Staten Island and Cleveland: Different from Ferguson

Having argued in a recent piece that the problem with Ferguson was collectivism, as manifest in the notion of collective guilt, I feel obliged to speak out on recent incidents in Cleveland and Staten Island. None of us (presumably) were there so we need to be cautious, but what we see from those unfortunate places strongly suggests police misconduct.

I am a native of Cleveland and it comes as no surprise to me that the police force there is a troubled one. For many years there has been a divide between the central city and suburbs and despite a few encouraging exceptions, things have gone steadily downhill in the central city. The problems are similar to Detroit’s but on a smaller scale. The best Cleveland Police officers would surely aspire to leave the Cleveland PD for one of the suburban forces at the first opportunity. It doesn’t surprise me that the Justice Department claims there has been systematic excessive use of force by the Cleveland police.

I have only been to Staten Island once and cannot add anything to what is generally known. That the unfortunate victim was selling untaxed cigarettes, of all things only adds to the outrage.

The non-violent demonstrators in both cities are right this time.

Economists are special, but what about Palestinians and American blacks?

I’ve got the post-Thanksgiving flu. I know which toddlers are guilty of infecting me, and which aunts and uncles are responsible for this egregious assault on my happiness. Revenge will be sweet.

I’d like to get to Warren’s smackdown of my reparations proposal and also to Matthew’s thoughts on justified violence against the state (which were indirectly related to my own post on Ferguson), but first I’ve got to get to two interesting topics that have piqued my interest.

The first is Irfan Khawaja’s recent critique over at Policy of Truth of Jason Brennan’s new book on voting. As usual, Khawaja brings up a number of great points (too many, actually, for a lowly ethnographic enthusiast like me), and they deserve to be read by all (be sure to check out the ‘comments’ thread, too).

Here is an excerpt (Khawaja has flipped the tired script of many American academics by bringing in a fresh perspective):

I can’t work through all the details here, but take a look at Brennan’s argument in light of the preceding. Either my East Jerusalem case is a counter-example to his thesis, or it’s a defeater for it. In the first case, it refutes the thesis as stated. In the second case, it suggests that the thesis is highly misleading as stated. Given that, my argument requires that Brennan qualify his claims about the ethics of voting in ways that take more explicit stock of cases like the East Jerusalem one–something that would substantially change the “flavor” of his theory.

Brennan’s work has, of course, gotten a lot of excellent treatment in libertarian circles because of both his blogging activities (hint, hint, slackers) and because libertarians have a long, storied distrust of democratic politics (though this is largely an anarchistic distrust rather than the conservative-aristocratic one we North Americans think we are familiar with).

Switching gears, I also need to comment on an interesting paper (pdf) about the “Superiority of Economists” I came across over at MR. It was written by two sociologists and an economist, and it has a number of excellent insights (MR‘s link to the paper was broken, but MR also provided a link to comments by economist Paul Krugman, and his link to the paper was unbroken).

Most of the paper is a rehash of arguments about economics relative to the other social sciences (and the humanities) that libertarians have been having for a long time. (In my anecdotal experience, libertarian economists are quickest to defend the profession of economics from detractors, but they are also the quickest to defend the other social sciences from detractors (and, more importantly, incorporate non-economics research into their own). Leftist and conservative economists, by contrast, condescendingly acquiesce to attacks from other disciplines, but are also very, very disdainful of The Others’ contributions to research.) Libertarian economists generally share the same suspicions as The Other disciplines about the ability of economics to imitate the physical sciences using mathematical models (or that these models are even indicative of how humans “work”). See Warren’s piece (pdf) in Econ Journal Watch for more on these suspicions.

The last section before the conclusion (“A life of their own”) is really good and totally worth the click. It’s about economists and their relationship to everybody else in their society (this paper is made better by the fact that it is written by French academics with an intimate understanding of life in both the US and France, just like some other scholar that we all know and loathe love).

On page 18 the paper cites a few studies and lab experiments which have purportedly shown that people who study economics are, on the whole, less likely to cooperate than everybody else. There are a number of implications that the paper goes over (“does economics attract a certain type of personality?”, for example), but I wanted to focus on what is not discussed in the paper: The fact that economists probably have a different (actually, a more coherent and precise) understanding of the meaning of cooperation. Many criticisms of economics are clearly made of straw. One of the things that initially attracted me to libertarianism was the intelligent, well-informed critiques of economics as I then understood it (“homo economicus“) that were given by libertarians.

I also learned, on page 19 and contra Dr Amburgey’s repeated assertions, that economists are politically (and decisively) to the Left of the average American voter.

