a strong effect on judgments about the president’s performance (and vice versa).

Given that, the question arises whether Trump gets as much credit (or discredit) as Obama did for the perceived state of the nation. This graph covers Trump’s first term to date, and the same span of Obama’s first term, excluding (in both cases) the early “honeymoon” weeks:

Opinions of Trump have been so poisoned (with help from Trump, himself) that he can’t muster higher approval ratings than Obama did unless voters feel considerably better about the state of the nation under Trump than they did under Obama. A strong-approval ratio of 0.36, for example, was achieved by Obama with a right direction/wrong track ratio of about 0.7, whereas Trump can’t muster a strong-approval ratio of 0.36 unless the right direction/wrong track ratio is about 0.85.

What does that mean for Trump’s re-election? It won’t happen if between now and election day 2020 there is a sharp economic downturn, a severe stock market correction, or a major defense/foreign policy crisis of some kind. An impeachment trial, on the other hand, might be just the thing Trump needs to garner enough independent votes for re-election.

White Privilege

I won’t repeat very much of what is found in these two articles about so-called white privilege. They almost adequately address the phenomenon of superior life outcomes, on average, among whites relative to blacks. What are the causes, according to the writers? This is from the second article:

Geographic determinism, personal responsibility, family structure, and culture work [together] to explain differences in outcomes. Recall Raj Chetty, whose research found a correlation between neighbourhoods and economic mobility. His study turned up only one other local characteristic that rivalled social capital in boosting social mobility: two-parent households. However, it isn’t enough just to live in a two-parent household. If you grow up amid intact families, the American Dream is alive and well. Indeed, the proliferation of intact families in a neighbourhood serves to increase social capital.

Furthermore, the social capital which underpins geographic determinism is ultimately a consequence of the culture of a neighbourhood. These values influence the decisions made by those living in the neighbourhood. These decisions then feed into family structure, ultimately reinforcing the neighbourhood’s culture while preserving social capital.

All of this is to say, each of these factors are connected. On their own, they can only explain part of why group outcomes differ. But together, they paint a clearer picture than the one drawn by the adherents of white privilege.

These factors are less thrilling than blaming a specific racial group. If we want to feel the satisfaction of directing blame while enhancing in-group solidarity, then invoking white privilege is not a bad strategy. “White privilege” gives you a simple answer and a clear enemy. But if we truly want to understand and mitigate group differences, then taking a closer look at the data is a far better approach.

Here and throughout the two articles, however, the writers fail to name and discuss the basic determinant of differential outcomes between blacks and whites, on average. It is the crucial determinant which underlies those that they list. That determinant, of course, is the wide and persistent white-black intelligence gap.

Greater intelligence means, among many things, higher income (and thus a greater propensity to accumulate wealth), a willingness to defer gratification and to strive toward long-term objectives (by saving and acquiring education, for example), and a less-violent disposition (and thus a lower propensity to commit crimes that result in long-term incarceration, sustained loss of income, and family dissolution).

The intelligence gap can be called a privilege only if the superior ability of blacks, on average, to jump higher and sprint faster than whites can be called a privilege. I am waiting in vain to hear about black-athletic privilege, which has produced a multitude of black multi-millionaires. (I am also waiting in vain to hear about Askhkenazi Jew privilege and East Asian privilege, inasmuch as members of both groups, on average, are more intelligent and thus, on average, more highly compensated than non-Ashkenazi Americans.)

An essential fact of life is that every human being possesses a different set of physical and mental endowments than every other human being. And it is a matter of personal responsibility to make the most of one’s endowments. Blaming one’s failures on others may, somehow, be satisfying (though it has never been my style). And it may even result in the tearing down of others (e.g., affirmative action, which has penalized millions of better-qualified whites; a massive tax burden, borne disproportionately by whites, to support mostly futile attempts to lift up blacks).

But the effect of such schemes has been to harm blacks in many ways; for example, by depriving them of jobs that might have been created for them with wasted tax dollars, by putting them in jobs and college majors that they couldn’t handle, and by teaching them personal irresponsibility.

Why Is Capitalism Under Attack from the Right?

Many conservatives, this one included, have been or are becoming critical of capitalism. Near the end of a recent post, for example, I say that

capitalism is an amoral means to material ends. It is not the servant of society, properly understood. Nor is it the servant of conservative principles, which include (inter alia) the preservation of traditional morality, both as an end and as a binding and civilizing force.

