Paul Romer, the World Bank and Angus Deaton’s critique of effective altruism

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Last week Paul Romer crashed out of his position as Chief Economist at the World Bank. He had already been isolated from the rest of the World Bank’s researchers for criticizing the reliability of their data. It seems there were several bones of contention, including the accusation that Chile’s current social democratic government falsified data contributing to some of its development indicators. Romer’s allergic reaction to the World Bank’s internal research processes has wider implications for how we think about policy research in international NGOs.

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In memory of Christie Davies: defender of the right to joke

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As we approach the end of 2017, I remember this year’s sad passing of Christie Davies. Davies was a rare academic beast: a classical liberal sociologist. Despite representing a minority perspective in his discipline, he was able to thrive and leave a mark that will continue to influence scholars for generations.

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Make neo-Nazis flop off Broadway: public choice and Tina Fey’s sheetcaking

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A week ago a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville protesting the taking down of Confederate Memorial statues turned fatally violent. Other protests were due to take place this weekend in multiple U.S. cities, including New York (now postponed). How should citizens and public authorities deal with this upsurge in violent neo-Nazi protest? I am with Tina Fey on this one: don’t show up, have some cake, and encourage the NYPD to prevent violence.

Some on the left have tried opportunistically and mistakenly to associate Virginian school public choice scholarship with the far-right. This is a sadly missed opportunity because James Buchanan’s theory of club goods helps explain how far-right street protests emerge and suggest how authorities might best subdue them. I draw on John Meadowcroft’s and Elizabeth Morrow’s analysis of the far-right English Defence League (EDL).

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Public choice and market failure: Jeffrey Friedman on Nancy MacLean

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Jeffrey Friedman has a well-argued piece on interpreting public choice in the wake of Nancy MacLean’s conspiratorial critique of one of its founding theorists, James Buchanan. While agreeing that MacLean is implausibly uncharitable in her interpretation of Buchanan, Friedman suggests that many of Buchanan’s defenders are themselves in an untenable position. This is because public choice allows theorists to make uncharitable assumptions about political actors that they have never met or observed. In this sense, MacLean is simply imputing her preferred own set of bad motives onto her political opponents. What is sauce for the goose is good for the gander.

I think Friedman’s arguments are a valid critique of the way that public choice is sometimes deployed in popular discourse. A lot of libertarian commentary assumes that those seeking political power are uniquely bad people, always having self-interest and self-aggrandisement as their true aim. Given that this anti-politics message is associated with getting worse political leaders who are becoming progressively less friendly to individual liberty, this approach to characterising politicians seems counterproductive. However, I don’t think Friedman’s position is such a good fit for Buchanan himself or most of those working in the scholarly public choice tradition.

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Adam Smith: a historical historical detective?

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Adrian Blau at King’s College London has an on-going project of making methods in political theory more useful, transparent and instructive, especially for students interested in historical scholarship.

I found his methods lecture, that he gave to Master’s students and went onto publish as ‘History of political thought as detective work’, particularly helpful for formulating my approach to political theory. The advantage of Blau’s advice is that it avoids pairing technique with theory. You can be a Marxist, a Straussian, a contextualist, anything or nothing, and still apply Blau’s technique.

Blau suggests that we adopt the persona of a detective when trying to understand the meaning of historical texts. That is, we should acknowledge

  • uncertainty associated with our claims
  • that facts of the matter will almost certainly be under-determined by the available evidence
  • that conflicting evidence probably exists for any interesting question
  • that interpreting any piece of evidence through any exclusive theoretical lens is likely to lead us to error

To make more compelling inferences in the face of these challenges, we can use techniques of triangulation (using independent sources of evidence together). This could include arguing for an interpretation of a thinker’s argument based on a close reading of their text, while showing that other people in the thinker’s social milieu deployed language in a similar way (contextual), and also showing how helpful that argument was for achieving a political end that was salient in that time and place (motivation).

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Could the DUP push UK Conservatives towards a ‘Norway Option’?

Last year, Britain voted to leave the European Union under a banner of anti-immigration and protectionism. Since then, both social democrats and classical liberals have been waiting to catch a break. Ever the optimist, I hope they may have just got one, from an unlikely source, the Democratic Unionist Party. They are a Northern Ireland-based Protestant party that is usually at the margins of national British politics. Thanks to the outcome of the latest general election, they may be in a position to force the British Conservatives towards a more trade and immigration friendly Brexit.

In April, Prime Minister (for now) Theresa May called a snap election. She didn’t need to face the electorate until 2020, but decided to gamble, thinking that she would increase her working majority of Conservative MPs. Instead, as we discovered yesterday after the polls closed, she did the opposite, reducing the slim majority that David Cameron won in 2015 to a mere plurality. This was against one of the most radically left-wing opponents in decades, Jeremy Corbyn.

This was a dismal failure for the Conservatives but the result is a relatively good sign for liberals. I feared that Theresa May’s conservative-tinged anti-market, anti-human rights, authoritarian corporatism was exactly what centrist voters would prefer. It turns that Cameron’s more liberal conservativism actually won more seats. Not only is an outward-looking liberalism correct, de-emphasizing it turns out not be a popular move after all.

Without a majority, the Conservatives need to form a coalition or come to an informal agreement with another party. This seems likely impossible with Labour, the Scottish Nationalists or the Liberal Democrats who have all campaigned heavily against the Conservatives and disagree on key issues, such as whether Britain should leave the European Union at all. This leaves the DUP.

