A quote

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.

Mark Weiser

Hayek would have liked this quote about computers. On his behalf, I’m going to co-opt it as a description of the miracle of markets.


Tech’s Ethical Dark Side

An article at the NY Times opens:

The medical profession has an ethic: First, do no harm.

Silicon Valley has an ethos: Build it first and ask for forgiveness later.

Now, in the wake of fake news and other troubles at tech companies, universities that helped produce some of Silicon Valley’s top technologists are hustling to bring a more medicine-like morality to computer science.

Far be it from me to tell people to avoid spending time considering ethics. But something seems a bit silly to me about all this. The “experts” are trying to teach students the consequences of the complex interactions between the services they haven’t yet created and the world as it doesn’t yet exist.

My inner cynic sees this “ethics of tech” movement as a push to have software engineers become nanny-state-like social engineers. “First do no harm” is not the right standard for tech (which isn’t to say “do harm” is). Before 2016 Facebook and Twitter were praised for their positive contribution to the Arab Spring. After our dumb election the educated western elite threw up our hands and said, “it’s an ethical breach to reduce our power!” Freedom is messy, and “do no harm” privileges the status quo.

The root problem is that computer services interact with the public in complex ways. Recognizing this is important and an ethics class ought to grapple with that complexity and the resulting uncertainty in how our decisions (including design decisions) can affect the well being of others. My worry is that a sensible call to think about these issues will be co-opted by power-hungry bureaucrats. (There really ought to be ethics classes on the “Dark Side of Ethical Judgments of Others and Education Policy”.)

I don’t doubt that the motivations of the people involved are basically good, but I’m deeply skeptical of their ability to do much more than offer retrospective analysis as particular events become less relevant. History is important, but let’s not trick ourselves into thinking the lessons of 2016 Facebook will apply neatly to whatever network we’re on in 2026.

It hardly seems reasonable to insist that Facebook be put in charge of what we get to see. Some argue that’s already the world we live in, and they aren’t completely wrong. But that authority is still determined by the voluntary individual decision of users with access to plenty of alternatives. People aren’t always as thoughtful and deliberate as I’d like, but that doesn’t mean I should step in and be a thoughtful and deliberate Orwellian figure on their behalf.

From the Comments: the Ottoman Empire, the millet system, and nationalism

Barry has an excellent response to Jacques’ equally good essay on the Ottoman Empire and libertarianism:

Jacques, the Millet system was as much constructed as destroyed in the late Ottoman period. The idea of such a system was itself projected back onto the earlier Ottoman system to reflect modern assumptions about national belonging, which was understood to exist in the Ottoman state through a systematic accommodation of Christian nations.

The classical Ottoman system was very dispersed and irregular in the functioning of power under a sultan who [had] absolute power in certain spheres and certain circumstances. So the contrast of the millet system with emergent Turkish nationalism itself presumes nationalist categories anachronistic to the earlier Ottoman state. The understanding of a millet system does of course coincide with the destruction of said system, since the idea of such a system comes from a kind of nationalism, or at least [an] assumption of a top down administrative state with strongly homogenising tendencies. The greatest massacre of Armenians took place in 1915 under the direction of an element of Young Turks (the general term for reformists) manifested in the most extreme tendencies of the Committee of Union and Progress.

In any case there is some continuity with the policies of Sultan Abdülhamit following a version of Ottoman statism constructing a homogenising administrative state after suspending the constitutional system and its representative assembly. If we apply ‘millet system’ to the early Ottoman system, with the reservations I mentioned, you can of course talk about greater peace for Ottoman Christians than that experienced during the 30 Years War, in exchange for the surrender of young sons for training as ‘janisseries’, new believers serving the sultan as soldiers and administrators. However, the picture is less sunny if we look at the massacres of Alevi, what were known at the time as Qizilbash, that is followers of a rather unorthodox offshoot of Shia Islam. Particularly under Selim I, Yavuz Selim, Selim the Grim (an appropriate moniker) in the 15th century Alevis were massacred by the tens of thousands in connection with his wars against Iranian Shia. Maybe if we compare the Ottoman system with the Christian states of the time, we see more religious peace, but relatively speaking.