One aspect of capitalism is that it enables the accumulation of great wealth and power. The “robber barons” of the late 19th century and early 20th century accumulated great wealth by making possible the production of things (e.g., oil and steel) that made life materially better for Americans rich and poor.

Though the “robber barons” undoubtedly wielded political power, they did so in an age when mass media consisted of printed periodicals (newspapers and magazines). But newspapers and magazines never dominated the attention of the public in the way that radio, movies, television, and electronically transmitted “social media” do today. Moreover, there were far more printed periodicals then than now, and they offered competing political views (unlike today’s periodicals, which are mainly left of center, when not merely frivolous.)

Which is to say that the “robber barons” may have “bought and sold” politicians, but they weren’t in the business of — or very effective at — shaping public opinion. (f they had been, they wouldn’t have been targets of incessant attacks by populist politicians, and anti-trust legislation wouldn’t have been enacted to great huzzahs from the public.

Today’s “robber barons”, by contrast, have accumulated their wealth by providing products and services that enable them to shape public opinion. Joel Kotkin puts it this way:

In the past, the oligarchy tended to be associated with either Wall Street or industrial corporate executives. But today the predominant and most influential group consists of those atop a handful of mega-technology firms. Six firms—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix—have achieved a combined net worth equal to one-quarter of the nasdaq, more than the next 282 firms combined and equal to the GDP of France. Seven of the world’s ten most valuable companies come from this sector. Tech giants have produced eight of the twenty wealthiest people on the planet. Among the na­tion’s billionaires, all those under forty live in the state of California, with twelve in San Francisco alone. In 2017, the tech industry pro­duced eleven new billionaires, mostly in California….

Initially many Americans, even on the left, saw the rise of the tech oligarchy as both transformative and positive. Observing the rise of the technology industry, the futurist Alvin Toffler prophesied “the dawn of a new civilization,”2 with vast opportunities for societal and human growth. But today we confront a reality more reminiscent of the feudal past—with ever greater concentrations of wealth, along with less social mobility and material progress.

Rather than Toffler’s tech paradise, we increasingly confront what the Japanese futurist Taichi Sakaiya, writing three decades ago, saw as the dawn of “a high-tech middle ages.”3 Rather than epitomizing American ingenuity and competition, the tech oligarchy increasingly resembles the feudal lords of the Middle Ages. With the alacrity of the barbarian warriors who took control of territory after the fall of the Roman Empire, they have seized the strategic digital territory, and they ruthlessly defend their stake.

Such concentrations of wealth naturally seek to concentrate power. In the Middle Ages, this involved the control of land and the instruments of violence. In our time, the ascendant tech oligarchy has exploited the “natural monopolies” of web-based business. Their “super-platforms” depress competition, squeeze suppliers, and reduce opportunities for potential rivals, much as the monopolists of the late nineteenth century did. Firms like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft control 80 to 90 percent of their key markets and have served to further widen class divides not only in the United States but around the world.

Once exemplars of entrepreneurial risk-taking, today’s tech elites are now entrenched monopolists. Increasingly, these firms reflect the worst of American capitalism—squashing competitors, using inden­tured servants from abroad for upwards of 40 percent of their Silicon Valley workforce, fixing wages, and avoiding taxes—while creating ever more social anomie and alienation.

The tech oligarchs are forging a post-democratic future, where opportunity is restricted only to themselves and their chosen few. As technology investor Peter Thiel has suggested, democracy—based on the fundamental principles of individual responsibility and agency—does not fit comfortably with a technocratic mindset that believes superior software can address and modulate every problem. [“America’s Drift Toward Feudalism“, American Affairs Journal, Winter 2019]

I can’t deny that rise of the tech oligarchs and their willingness and ability to move public opinion leftward probably influenced my view of capitalism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is evidence that, contra Keynes, I am not the slave of some defunct economist.

Will public opinion shift enough to cause the containment of today’s “robber barons”? I doubt it. Most Republican politicians are trapped by their pro-capitalist rhetoric. Most Democrat politicians are trapped by their ideological alignment with the the “barons” and the affluent classes that are dependent on and allied with them.

Leftism in Summary

In “Leftism” I discuss at length the left’s agenda, assumptions and attitudes, strategy and tactics, and psychology. I then address the costs of leftist schemes and possible remedies for the left’s encroachments on liberty.

There are, spread throughout the entry, many aperçus about leftism. This one comes closest to a summation of the left’s  motivations and aims:

The most obvious assumption [of leftism] is that perceived “problems” — perceived by leftists, that is — must be “solved” by state action.

