Communism Destroyed Russian Cooking (Reason)
How did pizza first appear in the Soviet Union? (Russia Beyond)
How Not To Feed the Hungry: A Symposium (Law & Liberty)
Vintage Thanksgiving Postcards Are Bizarre (Hypperallergic)
New York Post reports that another prominent “Pocahontas” has been exposed as a fraud. The most recent one was American “Cherokee” Senator Elizabeth Warren who had masqueraded as a woman of “color” to have a good boost in her early career of a lawyer and academic; later, when exposed, she became a butt of jokes for drawing attention to her “indigenous” high cheekbones. Now it is “Canadian Metis” Carrie Bourassa, scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health. I wonder why they so eagerly seek to pass for Indians and join the “oppressed.” I suspect that the moral, political, and financial pie that society of “systemic racism” offers to real, partial, and aspiring Indians is so rich and tasty that it is unbearably hard to resist a temptation not to have a bite of it. Incidentally, her detractors, who became suspicious that she was not a true Indian “Aryan,” do not even catch the irony of the whole situation: Bourassa claimed the Metis lineage; the Metis is a group that had in fact originated as the offspring of Native Americans (or First Nations, according the Canadian political jargon) and early Europeans; therefore, by default they are already not true “Aryans.” Yet, along with the “First Nations,” the Metis have been recognized by the Canadian government as a historically oppressed group that has been singled out for a special political, social, and financial treatment as a protected community. When a government creates moral and financial incentives to be indigenous, it unavoidably has to deal with the host of emerging “tribes,” “first nations,” and “high cheekbone” individuals on both sides of the US-Canadian border. In the meantime, let’s wait for a next episode of that exciting post-Modern politico-economic western that has been on for the past fifty years.
This is the pre-edited text of an article that will shortly be published in World Commerce Review (https://www.worldcommercereview.com)
The liberal tradition in political thought is by no means unified. The original ideas developed in the (Scottish) Enlightenment, most importantly by David Hume and Adam Smith, have been modified extensively. This has led to different definitions and practical applications of individual freedom, the core idea of liberalism, but also of most other ideas associated with the liberal tradition.[i] Regardless this proliferation, the wide liberal support for free trade and globalization as a means to alleviate poverty and foster human development more broadly has been rather constant, although the ideal of trade free from all government interference has never been within reach. With the World Trade Organization at shambles, the increase of bilateral and regional trade treaties which often hamper free trade more than fostering it, and a general anti-liberal sentiment across the globe, the liberal ideals may not be a very popular at present. However, this does not say anything about their empirical or moral validity. Liberal recipes to fight poverty and to foster development still work and need support, both through domestic and international policies.
In international relations inequality is the norm, in many different fields. Often this is not problematic in liberal eyes, as long as individuals get the chance to use their talents in the way they see fit. Grave hindrances, for example caused by a lack of basic needs and insufficient protection of classical human rights should be removed, as they often make individual flourishing impossible.
In contrast to what is often thought, liberals are convinced it is possible for all countries to implement policies that foresee in these basic liberal preconditions. Most often, bad circumstances don’t just happen to countries, nor should they be seen as the inevitable result of regrettable historical events such as slavery, imperialism, let alone the alleged detrimental effects of capitalism. As Lomasky and Téson show, the fate of the inhabitants of developing countries lies not in the hand of failing rich countries, but are mainly due to poor domestic policies, lack of, or failing, domestic institutions and a no respect for classical human rights, such as freedom of opinion, right to property, or a free press.[ii]
Of course, this is a broad topic, which can be approached from many angles. In this short piece, the focus is on the above-mentioned classical liberal rights and measures, but also includes broader topics such as governance and the development of human capital, in Sub-Sahara Africa. This is made visible through an -admittedly- rough measure: the outcomes and ranking of countries in a number of well-known and internationally respected indexes. These indexes compare countries on domestic policies.
A presentation of this kind has to be treated with caution. Methodologically, the indexes are different and a comparison is not always easy or fully warranted. Definitions and operationalizations differ, just like the way results are aggregated into (final) scores.
Nevertheless, these indexes provide a useful indication of good policies from a liberal view. Especially for the countries of Sub-Sahara Africa, which mostly contain low income countries. Contrary to some assumptions that is no barrier for some governments to implement different policies. Being a low income country does not automatically lead to bad policies!
Given space limitations, the five indexes are introduced by a broad outline. Please use the references for further information. For practical purposes 5 indexes are used, published in 2018 and 2019.
This leads to the following summary:
|Freedom in the World||Ghana, Botswana, Namibia, Benin, Senegal|
|International Property Rights||Rwanda, Zuid-Afrika, Botswana, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Tanzania|
|Transparency International||Seychellen, Botswana, Kaapverdië, Rwanda, Namibië|
|Ibrahim||Namibië, Botswana, Ghana, Zuid-Afrika, Rwanda|
|Human Capital||Zimbabwe, Gambia, Ghana, Namibië, Botswana en Senegal|
Especially Botswana, Namibia and Ghana succeed in implementing relative liberal policies, with South Africa, Senegal and Rwanda following their lead. It must be noted that a position on an index is always relative. None of the Sub-Saharan countries are in the absolute top, although some score surprisingly high. Also, this is not to claim these are countries without problems, or that they are liberal countries, let alone liberal-democratic ones. Their absolute rankings do not warrant such a suggestion. It does indicate that being a low-income country does not need to be a barrier to implement relatively liberal policies, which provide individual citizens more (social-economic) opportunities than is the case in other Sub-Saharan countries. Hence, the liberal emphasis on domestic policies is fully warranted.