Another fascinating page 19 insight is that there is more income inequality ($57k gap between the top 10% and the median) in economics relative to other disciplines, but on this point the authors lose a golden opportunity to do some real sociological analysis (the authors focus instead, and predictably, on the economics profession’s recent prosperity as a whole relative to other academic disciplines; that is to say, on the income inequality between economics and The Others within academia). Earlier in the paper (7-14) an organizational comparison between economics and The Others highlighted the fact that the economics community tends to be more hierarchical, more incestuous, and possesses a “unitary disciplinary core,” which means that virtually all graduate schools teach the same concepts. The Others, in contrast, are “more decentralized, less cohesive, and [possess] less stable prestige rankings.” (9)

The most basic insight that stood out to me when I read the data on incomes was that the disparities and organizational structures of the social sciences and humanities represent a microcosm of society as a whole (pick any ole society you’d like): When rigid hierarchies are enforced, conformity and parochialism (incestuous is too strong a word here) arise, income inequality is more prevalent, and the pecking orders are more entrenched.

In contrast, societies that are “more decentralized and less cohesive” have more variety, much less deference to an established authority (such as a pecking order), and less income inequality ($42k gap between the top 10% of sociologists and the median). There are less women in economics relative to the other disciplines, and the median economist almost has the same income as a top 10% sociologist ($103k to $118k, a difference of only $15k).

Well, this post has already gone on for far too long (I hope to use it as a springboard for future musings) but I will end by noting that on page 23 the paper points out that economics is a very moral discipline, which is something non-libertarian economists vehemently deny. Libertarian economists, on the other hand, have been pointing this out for centuries.

Libertarian as Ethnicity

The past few months have been busy, to say the least. The Obama administration announced a series of executive actions regarding immigration and that has taken up most of my time. Meanwhile in my day job as a graduate student I’ve been overwhelmed with midterms and finals; I am sure my fellows in NoL can sympathize with this. The few moments of peace I have enjoyed have gone towards pondering one question: Who is an American? 

The question is not isolated. By asking who an American is, I’m really asking what ethnicity, and other social groups, really are. The best answer to my question was an old Cato blog post appropriately titled, What is an American? In it Edward Hudgins discusses what makes an American. It is not, as some believe, a common language, creed, or ancestry. What makes an American is his love for liberty. It is in his closing remarks that Hudgins hits on something amazing, there is no meaningful thing as ‘American’.

Unfortunately, the American spirit has eroded. Our forebears would look with sadness at the servile and envious character of many of our citizens and policymakers. But the good news is that there are millions of Americans around the world, living in every country. Many of them will never make it here to the United States. But they are Americans, just as my grandpop was an American before he ever left Italy.

There exists those individuals who can prefix themselves as Americans, but at best this only tells us that they are somehow affiliated with the American continent. There exists a group of people who yearn for liberty and are willing to fight for it, but many of them were neither born or live in the United States. Likewise there are those who were born and live in the United States who are no friends of liberty. And so my initial question has lead me to a new one. Why not promote being a libertarian as an ethnicity? Why not introduce ourselves as ‘Libertarios’ instead of Americans, Germans, or Turks?

At first my proposal may sound strange to some. Would it not be silly to define an ethnicity by political views? I don’t think so. Few ethnic groups have a concrete basis in reality and are based more on fiction than anything else. I was born in Mexico, raised in the United States, and am directly descended from Germans, Jews, and Cubans. I feel little fraternity to these latter groups though. Why should I? I didn’t elect to have Jewish or Mexican ancestry, but I did elect to be a libertarian. Anyone who proclaims to be a libertarian automatically has my sympathy and support, even if I know nothing else about them. As this is the case I would prefer to be identified as a Libertario than any other ethnic group.

I am sure that there are those who would prefer not to be identified by any collective label at all. For those of you who fall into this category I would offer a pragmatic case for identify as Libertario.

I hope it can be taken for granted that, as libertarians, we wish there to be more libertarians. In the best scenario more libertarians in the world might lead to better public policy. In the worst scenario we at least have more potential friends. By promoting our existence as an ethnic group we would encourage more people to remain as libertarians. I have often found people who have libertarian political views, but who withdraw from participation if they become discouraged about the hope for change in their lifetimes. If we were an ethnic group though these individuals would continue to promote liberty, if only to signal their membership in the group. An ethnic group therefore not only encourages members to remain active, but produces positive externalities to promote the group’s message.