That statement warrants elaboration. Leftism isn’t just sympathy for the poor and oppressed or fear for the fate of mankind. If it were, an overwhelming majority of human beings would be leftists. Leftism is the conjoining of those attitudes and the deluded belief that the best (and sometimes only) vehicle for redressing “wrongs” and remedying “problems” is the use of state power to command the necessary resources and coerce the necessary actions.

The presumption of governmental omniscience and omnipotence has many anti-libertarian implications. Here are some leading examples:

Income and wealth belong to the state.

The property of individuals and businesses is the state’s to control.

Individuals and businesses do not have freedom of association.

Religion, beyond ceremonial observances, has no place in the governance of the populace and must not be allowed to influence or interfere with that governance.

The state decides basic social questions, such as (but far from limited to) the nature of marriage and gender.

The state decides religious and scientific matters, such as (but far from limited to) the legality of teaching alternatives to neo-Darwinianism and the “correctness” of carbon-dioxide-driven “climate change”.

All persons are born equally meritorious in all respects, regardless of their (apparent) intellectual and physical endowments (“nurture” 100%, “nature” 0%), and must be accorded the same opportunities regardless of their endowments.

Exceptions may be made for persons who govern, “entertain”, play professional sports, deliver “news” and opinions, profess and administer at expensive universities, or are otherwise deemed worthy of special treatment — because some people are “more equal” than others. But at every opportunity, the exceptions will be limited to those persons who confess to the omniscience and omnipotence of the state.

Despite universal equality of merit, the state may authorize the killing of some otherwise blameless persons (e.g., children in the womb, the elderly) if they are deemed to be “unequal” (or simply an inconvenience to others).

Despite universal equality of merit, some persons commit acts that are called crimes because “society” denies them a “fair share” of economic rewards and social recognition.

Dissent from the foregoing positions (and others not listed here) is punishable by ostracism, loss of position, and in some cases (there should be more) civil and criminal penalties. (Execution isn’t out of the question.)

Most leftists won’t admit to such absolutism and barbarism, and will try to find “acceptable” ways of characterizing their implicit views. But leftism is what it is, and shouldn’t be sugar-coated.

Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled?

This post is inspired by an article in The Objective Standard, which proclaims itself

the preeminent source for commentary from an Objectivist perspective, objectivism being Ayn Rand‘s philosophy of reason, egoism, and capitalism.

The writer, with whom I have jousted sporadically for 15 years, will go unnamed here because I want to emphasize his ideology, of which he is merely a representative advocate. He is either an Objectivist who happens to be a libertarian or a libertarian who happens to be an Objectivist.

In either case, his article manifests libertarianism as it is widely understood: an ideology of individualism — the right of the individual to lead his life he sees fit. That central tenet of libertarianism is a condensation of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle:

[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [On Liberty (1869), Chapter I: Introductory]

By the same token, a consistent libertarian rejects conservatism’s emphasis on social norms. Mill is clear on that point:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism. [Ibid.]

Mill thus rejects the enforcement of social norms, “except [in] a few of the most obvious cases” by either the state or “society” (ibid.). This exception is a cop-out, a slippery way of trying to eat one’s cake and have it, too. What Mill is saying, really, is that there are some social norms he would like to see enforced and many that he claims not to care about. Thus Mill reveals his inner authoritarian: the “decider” about which social norms are good and which are bad. (Mill isn’t alone among libertarians in there willingness to resort to statist coercion, as I will point out later.)

Lest anyone misunderstand Mill’s overt position about social norms, he expands on it a few paragraphs later:

These are good reasons for remonstrating with [a person who acts contrary to social custom], or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil [including social censure] in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated [intended] to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

By that “logic”, an individual is a law unto himself, and may do as he pleases as long as he believes (or claims to believe) that his conduct is not harmful to others. (What is an “obvious” exception to Mill may not be obvious to the ardent individualists in a Millian nirvana.) Is that what the writer believes?

I doubt that he would directly acknowledge such a belief. But it is implicit in his glorification of the Enlightenment and attack on conservatism. In particular, he praises some unexceptionable cases of personal liberation, which he characterizes as a illustrative of Enlightenment values. From there, he attacks a contemporary critic of the Enlightenment and the godfather of conservatism, Edmund Burke.

