The Negative Capability of a Good Legislator

In a former post, we had explored the idea of considering the law as an abstract machine which provides its users with information about the correct expectancies about human conduct that, if fulfilled, would contribute to the social system inner stability (here). The specific characteristic of the law working as an abstract machine resides in its capability of dealing with an amount of information more complex than human minds. This thesis had been previously stated by Friedrich Hayek in his late work titled “Law, Legislation and Liberty”, aimed to provide the foundations to a proposal of an constitutional reform that would assure the separation of the law from politics -not in the sense of depriving politics from the rule of law, but to protect law from the interference of politics.

Paradoxically, the said opus had many unintended outcomes that surpassed the author’s foresight. One of them was the coinage of the notion of “Spontaneous Order”, which Hayek himself regretted about, because of the misleading sense of the word “spontaneous”. At the foreword of the third volume of the cited “Law, Legislation and Liberty”, he explained why he would prefer to use of the term of “Abstract Order”. Notwithstanding its creator’s allegations, the label of “Spontaneous Order” gained autonomy from him in the realm of the ideas (for example, here).

Why better “abstract order” than “spontaneous”? Because while no “concrete order” might be spontaneous, we could nevertheless find normative systems created by human decision, besides the spontaneous ones (see “Law, Legislation and Liberty”, Chapter V). Moreover, we do not see spontaneous orders whose rules fail to provide stability to the system, because of “evolutionary matters”: such orders could not endure the test of time. Nevertheless, for the same reason, we could imagine a spontaneous order whose rules of conduct became obsolete due to a change in the environment and, thus, fails to enable the social system with the needed stability.

Spontaneity is, thus, not the central characteristic of the law as a complex order. What delimits law from a “concrete order” is the level of abstraction. An alternative name given by Hayek to designate the concrete orders was the Greek term “taxis”, a disposition of soldiers for battle commanded by the single voice of the general. Concrete orders could be fully understood by the human mind and that is why they are regarded as “simple phenomena”: the whole outcome of their rules could be predicted by a system of equations simpler than the human mind.

Notwithstanding a single legislator could sanction a complete set of rules to be followed by the members of a given society, the inner system of decision making of those individuals are more abstract that the said set of rules and, thus, the human interactions will always result in some subset of unintended consequences.

These unintended consequences should not necessarily be regarded as deviations from the social order, but indeed as factors of stabilisation -and, thus, all abstract orders are, in some sense, still spontaneous. These characteristics of the law as a complex order concern on the information about the final configuration of a society given a certain institutional frame: we can establish the whole set of institutions but never fully predict its final outcome. At this stage, we reach what Hayek called in The Sensory Order “an absolute limit to knowledge”.

We now see that the legislator could sanction a complete system of rules -a system that provides solutions for every possible concrete controversy between at least two contenders-, but he is unable to be aware of the full set of consequences of that set of rules. We might ascertain, then, that being enabled with a “negative capability” to anticipate the outcome of the law as a complex phenomenon is a quality to be demanded to a good legislator.

By this “negative capability” we want to designate some understanding of the human nature that allows to anticipate the impact of a given norm among the human interactions. For example, simple statements about human nature such as “people respond to incentives”, or “all powers tend to be abusive”. These notions that are not theoretical but incompletely explained assumptions about human nature are well known in the arts and literature and constitute the undertow of the main narratives that remain mostly inarticulate.

Precisely, as Hayek stated, every abstract order rests upon a series of inarticulate rules, some of which might be discovered and  later articulated by the judges, while other rules would remain inarticulate despite being elements of the normative system.

However, we praise Negative Capability as a virtue to be cultivated by the legislator, not by the judge. The function of the judge is to decide about the actual content of the law when applied to a particular case. It is the legislator the one who should foresee the influence to be exerted by the law upon a general pattern of human behaviour.

Notwithstanding Negative Capability could be dismissed in order of not being a scientific concept, this negative attribute is one of its main virtues: it means lack of ideology, in the sense given to that term by Kenneth Minogue. While an ideological political discourse reassures itself in a notion of scientific truth, at least a legislator inspired by common and humble ideas about human nature would be free from that “pretence of knowledge”.