In any case by the late nineteenth century the peace was eroded by wars of separation and by persecution of ‘dangerous’ minorities within the remaining Ottoman lands. In terms of Ottomanist ideological legacy, Abdülhamit is a hero to religious-conservative and ultranationalist currents mobilised by an ideal of strong Muslim rulers presiding over a Muslim community and with Abdülhamit taken as a model. Of course they are applying something foreign to the Ottoman system in its earlier years and which even Abdülhamit would have found alien in its commitment to Turkishness. The actions of Abdulhamit and then the trio at the head of the CUP who orchestrated the massacres of 1915 show the dangers of statist modernisation. In both cases though, they would have understood their actions as done to protect the glory of the Ottomans.

Barry has more at NOL here. Jacques has more at NOL here. Both can often be found in a responsive mood in the ‘comments’ threads, too, as long as your comments aren’t too nasty or vulgar…


A feast of classical liberal thought: Mont Pelerin Society in Stockholm

Last week, Stockholm hosted a special meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) on the populist threats to the free society. MPS meetings are held under Chatham House rules, which means I cannot report in any detail about the proceedings. Yet a few impressions can be shared.

I have been a MPS member since 2010, when my nomination was accepted at the end of the general meeting in Sydney. In those days the old rules still applied, which meant you had to attend three meetings before you could be nominated for membership. However, this strict rule led to the erosion of the membership base (the MPS was literally starving out), so the rules to join as a member have been made easier.

My first MPS meeting was in Guatemala City, in 2006. I had participated in the essay contest for young scholars which is always organized in the run-up to the bi-annual General Meetings. As a runner-up I won free entry to the meeting. I happened to be in the south of the USA in the weeks before, doing PhD research at the Mises Institute in Alabama, so could easily make the trip to Central America. Because I lived in Manila during those years, I could also easily attend the 2008 meeting in Tokyo.

I had are number of reasons for wanting to join the MPS. First of all, the quality of the meetings offer a great chance to listen to and speak with the leading scholars within current classical liberalism. Increasingly multidisciplinary (back in the old days the economists dominated), the programme committees of the MPS Meetings always succeed in attracting an impressive crowd of high quality speakers and commentators from across the globe. I always find this a great intellectual treat. Second, the meetings are characterized by extremely pleasant and open atmospheres. Everybody mingles with everybody, you can talk with everybody, no matter your age, or academic background. Thirdly, the meetings take place across the globe, so they offer a great opportunity to travel and see places. Although it must be added that even when you do not stay at the conference hotel, the meetings are never very cheap, so it remains an investment. Fourth, for a Hayekian like myself, it feels very good to be a member of the society founded by the master himself, which had and has such an illustrious membership, ever since its beginnings 70 years ago.

Besides the big one week General Meetings held every two years, there are shorter regional or special meetings in the other years. Last week’s MPS meeting in Stockholm was a special meeting, very well-organized by the Ratio Institute. The theme was discussed from numerous angles, through sessions on Russia’s foreign policy, the economic issue of secular stagnation, or the danger of political Islamism. Two sessions were focused on new classical liberal ideas to counter the threats. At the opening day there was a session for young scholars to present papers. This was of course also a way to attract new talent and interest in the MPS. And at the end of the second day there was something different: beer tasting while listening to Johan Norberg. A rather splendid combination!

The speakers and commentators were high level, including MPS chair Peter Boettke (George Mason), David Schmidtz (Arizona), Deirdre McCloskey (Illinois), John Tomasi (Brown), Leszek Balcerowic (former president of Poland’s Central Bank), Russia specialist Anders Aslund, German thinker Karen Horn, Jacob Levy (McGill), Mark Pennington (Kings College London), Paul Cliteur (Leiden), Amigai Magen (Hoover Institution), and the energetic Ralf Bader (Oxford). A lineup like this guarantees a number of new insights, solid arguments, and general intellectual stimulus. Many answers were provided, yet in true academic fashion, many questions remain.

While well represented in this program, International Relations are normally a minor topic at MPS meetings, and there are not many IR scholars around (nor are sociologists or legal scholars, by the way). Personally I am convinced that the future appeal of classical liberal thought also relies on taking into account world affairs. So there is a need to keep on writing and publishing about it, to expand the basis for thought, also in the MPS. To hear about the concerns and insights of other classical liberals in other disciplines helps my thought process, besides remaining up to speed with current classical liberal issues in general.

So it was a great meeting again, And for all you young scholars out there: if you are interested make sure to regularly check the MPS website (www.montpelerin.org) to see if there are opportunities to participate in one of the upcoming meetings.