To begin at the beginning, the article opens with vignettes about three women: one who was raised an Orthodox Jew, put into an arranged marriage, and later left Orthodox Judaism (the fate of her marriage is left unmentioned); one who escaped the totalitarianism of North Korea; and one who fled an oppressive Muslim upbringing Africa and Saudi Arabia. The common theme of the stories is that

these remarkable women from such diverse backgrounds ultimately found freedom and a world of ideas and experiences to enrich their lives [which] is a cause for celebration and for reflecting on how fortunate we are—those of us who did not face such daunting odds. It’s also cause for reflection on the millions of people today who still live in the silent, senseless darkness of ignorance and terror.

Further,

in the light of history, the experiences these women escaped are not only not rare, but are in fact how most people have lived for most of their lives in most of the nations of the world. Illiteracy, ignorance, poverty, hunger, and disease are by a wide margin the most common state of affairs in which humanity has found itself. It is only in the past two centuries that a portion of the human race has risen out of darkness into enlightenment. And it has done so in a manner very much like the stories these women tell.

What I mean is that although these are stories of personal liberation and discovery, Western civilization as a whole went through something similar on a culture-wide level beginning around 1700, in a period that we, appropriately enough, call the Enlightenment.

The article ends there (for non-subscribers). A subsequent excerpt at the writer’s blog zooms in on the Enlightenment:

[O]ne of the more prominent conservative enemies of the Enlightenment today, Sorhab [sic, it’s Sohrab] Ahmari, … recently wrote in the religious journal First Things that the Enlightenment is responsible for “the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, community solidarity, and much else,” and has led to “the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness.”…

… When Ahmari writes of “permanent truths,” he does not mean the natural rights of mankind, let alone the economic forces of supply and demand or the scientific laws of biology. He means religious dogma, handed down by an established church.

When he speaks of “family stability,” he does not mean harmony attained by respecting and nourishing the value of every family member. He means the subordination of each one to unchosen obligations; the prohibition of the right to marry for large portions of our society; and opposition to the right of unhappy spouses to divorce and to value their own flourishing and happiness along with their family commitments.

When he speaks of “communal solidarity,” he means the right of the community to sacrifice the happiness and freedom of individuals within that community—to censor people; to dictate how they may use their property and what jobs they may take; to tell them what books they may read and what movies they may watch.

And when he denounces “the cult of competitiveness,” he means the right to excel, the right to aspire, the right to pursue happiness and achieve one’s dreams. He is mounting a direct attack on the value of enjoyment. When Ahmari denounces what he calls the “fetishizing of autonomy,” his meaning is unmistakable: individualism—the right of the individual to his or her own life—is his primary target.

Ahmari and his admirers pledge themselves to a society of—in Burke’s words, “submission,” “obedience,” “subordination,” and “servitude.” And they do so while wrapping themselves in the American flag.

How does the writer know what Ahmari means by “permanent truths”, “family stability”, “communal solidarity”, and “the cult of competitiveness”? The footnotes to the article (conveniently available to the non-subscriber) list two pieces by Ahmari. The first is a long epistle signed by Ahmari and fourteen other persons. The second is a later article in which Ahmari addresses some criticisms of the letter. In fact, Ahmari legitimately criticizes the consequences of the “liberalization” of society by government interventions and cultural warfare, “liberalization” to which some so-called conservatives (he calls them “consensus conservatives”) have been party.

The writer is keen to present horror stories that illustrate (in his view) the consequences of the failure of the Enlightenment to arrive in every part of the globe. But as a defender of liberty he should be equally keen to present horror stories that illustrate the consequences of Enlightenment “liberalism” in the West.

One such story is the increasing frequency of mass shootings in America, which has occurred (not coincidentally, I believe) with the decline of religiosity and the tearing down of traditional social norms.

Another such story, which the writer skips over, is the legalization of pre-natal infanticide — known otherwise as abortion — which Ahmari refers to as “the culture of death”. If the writer has reversed his long-held pro-abortion stance, I can find no evidence of it on his blog. But that is entirely consistent with his implicit endorsement of the harm principle, according to which every person is a law unto himself.

I return now to the article and the writer’s brief discussion of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy. How does the writer know that Burke’s kind of society is one of “submission”, “obedience”, “subordination”, and “servitude” — or what Burke meant by those terms? Perhaps there are clues in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which the writer cites four times. The following passage seems to be at the heart of the writer’s j’accuse:

I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [the Queen of France] with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness!

Romantic twaddle? Perhaps, but Burke isn’t so much lamenting the demise of the monarchy of France as he is contrasting it with what followed.