Afternoon Tea: “Independent Indians and the U.S.-Mexican War”

This cross-border conversation had a broad and tragic context. In the early 1830s, following what for most had been nearly two generations of imperfect peace, Comanches, Kiowas, Navajos, and several different tribes of Apaches dramatically increased their attacks upon northern Mexican settlements. While contexts and motivations varied widely, most of the escalating violence reflected Mexico’s declining military and diplomatic capabilities, as well as burgeoning markets for stolen livestock and captives. Indian men raided Mexican ranches, haciendas, and towns, killing or capturing the people they found there, and stealing or destroying animals and other property. When able, Mexicans responded by attacking their enemies with comparable cruelty and avarice. Raids expanded, breeding reprisals and deepening enmities, until the searing violence touched all or parts of nine states.

This is from Brian DeLay, a historian at Cal-Berkeley. Here is a link.

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 18): Reforms I Would Favor

Now, here is what I, personally, a US citizen and an appreciative immigrant, as well as a small government conservative, would like to see happen: As I pointed out before, most liberals and quite a few conservatives perceive allowing all immigration as a sort of altruistic gesture. That includes those who do not overtly call for open borders but whose concrete proposals (“Abolish ICE.”) would result in a soft state that would provide the equivalent of open borders. As far as I can tell – with the major exception of Tabarrok, discussed above – many pure libertarians whisper that they are all for open borders, but they only whisper it. I speculate that they are forced to take this principled but unreasonable position to avoid having to defend the nation-state as a necessary institutional arrangement to control immigration.  Frankly, I wish they would come out of the closet and I hope this essay will shame some into doing so.

The most urgent thing to my mind is to separate conceptually and bureaucratically with the utmost vigor, immigration intended to benefit us, American citizens and lawfully admitted immigrants, and beyond us, to promote a version of the American polity close to the Founders’ vision, on the one hand, from immigration intended to help someone else, or something else, on the other. The US can afford both but the amalgam of the two leads to bad policies. (See, for example the story “The Refugee Detectives: Inside Germany’s High-Stake Operation to Sort People Fleeing Death…” by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, April 2018.)

Next, I think conservatives should favor, for now, an upper numerical limit to immigration, one pegged perhaps to the growth of our domestic population. Though my heart is not in it, it seems to me that this is a prudent recommendation in view of the threatening prospect of a Democratic one-party governance.

The first category of immigrants would be admitted on some sort of merit basis, as I said, perhaps a version of the system I discuss above. The second category would include all refugees and asylum seekers, and, to a limited extent, their relatives. Given a strictly altruistic intent in accepting such people, Congress and the President jointly would be in a better position than they are today to apply any strictures at all, including philosophical and even religious tests of compatibility with central features of American legal and philosophical tradition – if any. (Of course, in spite of the courts’ interventions in the matter, I have not found the part of the Constitution that forbids the Federal Government from barring anyone it wants, including on religious grounds. Rational arguments can be made against such decisions but they are not anchored in the Constitution, I believe. (See constitutional lawyers David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey’s analysis: “The Judicial ‘Resistance’ is Futile” in the Wall Street Journal of 2/7/18.)

I think thus both that we could admit many more people seeking shelter from war and other catastrophes than we do, and that we should vet them extensively and deeply. We could also rehabilitate the notion of provisional admission. Many of the large number of current Syrian refugees would not doubt like to go home if it were possible. Such refugees could be given, say, a five-year renewable visa. As I pointed out above, some beliefs system are but little compatible with peaceful assimilation into American society. This can be said aloud without proffering superfluous insults toward any group.  National hypocrisy does not make sense because it rarely fools anyone. In general, I think all American society has been too shy in this connection, too submissive to political correctness. So, think of this example: French constitutions, most of the fifteen of them anyway, proclaim the primacy of something called “the general interest,” a wide open door to authoritarian collectivism if there ever was one. There is no reason to not query French would-be immigrants on this account. I would gladly take points off for answers expressing a submissiveness to this viewpoint. (Yes, I am one of those who suspect that the French Revolution is one of the mothers of democracy but also, of Communism and of Fascism.)