In terms of ideology, the DUP is far to the right of most British Conservatives. Their opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and occasional support for teaching creationism, means that they have more in common with some Republican Christian groups in the United States than the secular mainstream in the rest of the United Kingdom. Historically, at least, they have links with pro-unionist paramilitaries that have terrorized Irish Catholic separatists.

There is, however, one way in which the DUP are comparatively moderate. While content with the UK leaving the European Union, they want to keep the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member) open. Closing it would reduce critical cross-border trade with an economically dynamic neighbor and re-ignite violent tensions between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.

How could this be achieved? Leaving the EU while keeping a relatively open trading and immigration relationship is similar to the so-called Norway Option. Norway is within the single market but can exempt itself from many parts of EU law. In return, it has no direct representation in EU institutions. If the EU could accept such an arrangement, then the DUP may be able to make Conservatives commit to it.

Of course, the DUP will extract other perks from their major partners as part of any deal. But their social policy preferences are so far to the right of people in England, Wales and Scotland that this will hopefully have to take the form of fiscal subsidies to their home region (economically damaging but could at least avoid infringing civil liberties).

It might seem paradoxical that an extreme party may have a moderating influence on overall policy. However, social choice theory suggests that democratic processes do not aggregate voter, or legislator, preferences in a straightforward way. Because preferences exist along multiple dimensions, they are neither additive nor linear. This can produce perverse and chaotic outcomes, but it can also generate valuable bargains between otherwise opposed parties. In this case, one right-wing party produces an authoritarian Brexit. But two right-wing parties could equal a more liberal outcome.

That’s the theory. Has something like this ever happened in practice? Arguably, Canada is an outstanding example of how a minority party with many internally illiberal policy preferences produces liberal outcomes (see the fascinating Vaubel, 2009, p.25 for the argument). There, the need to placate the separatist movement in Quebec involved leaving more powers to the provinces in general, thus keeping Canada as a whole much more decentralized than Anglo-Canadian preferences alone could have assured. Will the DUP do the same for Britain? We can but hope.

Is persecution the purpose?

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Last week, Rebecca Tuvel, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, had her recent article in Hypatia, ‘In Defence of Transracialism’, denounced in an open letter signed by several professional scholars (among others). They accused her of harming the transgender community by comparing them with the currently more marginalized identity of transracialism. William Rein, on this blog, and Jason Brennan at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, have written valuable defences of Tuvel’s right to conduct academic research in this area even if some find it offensive.

Events have moved fast. The associate editors initially seemed to cave in to pressure and denounced the article they had only just published. The main editor, Sally Scholz, has since disagreed with the associate editors. Critically, Tuvel’s colleagues at Rhodes College have given her their support so it looks like the line for academic freedom might be holding in this case. Without wishing to engage too much in the hermeneutics of suspicion, I think there are grounds to doubt the depth of the critics’ attitudes. I base this on my reading of Judith Butler, who is one of the signatories to the open letter arguing for Tuvel’s article to be retracted.

Seven years ago, I managed to read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Although there are many variations in the movement, Butler is a central figure in the post-structuralist , non-gender-essentialist, feminism that inspires much of the contemporary ‘social justice’ movement. When I got past Butler’s famously difficult prose, I found a great deal of ideas I agreed with. I wrote up a brief piece comparing Butler’s concerns with violently enforced gender conformity to classical liberal approaches to personal autonomy. I also identified some problems.

First, Butler’s critique of the natural sciences seems to completely miss the mark. Butler associates gender essentialism with the study of genetics, when, in fact, genetics has done more than almost anything else to explore the contingency and variation of biological sexual expression in nature. The same applies to race and ethnicity.

Second, more importantly, Butler insists that there is no underlying authentic gender or sexual identity. All identities are ultimately constituted by power relations and juridical discourses. You find this argument repeated among social justice proponents who insist all forms of identity are products of ‘social construction’ rather than ever being based on natural facts. As a result, all personal identity claims are only ever historical and strategic. They are attempts to disrupt power relations in order to liberate and empower the subaltern and oppressed albeit temporarily

I don’t think this is perfectly factually true but lets accept it for now as roughly true. This means that transracialism itself might become, or could already be, another example of the strategic disruption of contemporary juridical discourses, this time about race and ethnicity. The same people currently denouncing Tuvel could very easily insist on the acknowledgement of transracial identity in five or ten years time, and denounce those who hold their current views. From their own position, which explicitly rejects any ultimate restrictions on identity formation, we have no warrant to know otherwise.

In this sense, Tuvel might not be ‘wrong’ at all, just slightly ahead of the social justice curve. And her critics wouldn’t actually be changing their minds, just changing their strategies. Meanwhile, people who actually take their identities seriously should be wary of their academic ‘allies’. They can quickly re-orientate their attitude such that a previously oppressed identity comes to be re-configured as an oppressive and exclusionary construct.

If all claims in this area are strategic, rather than factual, as Butler claims, then why try to damage a philosopher’s career over it? Why provoke an academic journal almost to self-destruct? Rather than working out which ideas to denounce, we should critique the strategy of denouncement (or calling out) itself. In that vein, much as I disagree wholly with the stance of its editorial board, I think calling into question Hypatia’s status as an academic journal, is premature.