Liberal international policies
Liberals believe domestic policy is most important to promote development. Still, the perennial practice in international relations also is: what can other countries do in support of this? The short liberal answer is one of restraint: stay clear, do not (militarily) interfere, be modest about the possible success of ‘helping’, while ensuring the best global economic conditions.
The latter is done through ensuring free trade, also the foreign economic policy liberals are most strongly associated with. The popularity of free trade has known its high and low tidings, ever since the Ancients.[viii] Therefore the current low esteem of free trade is nothing new. There have always been people who distrust trade, for economic, political or moral reasons.[ix] On the other hand, there are also too many liberals who have claimed way too much on behalf of free trade, especially its peace-enhancing effects, which are erroneous.[x] The lack of support for trade still deserves to be fought. Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, to name two great thinkers, have shown the importance of continuing to argue against the topical grain.
The evidence continually shows the superior results of even relatively free trade, which has real effects for the improvement of the life of (poor) people. Countries that are committed to free trade become richer and are able to create more possibilities for (economic and human) development. Columbia University’s Arvind Panagariya is just one of the many who found clear evidence for that. In his book Free Trade and Prosperity he shows that developing countries have enormously profited from the recent wave of increasingly free world trade.[xi] The World Bank is even clearer:
Trade is an engine of growth that creates better jobs, reduces poverty, and increases economic opportunity. Recent research shows that trade liberalization increases economic growth by an average by 1.0 to 1.5 percentage points, resulting in 10 to 20 percent higher income after a decade. Trade has increased incomes by 24 percent globally since 1990, and 50 percent for the poorest 40 percent of the population. As a result, since 1990, over one billion people have moved out of poverty because of economic growth underpinned by better trade practices.[xii]
Yet, in contrast to Richard Cobden’s famous argument, it must be acknowledged free trade is no panacea. Domestic policies are needed to see that trade benefits find their way to the wider population. Also, when some groups are out-competed at the world market, they (temporarily) need domestic support. Still, the less than perfect trade arrangements of the last decades have had enormous positive effects on development.
By way of a closing remark, in contrast to trade, governmental development aid is not supported by liberals. It still largely is, as Lord Peter Bauer had it, ‘bringing money from the poor in the rich countries, to the rich in the poor countries’. The research of his modern day successors, most notably William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, largely confirm this.[xiii] The structural effects of governmental foreign aid are minimal and often detrimental, resulting in ‘aid addiction’ in the receiving countries. Liberal have the same doubts about the structural effects of aid by private donors such as NGO’s (positive local effects are possible, for example in health care or education). Yet as long as these private donors donot use public money, this remains a case between donor and recipient. However, in liberal eyes it fails as an international policy to foster development.
Inequality and poverty remain a global reality, which can have detrimental effects to the development of individuals. Liberals think this should change, but emphasize this is mainly done through improved domestic policy in low-income countries based on proven liberal principles. This is not just theory, it is a real possibility, as the some of the countries in Sub-Sahara Africa show. The best way the world can assist in this process is to provide truly free trade, while abandoning governmental foreign aid. Global development is too important to not make the effort.
Dr Edwin van de Haar is an independent scholar specialized in liberal international political theory and political economy (see www.edwinvandehaar.com). This article is based on a chapter published in a Dutch volume entitled Difference There Must Be. Liberal Views on Inequality, published by the liberal think tank Prof. Mr. B.M. Telders Foundation (www.teldersstichting.nl)
[i] Edwin R. Van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (New York and London: Routledge, 2015).
[ii] Loren E. Lomasky and Fernando R. Tesón, Justice at a Distance. Extending Freedom Globally (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
[iii] Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2019 (Washington DC).
[iv] Property Rights Alliance, Property Rights Index 2019 (Washington DC).
[v] Transparency International, Corruptions Perceptions Index 2019 (Berlin).
[vi] Mo Ibrahim Foundation. 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (London and Dakar).
[vii] World Bank, Human Capital Index 2018 (Washington DC).
[viii] Ronald Findlay and Kevin O’Rourke, Power and Plenty. Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007).
[ix] Douglas A. Irwin, Against the Tide. An Intellectual History of Free Trade (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Razeen Sally, Trade Policy, New Century. The Wto, Ftas and Asia Rising (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 2008).
[x] Edwin R. Van de Haar, “The Liberal Divide over Trade, War and Peace,” International Relations 24, no. 2 (2010); “Free Trade Does Not Foster Peace,” Economic Affairs 40, no. 2 (2020).