Similarly Muslim religious authorities as well as would-be Muslim immigrants could be challenged like this: Just tell us publicly if Islamic dogma welcomes separation of religion and government. State, also in public, loudly and clearly that apostasy does not deserve death, that it deserves no punishment at all. Admission decisions would be a function of the answers given. Sure, people would be coached and many would cheat but, they would be on record. The most sincere would not accept going on record against their doctrine. Sorry to be so cynical but I don’t fear the least sincere!

The underlying reasoning for such policies of exclusion is this: First, I repeat that there is no ethical system that obligates American society to commit suicide, fast or slowly; second, probabilistic calculations of danger and of usefulness both are the only practicable ones in the matter of admitting different groups and categories. (I don’t avoid jumping from planes with a parachute because those who do die every time they try but because they die more often than those who don’t.) Based on recent experience (twenty years+), Muslims are more likely to commit terrorist acts than Lutherans. (It’s also true that there is a very low probability for both groups.) Based on common sense and the news, most Mexicans must have acquired a high tolerance for political corruption. Based on longer experience, many Western Europeans have extensive and expensive expectations regarding the availability of tax supported welfare benefits. Based – perhaps- on one thousand years of observation, the Chinese tend to favor collective discipline over individual rights more than Americans do. (See my: “Muslim Refugees in perspective.”)

Pronouncing aloud these probabilistic statements does not shut off the possibility of ignoring them because immigrants from the same groups bring with them many improvements to American society, of course. I could easily allow a handful of well chosen French chefs to come in despite of their deep belief in the existence of a common public interest. I even have a list ready. Admitting facts is not the same as making decisions. I can also imagine a permanent invitation to anyone to challenge publicly such generalizations. It would have at least the merit of clearing the air.

Last and very importantly: Invalidating the generalizations I make above, to an unknown extent, is the likelihood that immigrants are not a true sample of their population of origin: Chinese immigrants may tend to have an anarchist streak; that may be the very reason they want to live in the US. Mexicans may seek to move to the US precisely to flee corruption for which they have a low tolerance, etc. The French individuals wishing to come to the US may be trying to escape the shadow of authoritarianism they perceive in French political thought, etc.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 17]

Books I’ve been reading (and elections I’ve been watching)

The elections were pretty decent overall. The GOP actually picked up some seats in the Senate, the Democrats picked up some seats in the House. It was a draw, and now Trump is weaker than he was in 2016 and so are the Democrats. It’s a win-win for libertarians.

Speaking of libertarians, we have a political party here in the States, and it didn’t do too bad in the elections. It looks as if the Libertarian Party has started to run candidates in districts where a representative usually goes unchallenged. So, in heavily Democratic areas like urban Dallas or suburban Denver, or in heavily Republican areas like Wyoming, Libertarians have begun running legitimate campaigns. Jennifer Nakerud won 4% of the vote in suburban Denver, and Shawn Jones got nearly 9% of the vote in urban Dallas. In West Virginia, Rusty Hollen took 4% of the vote in the Senate race. Gary Johnson didn’t do too bad, either, finishing with almost 15% of the vote in New Mexico. He was running for Senate, and he was a very successful governor there, so his losing success was somewhat assured, but still, it’s encouraging. Also encouraging is the re-election of Clint Bolick, a libertarian judge in Arizona (Damon Root reports on Bolick’s victory at Reason, here).

I’ve plowed through a bunch of books recently: Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920), Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty (2010), Nicolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842), the Three-Body Problem trilogy (2014-2016), and Prador Moon (2006), the first book in a long, 15-part science fiction series. They’ve all been richly rewarding, and I’ll be blogging my thoughts about them sporadically throughout the next few months, so be sure to keep checkin’ in on NOL!