For comparison consider the Mormon people. Many Mormons spend time advocating on behalf on their religion, with several even going abroad on missionary work. From anecdotal experience I’ve noticed that many of them are ill treated when they perform their advocacy. Why do they bother to do so then? Because, as I’ve noted above, it signals their membership in the Mormon community. The average Mormon may not particularly enjoy being harassed for their beliefs, but they do it anyway to tell other Mormons a simple message, “I’m one of you.”

It goes without saying that there must be a benefit to belonging to a given group for this to work.

Additionally the existence of an ethnic libertario community would make raising children to be libertarians much easier. I side with Bryan Caplan in the belief that a relatively easy way to grow the movement is by simply having more children than the general population. It doesn’t matter if you believe children’s political beliefs, and by extension their ethics and other characteristics, are shaped by genetics or their nurturing, a libertario community would help with producing children. If you believe in the genetic argument, then an ethnic community reduces the cost of finding a spouse who shares your political beliefs. If you believe in the nurture argument, then surely a child raised among libertarians is more likely to end up being one himself.

Thoughts? Am I just crazy? Or do you have a counter proposal to ‘Libertario’ as our ethnic label? Comment below.

Ferguson: the Problem is Collectivism

We Austrians emphasize the fact that only individuals act.  This may sound like a dry academic pronouncement, but sometimes events bring its meaning dramatically to the fore.  The Ferguson story is one such event.

While lunching in Palo Alto recently, I looked outside to see the street briefly blocked by demonstrators chanting and carrying signs with slogans like “black lives matter.”  I wished I could confront one of them with a few facts, but then again, facts matter little to such folk, even in trendy Palo Alto.

The racially mixed grand jury took seventy hours of testimony.  That’s a lot.  They know what happened better than you or I or anyone besides the officer involved.  The shooting was justifiable.  Another fact that seems to have gotten buried: Michael Brown was a criminal, just having completed a robbery when he was shot.  It’s too bad that he died, but hey, criminal activity is risky.

In light of these simple facts, how can people propound such irrationality as the demonstrators exhibited?  The answer lies in the fallacy of collective guilt, a sub-species of collective action.  Because white police officers sometimes shoot innocent black citizens, the fallacy implies that any white police officer who shoots a black civilian is necessarily guilty.

Now I want to extend this piece to the idea of reparations for slavery, a grotesque bit of nonsense that pops up from time to time, most recently, sad to say, in a piece by our own Brandon Christensen, albeit in passing.

Let me get this out of the way: slavery was a vicious, horrible institution.  The idea of reparations or restitution has some rationality on the face of it.  In general, people should be compensated, where possible, for violations of their rights, and what could be a more vicious form of rights violation than slavery?

From an individualist point of view, the idea of reparations is preposterous.  I for one know pretty well who my ancestors were, and I’m quite sure none of them held slaves.  But suppose I did have such an ancestor.  The next question is how much benefit I might have received from his slaveholding.  To answer that, we have to examine the counterfactual situation in which my ancestor did not hold slaves.  How much bigger was the bequest that he passed on (if any) versus what it would have been without slaves?  How much of that bequest filtered down to me, among possibly dozens of his descendents.  Clearly this is a preposterous undertaking, especially at this late date.

Well then, why not force all white people to pay something to all black people?  This of course is the idea of collective guilt, an idea nearly as repulsive as slavery itself.  But let’s carry on with it anyway.  Now we have to decide who is a white person and who is black.  Does Barack Obama count, being half white and half black?  Is one quarter black enough?  One eighth?

Carrying on, where will the loot come from?  White people will have to reduce their consumption and/or savings.This will exacerbate unemployment, at least temporarily, and reduce future productivity.  What would black people do with the money?  Some would judiciously save and invest it but most would not.  I say this because studies have shown that the majority of the winners of large lottery prizes blow the money, unaccustomed as most of them are to saving and investing.  Most blacks, I contend, would blow their reparations windfall on short-term consumption and possibly, like many lottery winners, end up in debt to boot.

Let’s keep things in perspective.  Racism is a minor problem in our society compared to the crushing burden of the welfare-warfare state that we all bear.

American Idiots

The biggest mistake one can make, when on a remote trek, is to not bring a large variety of music. A paucity of music leads to repeating the same albums over and over again, which can have disastrous consequences for one’s mental health. Luckily my choice in music is excellent. I had the Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls” album to accompany me, with such gems as “When the Whip Comes Down,” “Respectable,” “Far Away Eyes” (my personal favorite), and “You Win Again.” Almost as good is my childhood love, Green Day’s American Idiot.