Some thoughts on the ivory tower; part 1: discrimination

I entered academia in 2009 when I started my bachelor’s degree and began graduate studies in 2014 when I entered a master’s program. I have been in the ivory tower in some form for almost a decade. Others have spent much more time in the tower than I, but I am hardly a newcomer. I hope then that I can offer thoughts on discrimination and mental health in the ivory tower.

In the past few years I have noted an increased self-aware discussion on the lack of diversity, both in terms of phenotype and ideology, in the ivory tower. The tower is full of center-left white men. I have seen various formal (e.g. #womenalsoknowstuff ) and informal groups groups advocate for greater inclusion in the tower. For the record there are non-leftist groups involved in this as well. CU Boulder has a program to increase conservative intellectuals. The Institute of Humane Studies (IHS) essentially serves to advocate for classical liberals in the tower. 

There is nothing wrong with these goals. Women also knows stuff tries do this by advertising the work of female scholars. IHS does it by inviting classical liberals to book discussions – and providing beer. Both approaches sound sensible to me. My concern is that ultimately the pipeline isn’t being fixed. Not really. Both approaches help those who managed to enter, at minimum, graduate school but do little to help solve more structural reasons for why there respective groups are rare in the tower.

Why are there so few women and classical liberals (and especially so few classical liberal women!) in academia? It’s partly cultural and partly institutional.

Minorities get made fun of in academia. Academics like to think of themselves as cosmopolitan, but it’s a big lie. A recent undergrad thesis by a Berkeley student looked at misogynistic discussions on an online forum frequented by economists. I disagree with the research design of the paper, but I believe the general argument that the tower is filled with misogyny. I also believe it’s filled with dislike for conservatives, Christians, atheists, whites, blacks, Arabs, Chinese, etc.

I don’t think the tower is unique in this. Human beings divide themselves by groups and I don’t see why that will ever change. I think the academy is just a bit whiter and a bit more lefty because of sorting effects. You can see this happening even within the tower. Classical liberals sort into economics – how many classical liberal anthropologists do you know? Not counting NoL’s chief editor? Some minorities sort into ethnic studies. How many black game theorists do you know? Native American psychometricians?

What can we do? I’m not sure. We can improve the pipeline so that grad students, and eventually faculty, get more diverse. However I suspect the sorting problem will remain. Superficially we will have more diversity, but is it really diversity if we’re sorted by discipline and subfields? Should we force new classical liberals to enroll in sociology grad programs? I don’t know. Maybe we should give up on diversity all together and focus on abolishing the state. Maybe? Who knows? What do you  all think?

By the way if you want to know what true cosmopolitanism is, visit an inner city. True cosmopolitanism is seeing blacks, Mexicans and Koreans eating pupusas made by a Honduran. Everything else is a GAP commercial concoted by HR people.


When to list working papers?

I have been updating my CV the past weekend and as a process have spent more time than I should have looking at other’s CV for reference. The experience has reminded me of two things, (1) I do not share other’s infatuation with latex and (2) I despise how working papers are listed.

My primary concern with many CVs is that some people list working papers along with peer reviewed published papers. I cannot help but feel this is weaseling. This is not aided when people list “revise and resubmits” along with actual publications. An R&R is not a publication. By all means it is a good sign that a paper will get published, but it is not a publication.

My second concern is that people list working papers, but offer no link to a draft copy. In the absence of a readily accessible draft, how am I to know if someone has a ‘real’ working paper or simply some regression results on a power point? I am especially irked when I contact an author asking for a draft of their working paper and am told that no such draft exists.

I’m still a graduate student, but if I am to be humored I think academia would benefit if it became the norm to list working papers (and R&Rs) in a separate section and if it were required to upload a draft on SSRN (or whatever your preferred depository is).

Likewise I think it best to list book reviews and other non-peer reviewed materials separately. I was surprised the other day to find people who listed op-eds in local newspapers or blog posts under publications. Don’t get me wrong – I think some blog posts (especially those on a certain site) are great reads! But peer reviewed publications they are not.

Does this sound reasonable?