[xi] Arvind Panagariya, Free Trade and Prosperity: How Openness Helps the Developing Countries Grow Richer and Combat Poverty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
The New Economics (Foreign Affairs)
The author begs to explain “how the U.S. and its Allies are rewriting the rules on spending and trade”. Informative on recent developments, and the f-yeah! attitude is kind of welcome. Unsurprisingly, it attributes all maladies to the big bad “neoliberal” specter. And it loses its title’s thunder, if we remember that Walter Heller, the important Keynesian economist and presidential advisor, half a century ago noted:
Today’s talk of an ‘intellectual revolution’ and a ‘new economics’ arises not out of startling discoveries of new economic truths but out of the swift and progressive weaving of modern economics into the fabric of national thinking and policyW. Heller, 1966 – Source
Please Do Not Call Inflation ‘Transitory’ (Bloomberg)
A comment on the term “transitory” and its religious connotations.
edit: Fixed a link, added an omitted word – M.T.
I recently wrote a short piece for Adam Smith Works, on the influence of David Hume on Adam Smith, in the field of trade and international politics.
You may find it here: https://www.adamsmithworks.org/speakings/van-de-haar-insights-of-david-hume
No squids, or parasites. Butt-kicking for goodness, from an imaginary country.
The proverbial light being internet, and in the meantime, adulthood. Martial Arts gyms were a bit of a curiosity here in Greece, when I started training in Tae Kwon Do as a teen (c. 1995). Sparse, definitely not next to each and every school, with a wild array of possible outcomes, ranging from genuine fighting skills to pure edgelord bs. No accessible standard for the “average services consumer” (apart from 70s/ 80s movies and some illustrated paper magazines – which were mostly promotional). So I joined the gym, whose owner and chief instructor was my uncle’s friend. The man was well versed in TKD and a few other styles. He did his own thing, a TKD base, sprinkled with Kick Boxing/ Muay Thai and some elementary grappling. I fell for it.
Experience is one thing. Getting the full picture can be another. Back then I learned that TKD is indeed Korean (hard to miss the fact, as there was also a South Korean flag on the wall, to which we observed respect), maybe or maybe not its national sport, not much more. As I quit four years later, in order to prepare for the nationally held university admissions tests (a Greek, but also a Korean, thing, more on this later), I left my black tipped red belt, and my relationship with this sketchy distant land, there. Twenty years later, I enrolled to another gym, and revisited the “martial arts” section, this time also thru the power of the net and the wisdom of my years (yeah!). What I saw was…interesting. Note: The martial arts content is generally sub-par, in my view. Too little good writing, too much sectarianism.
The TKD we trained in was of the International TKD Federation (ITF) kind, one of the two main branches in an art that has also many smaller organizations. TKD is not ancient, it only got assembled and standardized in mid-20th century, as South Korea built its national identity away from Japanese influence. The predefined sets of moves (Katas in Karate), called tuls (ok that I already knew), have names I consistently misheard. And then there were the critiques. Oh my. Post after post slamming TKD, its usefulness, its application, its training methods. This cancellation is already dated, it started like in early 00s and closed its circle in early 10s, but obviously I had not gotten the memo, and it pinched me more than it should.
I agree with the first line of criticizing. The spread of gyms, next to each and every elementary school (a sound decision business-wise), brought some softening of the art (for reference, in our gym the floor was covered with that rough, gray, rippled mat that you usually see in an office lobby, perfect for skinning bare feet. We got colored soft mats two years later). The second line is also credible. The early 90s saw a revolution in martial arts, with the advent of Mixed Martial Arts (another sound business decision, btw). The rise of the so-called “pressure tested” styles brought salience and “weights-n-measures” to a world rich in claims, but often poor in evidence. Nothing really novel, though. The underlying force is, of course, competition, which should be familiar to anyone taking interest in social systems and relations. With the renewal also came the blanket thrashing of traditional styles, deserved or not.
Coming to assess my TKD training, I get to see the holes in it, notably the low amount of free sparring and the “choreography” of self-defense scenarios. However, the athleticism was real, as was the fixation to perfect form (either in performing a basic punch or a complicated tul). And the sweat. Also, I lucky stroke with the gym selection, since the master had, as I understand now, introduced the then new, mixed normal in martial arts training. Another positive sign was that the gym competed in kick boxing/ Muay Thai tournaments (the older students, not we teens). So, bruised and battered, but not cancelled in toto.
Understanding Korea’s Unique Situation: Routledge’s New Handbook of Contemporary South Korea (LA Review of Books, from the same guy Brandon complimented, back-handedly, here)
That university admission is the only way forward for young Koreans and Greeks alike surprised me, somewhat. But taking into account that both countries entered the post-war landscape relatively late (the Greek civil war ended in 1949, the Korean war lasted until 1953), ravaged, poor and reliant on external aid, the differences get ironed out. Lacking a large enough private sector to offer vocational training and career opportunities, a university degree seems appealing enough as an investment to future. South Korea did its homework more consistently, however, and its top universities are ranked in the tens or fist hundreds of the world’s finest, while the Greek ones are way lower. It also became an export powerhouse and a “middle power” in world politics, through authoritatively introduced liberal economics reforms:
From hermit kingdom to miracle on the Han (Peterson Institute for International Economics)
My second martial art, Hapkido, is Korean, too. It was also developed in mid to later 20th century and has a complex, fascinating history. It even played a – shady – role during Park‘s presidency. It is a solid art, but even more organizationally fractured than TKD or others. Unfortunately, I only trained for six months, as covid-19 (and life) blew me away. There is always some catch-up to do, it seems.