As Burke understood — and conservatives understand — in the real world one doesn’t get to choose (or build) a perfect world. At best, one gets to choose between a tolerable world, a less-tolerable one, and an intolerable one. Burke foretold in Reflections that the revolutionaries of 1789 were laying groundwork for something intolerable; for example:

They are aware that the worst consequences might happen to the public in accomplishing this double ruin of Church and State; but they are so heated with their theories, that they give more than hints that this ruin, with all the mischiefs that must lead to it and attend it, and which to themselves appear quite certain, would not be unacceptable to them, or very remote from their wishes.

Those who would argue that the French Revolution and the ensuing Reign of Terror were preferable to the excesses of the monarchy would — if they were consistent — argue that the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent reigns of terror were preferable to the rule of the Tsars. (I duly note that the writer has sympathy for the victims of communism; perhaps he should therefore be more understanding of Burke’s sympathy for the victims of the French Revolution.)

What did Burke really believe? I will draw on Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. I have reviewed the book and found it wanting, but not because Levin fails to capture the essence of Burke’s political philosophy. (Follow the link in the preceding sentence to understand my reservations about the book.) Here are relevant excerpts of Levin’s book, which (as I say in my review) capture the philosophical differences between Burke and Paine:

Paine lays out his political vision in greater detail in Rights of Man than in any of his earlier writings: a vision of individualism, natural rights, and equal justice for all made possible by a government that lives up to true republican ideals. [Kindle edition, p. 34]

*     *     *

Politics [to Burke] was first and foremost about particular people living together, rather than about general rules put into effect. This emphasis caused Burke to oppose the sort of liberalism expounded by many of the radical reformers of his day. They argued in the parlance of natural rights drawn from reflections on an individualist state of nature and sought to apply the principles of that approach directly to political life. [Op. cit., p. 11]

*     *     *

For Paine, the natural equality of all human beings translates to complete political equality and therefore to a right to self-determination. The formation of society was itself a choice made by free individuals, so the natural rights that people bring with them into society are rights to act as one chooses, free of coercion. Each person should have the right to do as he chooses unless his choices interfere with the equal rights and freedoms of others. And when that happens— when society as a whole must act through its government to restrict the freedom of some of its members— government can only act in accordance with the wishes of the majority, aggregated through a political process. Politics, in this view, is fundamentally an arena for the exercise of choice, and our only real political obligations are to respect the freedoms and choices of others.

For Burke, human nature can only be understood within society and therefore within the complex web of relations in which every person is embedded. None of us chooses the nation, community, or family into which we are born, and while we can choose to change our circumstances to some degree as we get older, we are always defined by some crucial obligations and relationships not of our own choosing. A just and healthy politics must recognize these obligations and relationships and respond to society as it exists, before politics can enable us to make changes for the better. In this view, politics must reinforce the bonds that hold people together, enabling us to be free within society rather than defining freedom to the exclusion of society and allowing us to meet our obligations to past and future generations, too. Meeting obligations is as essential to our happiness and our nature as making choices. [Op cit., pp. 91-92]

Paine is the quintessential “liberal” (leftist) — a rationalistic ideologue who has a view of the world as it ought to be. And it is that view which governments should serve, or be overthrown. In that respect, there is no distance at all between Paine and his pseudo-libertarian admirers (e.g., here). Their mutual attachment to “natural rights” lends them an air of moral superiority, but their conception of “natural rights” as innate in human beings — like the harm principle — is made of air. Natural rights, properly understood, arise from the social norms that writer seems to disdain (though if he does, I wonder how he has managed to survive and thrive in a world dominated by social norms).

To the writer’s great disappointment, I’m sure, the truth of the matter is that social norms — including political and economic ones — are emergent. (This is not a morally relativistic position.) Michael Oakeshott, a latter-day Burkean, puts it this way:

Government, … as the conservative … understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

… [A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed  to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment. [Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition, pp. 427-31]

As for the Enlightenment in which the writer puts so much stock, it has a fatal flaw, which is reason (a.k.a. rationalism). 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.

But reason is in fact shaped by customs, instincts, erroneous beliefs, faulty logic, venal motivations, and unexamined prejudices. Objectivism, for example, is just another error-laden collection of “religious” dogmas, as discussed here, here, and here.

On a higher plane, what could be more revealing of the prejudices and emotions upon which reason ultimately rests than the long-running Einstein-Bohr debate, which stemmed from Einstein’s reasonable prejudice that quantum mechanics gives an unrealistic (indeterminate) depiction of reality. (The interpretation of quantum mechanics still remains unsettled, more than 90 years after the debate began.)