When the album came out ten (10!) years ago, in 2004, I was in 7th grade. That is, I was a complete political incubus. Like an amoeba, my political instincts were reflexive, I loved the gods the city worshipped, and I hated the gods the city did not worship. I hadn’t listened much to the lyrics then or later, but now that I was repeating the album constantly, as an accompanying refrain on my mountain ascents, I had cause to examine what the singer was actually singing about.

The titular song, “American Idiot,” is a triumphalist left wing punk ballad. The singer does not come right out with his political affiliations, but his statement: “well maybe I’m the faggot America/I’m not part of a redneck agenda” seem to put him on the left side of the aisle, right in the middle of the Kulturkampf. He has reason to celebrate, for although the issue of gay acceptance was up in the air until quite recently, it seems to have been decisively settled: gays are accepted now, get over it, it’s only a matter of time until the law catches up.

Perhaps on this issue he may be pleased, but overall, he should be appalled. Behold the following:

“Don’t want to be an American idiot.
One nation controlled by the media.
Information age of hysteria.
It’s calling out to idiot America.”

He meant this to be an indictment of right wing types, idiots who watch Fox News and vote Republican and wave the flag and all that jazz. Such a criticism may, indeed, apply to them. However, it seems to apply much more to the left wing today, than to the right.

Case in point. A scientist lands a rocket on a comet, millions of miles away. Technically this is a stroke of brilliance, and deserves all the hearty praise we can offer. However, instead of focusing on this grand achievement, the moment was hijacked by the social justice warriors. The team leader’s shirt was deemed sexist, and the incident labelled #shirtgate. Gasp! faint! He then recorded a groveling apology for the jackals. When I see Nepalis plowing their fields with the same tools the Sumerians developed, and then consider what some of us in the West consider problems, I almost weep for our decline. I find cackling to be much more appropriate, however.

This sort of model happens all the time. Someone says something that is offensive to the gods the city worships, social media or the MSM whips up a frenzy, and the offending party either capitulates immediately or is attacked until he (almost always a man, it seems) issues some sort of apology. The jackals are satisfied, or more likely, they simply become angrier. This happens so frequently that it is redundant of me to even describe the cycle. Brandon describes it well in his excellent article on the cannibalization of the left.

Green Day caused a big ruckus when their album came out. But now, ten years on, it is interesting to see that the new* American idiots aren’t Bible-thumping, faggot-hating rednecks from Georgia – they’re young millenials, smug in their moral superiority, tearing people down with the virtual power of social media. What’s funnier, or perhaps sadder, is that these same people are, like me, kids who grew up listening to this album. Happy trails!

*A better word, in light of comments.

Florentine Liberty II: Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) was born and died in Florence which already had a long history as a literary and cultural centre, and as a centre of commercial life. Guicciardini came from an aristocratic family which provided an outstanding education that included study with the great Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Guicciardini had a life of state service, which took him to Spain as an ambassador as well as working within Florence and the dependent city of Bologna. He also worked for the Papacy in a political and military capacity at a time when the Vatican was the centre of one of the major Italian states, which was also at a time of political fragmentation in Italy and of foreign interventions from France, Germany, and Spain. The Papal States centred on Rome and Florence were therefore major states within Italian politics, not just cities. In the end Spanish domination overwhelmed them all, but Guicciardini seems more concerned with the danger of French domination.

The Florentine politics of the time goes through a series of shifts between secular republic, religious republic, and Medici dominated principality, which Machiavelli also participated in and commented on in writing. Indeed Guicciaridini and Machiavelli were friends, but their versions of republicanism were not identical. Machiavelli placed Rome first among the great republics of antiquity, with particular reference to the benefits of political competition, particularly between aristocracy and common people, for liberty and patriotic spirit.

Guicciardini also refers to Rome, but with less enthusiasm for the role of the common people and political conflict. He denies that the existence of two consuls sharing the supreme leadership role was evidence of a wish to stimulate political competition, but instead argues that it was a practical adoption to war time so that one consul could direct armies in the field while the other directed government business back in Rome. It was a not a scheme to limit individual power and any political competition between the two consuls was an unexpected and undesirable outcome, weakening rather than strengthening the republic. He applied a similar analysis to the double kings of ancient Sparta, who had a largely military role.