Hayekian behavioral economics (Behavioral Public Policy)
Short-ass rant: The Loop of The First and Only (title inspired from here)
The Loop applies mostly in narrowly focused, specialist newsletters. I guess that, in a way, it exposes those who skim and skip among subjects (the mere dilettantes, like yours truly), vis-à-vis the more dedicated crew. It adds to the Email Overload Curse and fits nicely with hoarding tendencies (so, no, no unsubscribe, no way).
Challenges to monetary policy: lessons from Medieval Europe (Bank Underground)
Explores some monetary issues I briefly touched here.
Sadly, appreciations all over:
Anthony Downs, RIP (Volokh Conspiracy)
János Kornai, 1928-2021 (VOXEU)
Fred Foldvary, a Joyous Friend (Econlib)
Downs: Economic Theory of Democracy and Kornai: Soft-Budget Constraint, both staples of liberal economic tradition. NOL tribute to Foldvary (shorter, but more timely), by Brandon, here.
Globalisation has ruined Hollywood (UnHerd)
I would add The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), as a cause-and-effect-too element in the trend.
Many moons ago, around this time in October, my research collaborators and I were keeping a night’s watch in the lab; I mean pulling an all-nighter. We were peeking into some cells growing in a petri dish using a confocal microscope, and little did we know that the impermissible realm was waiting to stare back at us. The spirit of Halloween spooked us through these sacs of life!
Here’s how they looked back at us.
To the annoyance of my wife, my Facebook memory of this otherworldly microscopic image prompted an outbreak of random reading. In this reading session, I hit upon the pagan festival of Fontanalia, a celebration of fountains celebrated by Romans in October. On digging further, I learned that a Pagan view of October has a deep connection with the House of Stark in Game of Thrones, which links back to Halloween. To the best of my knowledge, these connections are not made explicit by George R. R. Martin, and if you have already connected the dots yourself, consider me a dim tube light.
Any number of GoT fan pages will tell you that Westeros is based on medieval Anglo-Saxon Britain, and the motto for House of Stark—one of the Great Houses of Westeros—is “Winter Is Coming.” The House of Stark is the only noble House whose family motto is a focal warning for the whole Ice and Fire narrative. Apart from the motto being a sign of vigilance for the Starks against a hard winter, it is also a long-forgotten reminder that the White Walkers will return in the winter and overturn the realm. So the Starks are looking to protect the realm’s order and keep the Night King away.
Let’s cut to October—a month sacred for the Roman goddess Astrea. She is a star-goddess with wings, a shining halo, and a flaming torch who lived among humans during the Golden Age. When the human realm began to degenerate, she withdrew to the upper world. Astrea’s departure in October signaled the end of the golden age of light as the chills of autumn alerted that the winter was drawing near. Interestingly, October’s Anglo-Saxon name is Winterfelleth, which means winter is coming, and Westeros is a version of medieval Anglo-Saxon Britain.
Like Fire and Ice, the Pagan October is tinted in celebrations of light and darkness. The month begins brightly with Fides, the goddess of faithfulness, followed by a festival of the Grecian Dionysus, the pagan god of wine and revelry. Barring a brief interlude to honor the departed ancestors on Mundus (the 5th of October), we have the celebrations of Victoria—the Roman goddess of triumph; Felicitas—the Roman goddess of luck; Fortuna Redux—the goddess of successful journeys; Fontinalia—the goddess of holy wells, springs, and fountains just before October turns towards the freezing gloom that is to follow. From the 14th of October, named Vinternatsblot, to the festival of Fyribod on the 28th, a marker for lousy weather, we have ceremonies that cogitate the motto that winter is coming. As winter draws near, we have the feast of Samhain Eve (pronounced: Sow-ain Eve) on the 31st of October.
The close of October (aka Winterfelleth) signals a “calendrical rite of passage” for a temporary reversal of powers. It is a seasonal turning point marking the day’s liminal status as an annual and a seasonal day of transition; April fools day is another example of a “calendrical rite of passage” for a temporary reversal of powers. During this disorienting time of Winterfelleth, the Pagans cross the sensory walls of their mundane realm to peek into the impermissible realm. For all of us, the feast of Samhain Eve on the 31st of October is the modern-day festival of Halloween—a time when we playfully welcome the otherwordly. For members of the House of Stark, who embody the month of Pagan October, this time marks the breakdown of the Night’s Watch, the collapse of the physical wall, and the Night King’s arrival.
Remember, tonight, all of us belong to the House of Stark with the duty to keep a Night’s Watch because winter is coming. The point of difference is we welcome the temporary reversal of powers to mildly disorient our sensory walls to have a peek into the impermissible realm.
Happy Halloween! 🎃
The Code is dead, to begin with. Watchmen (DC) is awesome, a near-Orwell experience. On comics historical curios and intellectual drifts. Here goes.