Further, as the Wikipedia article admits, the Enlightenment — like its subsequent manifestations in politics and pseudo-science (e.g., Malthusianism, Marxism, Objectivism, “climate change”, “social justice”, “equality”) — relies on reductionism, which is

the practice of oversimplifying a complex idea or issue to the point of minimizing or distorting it.

(Thus the shallowness and inconsistency of secular ethical systems, which include but are far from limited to libertarianism and Objectivism.)

Reductionist reason fails 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. I want bridge-builders and aircraft-makers to use the mathematical tools and physical facts at their disposal. It should be noted, however, that the origins of those tools and the gathering of those facts long preceded the Enlightenment, and that their subsequent development was (and is) a project unto its own. To take a notable example, Isaac Newton, among other things the inventor of calculus as we know it (contemporaneously with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz), was religious (though unorthodox), a student of the occult, and an alchemist (see this). Even children of the Enlightment can be — are often are — supremely irrational and steered by psychological forces beyond their ken.

In sum, reason has almost nothing to do with most of life — and especially not with politics, social norms, religion, or rebellion. The last is too often an act of emotion and interest-group advancement, which can be (and has been) justified by reason.

Just as reason fails us, so has the Enlightenment and much of what came in its wake.

A particular feature of the Enlightenment was that its rationalism gave rise to leftism. Thomas Sowell writes about the wages of leftist “intellectualism” in Intellectuals and Society:

One of the things intellectuals have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important. [p. 303]

In my view, the

left’s essential agenda is the repudiation of ordered liberty of the kind that arises from evolved social norms, and the replacement of that liberty by sugar-coated oppression. The bread and circuses of imperial Rome have nothing on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, and the many other forms of personal and corporate welfare that are draining America of its wealth and élan. All of that “welfare” has been bought at the price of economic and social liberty (which are indivisible).

Freedom from social bonds and social norms is not liberty. Freedom from religion, which seems to be the objective of rationalists (like the writer), is bound to yield less liberty and more crime, which further erodes liberty.

I put it to you this way: Would you rather live in the rationalistic world of libertarian-Objectivists or in Burke’s (and Oakeshott’s) real one?

Here’s a clue to the answer that I hope you will choose: The ideal world of a rationalist cannot be attained by real people acting in mutually beneficial cooperation, which is the essence of the free markets about which the writer claims to care so much. Rationalism is destructive of religion (which on balance is a bulwark of liberty), long-standing social norms (which in fact enable liberty), and the necessary right of free people in society to make mistakes and learn from them.

The writer’s diatribe reminds me of the old, sad story that has been repeated innumerable times throughout mankind’s recorded history. The quest for perfection along one or another moral dimension breeds fanaticism. Fanaticism turns into an unrelenting evil of its own. Just ask one of the innumerable victims of communism, some of whom have survived it.

Moreover, as I have pointed out many times, the kind of libertarianism espoused by the writer isn’t the real thing. A true libertarian is a traditional conservative who

respects socially evolved norms because those norms evidence and sustain the mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and voluntary aid that — taken together — foster willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. And what is liberty but willing peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior?

Which isn’t to say, by any means, that a place in which traditional norms prevail will be perfect. Far from it — and some places, such as those cited by the writer — are farther than others. But the route to improvement can’t be found by shredding norms willy-nilly and declaring that every man is a law unto himself. In fact, what some libertarians urge, paradoxically, is the selective shredding of social norms by the state. (another manifestation of the smug authoritarianism of the “liberal order”). That is the “logic” of so-called libertarianism.

What really happens, of course, is that the shredding of social norms creates a void that is filled by chaos and then by the rule of power. The rule may be brutal like those of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, or “benign” like those of today’s coercively governed Western “democracies”. But it will be a rule that so-called libertarians will rail against — in vain. The perfection of “rational” ideologies — libertarianism as well as fascism and socialism —  is indeed the enemy of the good. (Conservatism, properly understood, isn’t an ideology, though it has ideological implications.)

I conclude that libertarianism of the kind preached by the writer and his ilk cannot be reconciled with conservatism. But they should be allied against their common enemy: the oppressive state.

“Human Nature” by David Berlinski: A Revew

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):

  1. In the material universe, cause precedes effect.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

Beats me.

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.

The Allure of Leftism

When I think of leftism, I often conjure my memory of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). If you haven’t seen the film, here’s the premise of the action:

Dr. Miles Bennell returns to his small town practice to find several of his patients suffering the paranoid delusion that their friends or relatives are impostors. He is initially skeptical, especially when the alleged doppelgangers are able to answer detailed questions about their victim’s lives, but he is eventually persuaded that something odd has happened and determines to find out what is causing this phenomenon.