Guicciardini refers briefly but significantly to Plato indicating his preference for an ideal of order over an ideal of competition, for rational hierarchy over plebeian street politics. He does not follow anything like the strict enforcement of virtue and rule of the ‘wise’ advocated by Plato, but evidently finds that a preferable orientation to the liberty to challenge existing order. The detail Guicciardini provides of Florentine political history shows a drama of constant change and challenge, disorder and revolution, which might confirm Plato’s fears of democratic liberty, but also suggest the difficulties of applying Plato’s ideals to reality, particularly in a commercial world with a growing civil society.

Accordingly Guicciarini’s main source of inspiration was the Republic of Venice, which already had a history stretching back to the eighth century, and with claims to have its origins in Roman antiquity, in rather legendary stories of refugees from barbarian invasion seeking sanctuary in the marshes of that area. Venice was to survive as a  republic until 1797, when it was abolished by Napoleon. At its peak its territory stretched well down the Balkan coast of the Adriatic and was a major, if not the major naval and trading power in the eastern Mediterranean, so it did serve as a modern example of a powerful republic and the possibility of republican government in a largely monarchical world.

Another advantage of Venice from Guicciardini’s point of view was that it was a definitely aristocratic rather than democratic republic. There was an elective prince for life, the Doge, appointed by the aristocratic citizens of the city and ruling in cooperation with aristocratic councils. Fifteenth century scholars in Italy suggested that the constitution of Venice corresponded with Plato’s vision of a republic in the Laws, largely based on Sparta (where power was focused on the thirty man gerousia and five ephors rather than the citizens’ assembly itself based on a very restrictive definition of citizenship. This is Plato’s vision of a state that might exist in reality as opposed to the philosophical ideal proposed in the Republic. The great merchant and commercial wealth of Venice would have been disturbing for the Spartans and for Plato though, providing another example of the limits as well as real relevance of ancient republics for the modern world.

So Guicciardini is less ‘Florentine-Roman’ (democratic) and more Venetian-Spartan (aristocratic) than Machiavelli, but nevertheless he accepts that the poor have to be given some role in politics and that even if the poor are outside political citizenship at times, once a crisis brings them into politics it is very difficult to reverse that situation. The solution for Guicciardini is to allow the poor citizenship and some rights, in city assemblies, while excluding them from the highest offices of state. The high offices should be reserved to the aristocracy, with the highest offices to be held on a long-term, possibly even lifetime basis. The concern is to provide more stability and civic strength than Guicciardini believes is possible from the political activities of the poorly educated and unpropertied masses.

Guicciardini’s belief in liberty through the dominance of a responsible republic elite anticipates later ideas of thinking about liberty on the basis of conservative institutions for preserving order and property as preferable to democratic institutions and political contestation. Any thought about liberty is likely to have some element of this, some ideas about institutionalising property rights and legal stability, against the dangers of irresponsible temporary majorities. Whether a complete dominance of such institutions, with the risk of undermining them through overburdening them, is desirable or practicable is a matter of debate. Machiavelli and Guicciardini present a compelling classic Florentine compare and contrast on such issues.

Rational ignorance and institutions

I’m grading a question I gave to my class on rational ignorance so I’ve been restating myself repeatedly… and in doing so refining my view on rational ignorance.

Here’s the basic story: an election is forthcoming and we need to decide how we will vote. One possibility is that we follow heuristics (such as “I’m going to vote for the Democrats”). Another is that we delve through all the available information and make a calculated decision based on what we expect will be the outcomes of each candidate’s proposed policies (or what we think their policies actually will be). In a perfect world the median voter would be making a decision on the second basis. But each voter faces an opportunity cost of being more informed. And because a tie is highly unlikely I can cast a ballot I might otherwise regret but I won’t have to worry that it will actually change the outcome of the election.

The outcome is that people vote stupidly. But if that were really the problem it wouldn’t be that big a deal. Yes, people are wasting their votes. But really, we’re not facing a situation where “the truth” is on the ballot. The real problem is that the terms of political competition aren’t what we want them to be. This is still a Prisoners’ Dilemma, but the outcome isn’t “we all accidentally vote for the jackass.” The outcome is “the competition is inescapably between jackasses.”

In a world where rational ignorance were a problem because of the ignorance part political races would still be about a reasoned debate about how to improve the world. But that isn’t what politics is (and it probably never was). Instead it’s about marketing. It’s about grabbing the scarce attention of voters that has little if anything to do with information or anything you can be ignorant about.

In other words, rational ignorance is not an epistemic problem, it’s an institutional problem. It does not simply change the intelligence of the outcome of a vote, it reduces the role of intelligence and rationality in elections. It changes the rules of the game so that a politician’s efforts towards being “right” have little bearing on their success. What really matters is garnering the irrational support of voters.