Vol. 1 – That other 50s scare and all
Somewhere somehow I picked up the Comics Code Authority story. It goes like this: The rise of mass-media in early 50s saw a creeping moral panic against the more “graphic” content of comic books (think horror, violence and the like). In 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigated the supposedly detrimental influence of comic books, taking into account speculative, biased evidence. The emerging threat of government regulation prompted the creation of the Code by the comic publishers, so that they could check content themselves. The self-censoring initiative could use some tuning: It was overly strict, shaking-up and aggressively downsizing the industry. Thus, a government “nudge” led to a private sector (over)reaction, with ill effects. The sector, however, adapted and continued, underground or otherwise.
Ironically, it was another government nod that galvanized a Code overhaul in 1971, as the Nixon administration asked Stan Lee of Marvel to incorporate an anti-drugs storyline in Amazing Spiderman. The arc proceeded without CCA approval in mid-1971 (funnily, just before the international monetary system entered turmoil). And it was in 1973 (say hello to the first oil crisis) that the depiction of murder in a popular comic book (Amazing Spiderman, again) marked the passage from the campy superheroes of the Silver Age (c. 1956 – 1970) to a more diverse and socially attuned bunch in the Bronze Age (c. 1970 – 1985). As the disillusionment of the 70s gave its place to cynicism in the 80s, so did the comic heroes matured, with works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The archetypes formed in the period (Dark Age, typically 1985-1996), grim and complex, redefined the genre and are still here today.
The Code was updated again in 1989, but failed to stay relevant in the face of increasing bypassing/ sidelining via new distribution methods (all hail the market in action). Just 20 years ago, Marvel abandoned it. 10 years later, in 2011, the last adherents, DC and Archie, finally desisted, too.
Vol. 2 – Randian Quests & Answers
Α couple of (relatively) fresh articles flashed from The Comics Journal:
Not an exactly nuanced analysis, the second one (it contains a few useful links though), but still, both presented things to consider. As it turns out, the co-creator (along with aforementioned Stan Lee) of f – Spiderman, Steve Ditko, endorsed objectivist ideals in early 60s (he even contributed a piece to Reason back in 1969). Here is another scholarly short paper on his impact:
“A Is A”: Spider-Man, Ayn Rand, and What Man Ought to Be (PS: Political Science & Politics)
If mid-60s Peter Parker, “[c]old, arrogant, detached from the lives of others, but driven to follow his purpose and pursue higher ends”, seems objectivist enough, then the Question and Mr. A., Ditko’s creations in late 60s, are the real thing. These two were featured in smaller publications, and later provided the inspiration for Rorschach (Watchmen).
The character was intended not only as a tribute to Ditko, but also as a stark criticism for randian convictions, meant to make a bad example of them. However, the controversial fictional zealot resonated (a bit too well perhaps) with the audience. Indeed, the character delivers some of the most memorable quotes ever, his unflinching crusade against the morally bankrupt (political class included) is iconic, and his damaged humanity invites some sympathy.
Depending on priors and inclinations, one can certainly discern smatterings of Rand’s ideas in Rorschach (“no gray”, believing in “a day’s work for a day’s pay”, among others). But I think that his trope could be assigned to other venues, too. For example, a fantasy aficionado will see a Paladin gone (very) wrong, maybe, or a casual will stick to the apparent right-wing leanings per se, and so on.
The other route of Rand influence is traced to Frank Miller and his Dark Knight take on Batman. The arc of a lone (capitalist) hero versus media-induced apathy and the corrupted establishment (and said establishment’s lapdog, Superman) has a libertarian facet, yes. I will get it (next week probably), read it and, then, return.
A Shackled Leviathan That Keeps Roaming and Growing (Regulation)
Do robots dream of paying taxes? (Bruegel)
The Janus of Debt (Project Syndicate)
When Interstates Paved the Way (FED Richmond)
For their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression (Nobel Prize)
The pandemic, and the consequent decisions taken by our and other governments, have confronted us with the question of the extent of our autonomy. Although we are aware of the exceptional nature of the situation, the matter about the right that assists each individual to make decisions about their own life returns more strongly.
In this sense, we can wonder: How do we make decisions? Are we rational beings? Are thus our decision-making processes rational or we tend to act based on emotions, instincts, or heuristics? Even if we think in terms of choices rather than of actions, do we have enough evidence to think that we rationally choose between options? And if so, can we find the optimal solutions for our problems? Can we evaluate the optimality of our decisions?
The rationality of our actions and our decision-making processes have been widely discussed, not only in the field of economics but also in the legal, political, and sociological realms. Some authors have proposed that our decisions are not based on perfect information or precise though-processes, as Friedrich Hayek, who enlightened us about dispersed knowledge in society or Herbert Simon , who showed us how limited rationality works in real decision-making situations.
More recently, various theories such as behavioral economics and several experiments conducted by scholars from different disciplines, such as those conducted by Carl Sunstein, have showed that individuals act influenced by cognitive limitations and emotional biases. For example, some of these studies have shown how, influenced by these biases, we fail in our perception of the risk, miscalculating the odds we have of suffering certain diseases or how our choices are influenced by the way the relevant information is presented (framing). Thus, it has long been revealed that human actions and choices are not the result of a perfectly rational thought-process, and such discoveries were very useful in predicting certain patterns of behavior.