The essence of what follows is captured in the following excerpts of the script:

Dr. Miles Bennell:

Jack! Thank God [you’re here]! The whole town’s been taken over by the pods!

Jack Bellicec:

Not quite. There’s still you and Becky.

Miles, it would have been so much easier if you’d gone to sleep last night.

Relax. We’re here to help you….

There’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re not going to hurt you. Once you understand, you’ll be grateful.

Remember how Teddy [his wife] and I fought against it. We were wrong.

Miles:

You mean Teddy doesn’t mind?

Jack:

Of course not. She feels exactly the way I do.

Miles:

Let us go! If we leave town, we won’t come back.

Jack:

We can’t let you go. You’re dangerous to us.

Don’t fight it, Miles. It’s no use. Sooner or later, you’ll have to go to sleep….

Miles, you and I are scientific men. You can understand the wonder of what’s happened.

Just think. Less than a month ago Santa Mira was like any other town — people with nothing but problems. Then out of the sky came a solution. Seeds drifting through space for years took root in a farmer’s field. From the seeds came pods which had the power to reproduce themselves in the exact likeness of any form of life….

There’s no pain. Suddenly, while you’re asleep they’ll absorb your minds, your memories — and you’re reborn into an untroubled world.

Miles:

Where everyone’s the same?

Jack:

Exactly.

Miles:

What a world.

We’re not the last humans left. They’ll destroy you!

Jack:

Tomorrow, you won’t want them to. Tomorrow, you’ll be one of us….

[Later, Miles is trying to flee the city with his girlfriend, Becky]

Becky:

I went to sleep, Miles, and it happened….

They were right. Stop acting like a fool, Miles, and accept us.

Miles [interior monologue]:

I’ve been afraid a lot of times in my life but I didn’t know the real meaning of fear until I had kissed Becky.

A moment’s sleep, and the girl I loved was an inhuman enemy bent on my destruction.

That moment’s sleep was death to Becky’s soul just as it had been for Jack and Teddy and Dan Kauffman and all the rest.

Their bodies were now hosts, harboring an alien form of life, a cosmic form. which, to survive must take over every human man….

Miles [later, screaming at passers by]:

You fools! You’re in danger! Can’t you see?

They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone!

They’re here already!

You’re next!

You’re next!

You’re next!

You’re next!

You’re next!

Miles’s pleas go unheeded and the pod people seem destined to conquer humanity. Resistance is met by force, of course, because there must be no dissent from the true way.

So why not just let go of yourself and give in to the allure of leftism? It’s as easy as going to sleep.

All you have to do is forget …

the bonds of love and fellowship that attach you to family and friends … because all human beings (and animals, too) are brothers and sisters under the skin, and even unknown strangers half a world away must be treated as family, notwithstanding human nature (and the mendacious nature those who spout this nonsense);

the ancient, civilizing, and uniting moral code that is embedded in the Ten Commandments … for it teaches hate toward those who don’t observe it (hate being whatever offends the stated beliefs of those who spout this nonsense);

the derivative practice of taking others as individuals, judging them by their actions, and rewarding them for their contributions … for that is discrimination and it must be remedied by celebrating and elevating persons because of certain preferred characteristics that they happen to possess (skin color, sex, sexual orientation, gender “identity” — preferred characteristics that are subject to change without notice);

the vast improvements in the well-being of humanity that are due to the free exchange of products and services, and which are diminished by governmental dictation of the scope and kind of exchange (beyond obviously harmful products and services) … for it is not right that some persons (owing to their inborn intelligence, creativity, effort, and willingness to take risks) should reap “inordinate” rewards for having made and done things that benefit others (though it is right that those who spout this nonsense should be honored and rewarded for doing so);

the lessons of failure seen time and time again where the foregoing practices have been suppressed in favor of social and economic “equality” (though the rulers and the favorites have always been more equal than everyone else) … because the next time it (the suppression) will be done right.

As Miranda says in The Tempest, about another realm of magical thinking,

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in ’t!


Related page and posts:

Leftism

Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Insidious Leftism
Intellectuals and Authoritarianism
Socialism, Communism, and Three Paradoxes
Understanding the “Resistance”: The Enemies Within
Leninthink and Left-think
The Subtle Authoritarianism of the “Liberal Order”
Society, Culture, and America’s Future
The Democrats’ Master Plan to Seize America

The Democrats’ Master Plan to Seize America

Although it remains unclear, even to Gordon Sondland, whether President Trump committed an impeachable offense in his dealings with Ukraine (formerly known as the Ukraine), Mr. Sondland has (perhaps unwittingly) abetted the Democrats’ master plan to seize the White House, Congress, and America.