Against Guilt by Historical Association: A Note on MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains”

It’s this summer’s hottest pastime for libertarian-leaning academics: finding examples of bad scholarship in Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains. For those out of the loop, MacLean, a history professor at Duke University, argues in her book that Nobel-prize winning public choice economist James Buchanan is part of some Koch-funded vast right-libertarian conspiracy to destroy democracy as inspired by southern racist agrarians and confederates like John Calhoun. This glowing review from NPR should give you a taste of her argument, which often has the air of a bizarre conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, to make these arguments she’s had to cut some huge corners in her federally-funded research. Here’s a round-up of her dishonesty:

  • David Bernstein points out how MacLean’s own sources contradict her claims that libertarian Frank Chodorov disagreed with the ruling in Brown v. Board.
  • Russ Roberts reveals how out-of-context Tyler Cowen was taken by MacLean, misquoting him to attribute to Cowen a view which he was arguing against.
  • David Henderson finds that she did the same thing to Buchanan.
  • Steve Horwitz points out how wildly out-of-context MacLean took a quote from Buchanan on public education.
  • Phil Magness reveals how much MacLean needed to wildly reach to tie Buchanan to southern agrarians with his use of the word “Leviathan.”
  • Phil Magness, again, reveals MacLean needed to do the same thing to tie Buchanan to Calhoun.
  • David Bernstein finds several factual errors about MacLean’s telling of the history of George Mason’s University.

I’m sure there is more to come. But, poor scholarship and complete dishonesty in source citation aside, an important question needs to be asked about all this: even if MacLean didn’t need to reach so far to paint Buchanan in such a negative light, why should we care?

I admittedly haven’t read her book yet (so could be wrong), but from the way even positive reviewers paint it and the way she talks about it herself in interviews (see around 15:30 of that episode), one can infer that she is in no way interested in a nuanced analytical critique of Buchanan’s public choice models or his arguments in favor of constitutional restrictions on democratic majorities. Her argument, if you can call it that, seems to be something like this:

  1. Democracy and majority rule are inherently good.
  2. James Buchanan wants stricter restrictions on democratic majority rule, and so did some Southern racists.
  3. Therefore, James Buchanan is a racist, evil corporate shill.

Even if she didn’t need to establish premise 2, why should we care? Every ideology has elements of it that can be tied to some seedy elements of the past, it doesn’t make the arguments that justify those ideologies wrong. For example, the pro-choice and women’s health movement has its roots in attempts to market birth control to race-based eugenicists (though these links, like MacLean’s attempts, aren’t as insidious as some on the modern right make them out to be), that does not mean modern women’s health advocates are racial eugenicists. Early advocates of the minimum wage argued for wage floors for racist and sexist reasons, yet nobody really thinks (or, at least, should think) modern progressives have dubious racist motives for wanting to raise the minimum wage. The American Economic Association was founded by racist eugenicists in the American Institutionalist school, yet nobody thinks modern economists are racist or that anyone influenced by the institutionalists today is a eugenicist. The Democratic Party used to be the party of the KKK, yet nobody (except the most obnoxious of Republican partisans) thinks that’s at all relevant to the DNC’s modern platform. Heidegger was heavily linked to Nazism and anti-Semitism, but it’s impossible to write off and ignore his philosophical contributions and remain intellectually honest.

Similarly, even if Buchanan did read Calhoun and it got him thinking about constitutional reform, that does not at all mean he agreed with Calhoun on slavery or that modern libertarian-leaning public choice theorists are neo-confederates, and it has even less to do with the merits of Buchanan’s analytical critiques of how real-world democracies function. In fact, as Vincent Geloso has pointed out here at NOL, Buchanan has given modern scholars the analytical tools to critique racism.

Intellectual history is messy and complicated, and can often lead to links we might—with the benefit of historical hindsight—view as situated in an unsavory context. However, as long as those historical lineages have little to no bearing on people’s motivations for making similar arguments or being intellectual inheritors of similar ideological traditions today (which isn’t always the case), there is no relevance to modern discourse other than perhaps idle historical curiosity. These types of attempts to cast guilt upon one’s intellectual opponents through historical association are, at best, another intellectually lazy version of the genetic fallacy (which MacLean also loves to commit when she starts conspiratorially complaining about Koch Brothers funding).

Just tell me if this sounds like a good argument to you:

  1. Historical figure X makes a similar argument Y to what you’re making.
  2. X was a racist and was influenced by some racists.
  3. Therefore, Y is wrong.

If it doesn’t, you’re right, 3 doesn’t follow from 2 (and in MacLean’s case 1 is a stretch).

Please, if you want to criticize someone’s arguments, actually criticize their arguments; don’t rely on a tabloid version of intellectual history to dismiss them, especially when that intellectual history is a bunch of dishonest misquotations and hand-waving associations.