Personally, I have always found these theories fascinating, showing us that our mind does not work as the precise instrument that other visions have proposed. These “limitations” of our rationality and cognitive capacity have always led me to conclude that we must assume a humble position regarding what we can and cannot do in terms of public policies or the “construction” of social and political reality. Even this humility should be applied to scientific knowledge that manifests itself in constant change and revision. What is worrying is that, recently, this type of analysis has made a jump from the descriptive realm to the normative one, obtaining prescriptive conclusions from these experiments.
On the other hand, nowadays it is common to find that, from different perspectives and schools, subjective rights of all kinds are multiplied. It seems that individuals enjoy -at least theoretically- not only all the rights constitutionally recognized, the rights established by international human rights treatises and all the tacit or unwritten rights but also the collective rights (adding several generations). It is discussed from the right to elect and to be elected (i.e., lowering the age of vote) to the right to enjoy a healthy environment. In addition, from diverse political agendas, it is proposed the widening of all rights enjoyed by people, groups and even animals. We could discuss at length about these rights and obligations involving third parties – not only to respect them but also, in many cases, to take responsibility for the effective enjoyment of them.
But it would seem that, among all these rights that we enjoy or intend to enjoy, the right to be wrong does not appear. Everything is permitted (again, in theory) while individuals live according to the standards or goals to accepted by the community and the State at a given time. From different perspectives we are constantly offered advice and suggestions to achieve the ideal that is presented almost as indisputable: a long, healthy, and calm life (not without some ingredient of novelty or adventure). Not only from the philosophical and theological views -that indicate that human life seems to have happiness, virtue, personal flourishing, or any other transcendent purpose as its goal- but also from more scientific perspectives that provide us with details about what our limitations are in making the right decisions about how to lead a full life. They all seem to agree in proposing a “perfectionist” ideal of human life.
However, when combined these two tendencies of thought -that is, on the one hand, the perfectionist ideal of human life and, secondly, a clear vision about human limitations for making good decisions or planning courses of action, it appears this idea that it is necessary to “underpin”, help or direct the decisions of individuals with the intention to help them that they achieve such ideal ends.
Just to illustrate this point outside the case of the pandemic, we note that all political views coincide in “guiding” citizens when it comes to eating and healthy habits. In this regard, if directing citizens consumption is concerned, much of the political range (conservatism, social democracy, and even the left) seem to agree in wanting to provide healthy standards that everyone should enjoy. This is reflected in a variety of decisions made by governments from one “ideal individual” – which range from prohibiting table salt in restaurants, forcing stores to not sell alcohol at a certain time of the night (and not only limiting the sale to adults as might be expected), forcing food producers or distributors to include a lot of information about its components in packaging, etc. The question does not end here: smoking tobacco, for example, has been almost completely banned everywhere (and not only in closed public spaces but also in open spaces and even in many buildings or premises for exclusive private use).
Faced with this reality, we ask ourselves the question: Do we have the right or not to decide about our lives (our body, our health, etc.)? Can adults without serious cognitive problems -beyond those biases named above that we all “suffered”- with their legitimate autonomy, freedom, and responsibility and, if you like, access to public information about the possible consequences of their actions, choose to assume risks? Do them have the right to put salt to their food, although there are numerous studies that show a correlation between salt intake and high blood pressure? Don’t all those who choose to paraglide or drive a car on a high-speed avenue also take risks? Why are some elections forbidden or more “observed” than others?
So, from this perspective that combines perfectionism and observation of the cognitive limitations of individuals: Does this lead us directly to conclude that our decisions should be replaced or at least “influenced” or “improved” – as suggested by the nudge theory – by the decision of a public official or an expert scientist? Do we let a nutritionist tell us the ideal diet based on recent generic scientific studies? Do we allow an official or civil servant to indicate what activity / sport / food / drink / medical treatment / insurance should we carry out / practice / consume / submit to / hire considering the general statistics of the population for my age / sex / social condition? Would we allow this civil servant to “suggest” us the way of interacting with other individuals or habits to adopt?
To answer this question, it could help us to bring here the conceptual distinction proposed by Dr. Martín Diego Farrell in his essay on “Nino, democracy and utilitarianism”. There Farrell proposes two alternatives to justify democracy: The first one holds that all adults, free of physical or mental impairments, are the best judges of their interests and, in its turn, the second one points out that the same adults would be the best judges of their own preferences.
Farrell argues that the former is indefensible by the number of counterexamples we can find in which an adult seems not to know his best objective interest (perhaps knowable by an expert without his intervention) and, at the same time, other examples that show adults opting freely against their own interest. Instead, he openly defends the second argument: adults are the best experts and judges of their own (subjective) preferences. Although we will discuss in the next few paragraphs the assertion about the possibility that expert may have the objective knowledge of another person´s best interest, we will concede the point for now and agree with Farrell that each adult is the best judge of their own preferences.