By implicating Vice President Pence in the Ukraine affair, Sondland has laid the groundwork for the following chain of events:

  1. Trump is impeached by the House. He is then convicted by Senate, with a sufficient number of votes from GOP senators who are anxious to keep their seats and are therefore willing to believe that conviction is warranted by (media-driven) popular demand.
  2. Pence is then dispatched similarly. Even if he is president long enough to nominate a vice president, in accordance with Amendment XXV, the nominee would have to be approved by a majority of both houses of Congress — a majority that the House would not grant.
  3. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi then becomes president, according to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.
  4. There is good reason to believe that the 1947 act is unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court’s weather vane — Chief Justice John Roberts — finds a clever way to uphold the 1947 act. Ms. Pelosi continues in the presidency until the inauguration of a Democrat president on January 20, 2021 — an outcome ensured by the impeachments and convictions.
  5. Democrats retain control of the House and gain control of the Senate, giving the fascist party a stranglehold on the federal government. Resistance from the Supreme Court (if Roberts re-grows a backbone) is nullified by court-packing.
  6. And that is that for America.

Far-fetched? Possibly. But don’t rule it out. Something like it has been in the works for more than a century, that is, since the ascendancy of Woodrow Wilson, champion of rule by “elites”.

“Hurricane Hysteria” and “Climate Hysteria”, Updated

In view of the persistent claims about the role of “climate change” as the cause of tropical cyclone activity (i.e, tropical storms and hurricanes) I have updated “Hurricane Hysteria“. The bottom line remains the same: Global measures of accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) do not support the view that there is a correlation between “climate change” and tropical cyclone activity.

I have also updated “Climate Hysteria“, which borrows from “Hurricane Hysteria” but also examines climate patterns in Austin, Texas, where our local weather nazi peddles his “climate change” balderdash.

One Kind of Deep-Stater

I correspond with a fellow whom I’ve known for almost 50 years. He’s a pleasant person with a good sense of humor and an easy-going personality (which masks dogged determination). His career as a defense analyst lasted for 40 years, the final 20 years of which were spent as a senior civil servant in the U.S. government. He was considered for a deputy-assistant secretaryship but didn’t get the post.

I suspect that there are many like him in the active ranks of the civil service: senior civil servants who have risen to the level of being considered for — and sometimes getting — deputy-assistant secretaryships. They are mainstays of the deep state. They know where all the bodies are buried, and — being denizens of the D.C. area and mostly Democrats — they tend to push the agenda of Democrat administrations even when there’s a Republican in the White House. When it isn’t prudent to actively push the agenda of a former Democrat president, it is quite possible to obstruct a sitting Republican president’s agenda.

In that regard, my correspondent has several traits which I suspect are not uncommon among senior civil servants: nostalgically loyal to those served and respected in the past; intelligent but not creative; resistant to change; polite in the nth degree; offended by crudeness; and eager to seem agreeable to those around him.

Members of that species are quite capable of dragging their feet (needing more time, more information, more staff) in order to derail or delay the furtherance of policies that they find too “radical”. They redouble their efforts if they have bosses whom they consider too bold, brash, or crude — or simply bent on rocking a boat that needn’t be rocked (which is most of time). They are able do such things while seeming to be ideal civil servants: dedicated to the agency’s mission, subservient to their current bosses, organized and hard-working, and never (openly) pursuing an agenda other than the one (officially) before them.

Such behavior is so natural to them that they don’t consider themselves obstructionists, and aren’t detectable as such. They are therefore all the more effective as operatives of the deep state.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not saying my correspondent would do such things, just that he represents a type that is capable of such things. Consider it a passing thought, for what it may be worth.

The Shallowness of Secular Ethical Systems

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:

  • Liberty

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.

  • Equality

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.

  • Democracy

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:

Climate Change
Economic Growth Since World War II
Leftism
Modeling and Science
Social Norms and Liberty

On Liberty
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
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
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
Defining Liberty
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
Superiority
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
True Populism
Libertarianism’s Fatal Flaw
The Golden Rule and Social Norms
The Left-Libertarian Axis
Rooted in the Real World of Real People
Consequentialism
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
Tragic Capitalism
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