This is how we could now answer the questions we posed before. I think that most of us would intuitively reject the proposal of experts/officials telling us what food to eat, what sports to practice, what form of social relationships to prefer and so. Of course, with the exceptions of exceptional situations of crisis in which we consciously seek help from experts in each subject, so that they can provide us with, in this case, personalized advice, considering our specific circumstances, beliefs and wishes. On the other hand, the pandemic has left us a clear image of the fallible, provisional, and changing nature of scientific knowledge.
I believe that the perfectionist and scientistic vision of individual life is based on a conception that responds and falls into the following errors:
a) Confusing correlation with causality: Studies on the influence of certain habit or the consumption of certain food or drink on individuals´ health show correlations and no causal links. That is, it cannot be reliably proven that this or that habit produces such a consequence but only that, given two variables, the values of one vary systematically with the homonymous values of the other. This coincidence may respond to an external cause to both (which produces or “causes ” both variables) or by multiple causes that are difficult to unravel at this level. This is obvious to any scientist or expert in each area, but it is forgotten when it is discussed in the public sphere, where not practicing sports “causes” obesity, salt “causes” high pressure and not wearing a face mask seems to “causes” the contagion of the coronavirus.
b) Studies always work with populations, that is, with a sample or group of individuals of a certain sex, age, physical characteristics, etc. that could have a probability of, for example, suffering certain disease. Let´s say- for the purpose of illustration- that certain group of individuals -men over 65 years have a 60% chance of having a heart attack. But this “class” or group probability does not tell us anything about each particular individual being part or not of that 60%. What if a public policy of restricting salt is being imposed on a man with low blood pressure and a very low probability of having a heart attack? Can’t this individual make the decision to consume more salt than recommended by public bodies or professional chambers at his own risk? Let´s remember all the atrocious examples that were experienced during the pandemic about relatives who have not been able to accompany terminally ill patients, penalties even of jail for people who circulated at prohibited hours and contradictory recommendations that prevented individuals from being able, with the public information available, to decide about their possibilities to work, circulate, see their relatives, etc. under threat of sanction.
c) Scientific studies and their practical conclusions are constantly changing. We have lived through this intensely in the last 20months or more of the pandemic, where what at first seemed irrefutable, months later seems shocking. Just as an example, the practically absolute prohibition -in countries as Argentina- for children to walk in the streets the first three months of quarantine. These major shifts in scientific criteria in one area can be observed (perhaps without the speed we see during the pandemic) in many other realms. Continuing with the nutritional example, we can say that the paradigms in this area seem to change drastically and quickly. Only in the last 20 or 30 years has it gone from suggesting that alcohol was bad to recommending a glass of wine a day to prevent heart disease; to try to eliminate meat in all its forms to currently attempt to eliminate all carbohydrates and sugars and to consume only proteins and fats and many more.
But, beyond all these characteristics of scientific knowledge that inform “perfectionist” public policies, we can also raise an even more fundamental point: Even if we could know, reliably and with certainty, -what science would never guarantee- how a certain habit can affect our health or what would happen if we do not met with the ideal, don´t we have any right to choose how to live our lives? When did we renounce to that right in favor of the experts of a group of professional councils or of the civil servants of a Ministry of Health? Should we forbid the individual who wants to dedicate his life to climbing the Himalayas to carry out such an endeavor because of the high risks of his life plan? And the one who practices hang gliding? Don’t these individuals know their own preferences better than anyone else?
And here are some more points added from a higher level of observation:
a) Levels of Abstraction: Why might we think that individuals choosing between options are “biased” and when individuals working as government agents in offices creating “nudges” are not biased as other individuals in their daily life? Individuals who work in the civil service or have some degree of professional or scientific specialty, don´t they suffer from the same biases and limitations described in the studies above mentioned, typical of every human being? For example, don´t they choose between theoretical or experimental options for those results presented in a more pleasant way (problem of the architecture of the election) or that confirmed more strongly their hypotheses (confirmation fallacy)?
b) Scientific theories are fallible. Also, some of the results of these experiments may turn out to be incorrect or incomplete in the future. Do we have the right to influence individual decisions based on studies that are, like any scientific theory or experiment, fallible and provisional? After all, isn’t it more worthy for the individual to pay the costs of his bad decision rather than paying the costs of a government agent’s bad decision?
c) Finally, a more philosophical point: How does chance or destiny influence on our daily decisions? Is there a case where the options are presented in a “neutral distribution” way? Let us suppose the case of an individual’s decision regarding the acquisition of medical or retirement insurances (issues that have also been very relevant during the pandemic). The individual must choose between “default options”. The options could be presented to consumers randomly or in a way decided by offerors – but without any central agent deciding-. In the latter case, the options are established by the offerors because they are trying to influence commercially on consumers´ choice and, therefore, it could be said that there is no neutral distribution even though it is not a “nudge” of the public sphere. But, on the other hand, there is a suggestion made by government agents, then the ” nudge ” is intervening in the market, albeit subtly. That is to say that private influence is being replaced by governmental influence, bringing an artificial “architecture” of the choice that did not exist before and, therefore, eliminating randomness. Here we are again facing “levels of abstraction” problem: Don´t “experts” -who propose the ” nudge”- have the same limitations as individuals that interact?
Recapitulating, during this long process we lived the last year and a half since pandemic, quarantine and all the -health, economic, political -measures taken by governments, the question about the scope of our autonomy reemerged. Standing on a platform where philosophical perfectionism and a misunderstood scientism are combined, it has gone from trying to discover patterns of behavior to prescribing ideal results and to opening the door to all kinds of measures, which establish from our right to move freely, if we can work, if we can trade, etc. And what has been more unusual, without explicit limits on the duration of such measures. I think this responds to a trend of thought that had started much earlier. But shouldn’t we take back the reins of our lives as adults? Don’t we know our interests better -or, at least, our preferences- by ourselves? If others believe they know our interests better than us, shouldn´t each of us, considering our preferences, be the best judges of how much risk we want to take? We could think that governments and expert organizations can, in good faith, publish all the information and studies produced and, likewise, could suggest, recommend, and even collaborate to follow the suggestions; but not to compel, prohibit and sanction those who are “wrong” at their own risk.
Of course, this implies taking responsibility for our actions and not demanding or claiming the governments to decide for us or to be accountable for our mistakes. If we decide to climb the Himalayas, we will have to train for many years, buy the appropriate equipment, take out the appropriate insurance, face possible injuries and if something goes wrong, even face death. Ultimately, in each election our desires, our beliefs, our projects, and our philosophical perspectives – that provides- meaning to our lives- come into play. So, we cannot ask the government or the experts to prohibit something from us (because it is risky) or, what is worse, to prohibit it from all citizens, so as not to face the dangers or costs of our eventual mistakes.
We find ourselves – by our decision – facing the paradox that we, given our limitations, cannot make personal and everyday decisions about our work, food or habits, but we can choose legitimately officials, experts or governmental agents that are going to lead us on such tasks. I propose, instead, to reassume our adulthood and start exercising our right to bring the life plan whose consequences we can assume. This, instead of taking it as natural that others decide for us in exchange of unloading on them the responsibility of our own life. Only then we will be able to claim, legitimately, the right to take our own decisions at the risk of being wrong.
Not creepy social experimentation, *the* feudalistic space opera, and guilds
The emergence of spontaneous order (Panarchy)
Individuals, from infants to old people, resent or fail to show any interest in anything initially presented to them through discipline, regulation or instruction which is another aspect of authority…Even temptation, the gentlest form of compulsion, does not work because human beings, even children, recognize carrots for what they ultimately mean; we have at least progressed beyond the donkey!No, not Hayek, a bunch of physicians – same era, though
This comes from a report (Biologists in search of material, 1938) that summarized the findings of a social investigation “designed to determine whether people as a whole would, given the opportunity, take a vested interest in their own health and fitness and expend effort to maintain it” (the Peckham Experiment). The report was even covered in the prestigious Nature magazine.
I am a fan of the novel (of the dabbler kind, not a balls-out groupie) and hinted at it some time ago (the title of this comes from a Dune character, smuggler Tuek. Since I feel I have to explain it, the reference was either brilliantly subtle, or just lame).
It contains more than a few pop-culture icons (and the inspiration for others), like the Sandworms, the stillsuits, the CHOAM, the Sardaukar and so on. Plus, a Greek staple: House Atreides, supposedly tracing back to this family, the source of Oresteia.
Will Denis Villeneuve Capture the Greatness of Dune? (National Review)
The author, Frank Herbert, had one thing or two to say about Big Government, but my favorite is an inscription at the Emperor’s Palace, in the city of Corrinth (which gets its name from the ruling House Corrino, but also vaguely reminds of another Greek word). I still ponder its meaning:
Law is the ultimate scienceHouse Corrino motto
One of the pillars of Dune society is the Spacing Guild, basically a monopolist of faster-than-light interstellar travel. Speaking of close ops:
The guilds generally stifled competition and promoted rent-seeking. The system fizzled out as liberal institutions – democracy, free markets – took hold.
Two sleeping beauties (the one has probably awaken), Pinocchio, and France.
Economic transitions aren’t transitory (The Hill)
Adam Posen is hardly an inflation alarmist. UK, 10 years ago. A nascent recovery and an inflation surge had Bank of England split on the way forward. He alone, as a member of the institution’s monetary policy committee, argued for more stimulus, deeming – correctly, with the benefit of hindsight – the inflation overshoot as temporary. That was in a world still relatively new in lowflation, central bank QE programs and suppressed interest rates, mind you. Today, he thinks quite different for the US.
Property is not (just) private (Verfassungsblog)
A ghost in the shell of German constitution haunts Berlin – the ghost of socialization. Article 15, which enables it, “has survived the decades, preserved and untouched and peculiarly history-less: no cases, no judgments, hardly any academic, economic and political interest”. Until now.
Why the French are revolting (UnHerd)
On pissed off French and their fighting chops (indeed, the Hellenic Military Academy, seemingly one of the world’s finest, was founded on French standards back in 1828). The author somehow missed that the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is a literal call-to-arms.
About the famous work of a not-so-famous, disillusioned liberal in the freshly unified Italy of latter 19th century. Sheds some light at the sinister backdrop of the era (poverty, child labor and the like).