From the Comments: French social scientists

This is about: “Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of Bureaucracy.” [link] Pierre Bourdieu has not known what he was talking about as long as I have been an adult. He is equal to himself; he still does not. His talent – that he shares with many French intellectuals – is to persuade others to pretend that they do understand. Don’t take my word for it. Read the opening sentence of the current piece and ask yourself honestly what it means. And no, don’t blame the translation. I have not read this piece in the original French but I have read many opening statements in French by Bourdieu and, they are worse. (I am competent to read French including “sociologie.” ) In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the translators had actually improved the first sentence in this particular piece. Another thing about contemporary French social scientists (but not historians) is that it’s seldom quite clear what the relationship is – if any – between their narrative and facts on the ground. Don’t get me started!

This is from Jacques on one of my “nightcaps.”

From the comments: Kinship networks and U.S. politicians

So kinship necessarily expands the utility and probability of shared interests measurably, a path of study likely threatening to politicians … It might be fun to see a kinship matrix for current U.S. politicians ..?

This is from the always interesting Jack Curtis.

Monday Links, sticks and two (or maybe three) smoking sentences

Gangsters vs. Nazis (Tablet)

How the Jewish mob fought American admirers of the Third Reich. An excerpt:

Judd Teller, a reporter for a New York Jewish daily, relates how he met one day with “several men who said they were from ‘Murder, Incorporated’ and wanted a list of ‘Nazi bastards who should be rubbed out.’” Teller took the request to Jewish communal leaders. They told Teller that if the plan would be put in motion, “the police would be informed promptly.” Teller relayed this warning to his Murder, Inc. contact. Upon hearing this, the mobster angrily replied, “Tell them to keep their shirts on. OK, we won’t ice [murder] the bodies; only marinate them.” According to Teller, this is exactly what they did. He said the attacks by the Jewish mobsters was sufficient “marination” to drastically reduce attendance at Nazi Bund meetings, and discouraged Bundists “from appearing in uniform singly in the streets.”

The Inimitable Orwell (Commonweal)

On the Politics and the English Language essay. I try to stick to the six rules, but I fear I am not totally “outright barbarous”-proof. Another list with writing rules – a more light-hearted one – comes from Umberto Eco, the noted Italian scholar:

Umberto Eco’s 36 Rules for Writing Well (Openculture)

Speaking of proper phrasing, here is a passage from Lysander Spooner (Thomas L. Knapp posted it in the comments section of a NOL piece by Jacques Delacroix):

[W]hether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain — that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.

Now, I may have found the second prospective opening for my public policy course, should I ever offer one (the absurd part is that I lack almost everything else to supply it, demand included). It is pithy, sharp and, importantly, timeless. The alternative one-liner I would possibly pen day one at the imaginary class:

Property imposes obligations. Its use by its owner shall at the same time serve the public good.

Weimar Constitution (1919), art. 153(c)

While not as punchy as Spooner’s aphorism, it has qualities and can raise eyebrows. Both phrases are metal. Independent of context, they have more or less exactly what it takes to pick and stick. Perhaps both of them should set the opening, leaving the audience free to choose the way forward.

Back to Spooner. Another prominent figure (of American individualist tradition this time) I had not heard of till this day.

Lysander Spooner (Online Library of Liberty). The particular passage comes from his No Treason. No. VI. The Constitution of No Authority (1870).

The Wings of Competition in Things Daily – Source

I took note that he challenged the government monopoly in mail services (a field with quasi-military structure, typically used as a matrix to consolidate state bureaucracy/ power, btw) with his American Letter Mail Company, on ethical and economic grounds. The state finally forced him out of business in 1851, though competition temporarily drove fees down.

(If you care about post stamps – I don’t – USPS to issue Ursula K. Le Guin stamp this month (Book Riot). I enjoyed Le Guin’s Earthsea and plan to read The Dispossessed, a veiled study of social systems I hear, before summer end)

If anything, Spooner seems to have shared the fiery convictions and language of his contemporaries at the First International. That was a time of memorable lines, obviously. This easily comes to mind:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

The Communist Manifesto (1848)

They also sported some serious beards. Those of Spooner and Marx are respectable, but I would award James Guillaume’s bonus points for the extra menacing vibe.

From the comments: “liberty, evolution, and morals”

I’m reminded of an MR entry by Tyler Cowen a couple of months ago in which he remarks that the “energetic young talent” in libertarianism now often seems more intent on “projects for building entire new political worlds” — charter cities, blockchain — than on theory, political, economic, etc. (

I think there’s truth in that. But theory is still needed. It’s what gives us our organizing principles and inspiration.

That’s just the trouble with the bloggers mentioned, and I don’t mean the blog format. It’s the smallish scope of thinking: books on voting behavior, the university education system, immigration and open borders. This sort of thing is fine, but it’s not fundamental theory.

The purist libertarianism (rights absolutism, the “non-aggression axiom”) exemplified by Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard has been a dead end, I think. It is readily grasped, and it has the capacity to inspire, but it isn’t true. And the gradual realization of this has led to its collapse.

This collapse has left us somewhat rudderless. That’s how I feel, anyway. We need a new paradigm. The way to think about society is evolutionarily, or so it seems to me. That points to Hayek. But he had little to say about morals, and libertarianism should provide a moral vision. What is needed is a way to put these two together.

(The best evolutionary theorist of society—that I know of—is Joe Henrich. Both his books, The Secret of Our Success, and The WEIRDest People in the World, are terrific. But of course he’s neither a libertarian nor a moralist.)

This is from David Potts, responding to yours truly in the comments.

I have to think about this a bit more.

American Classical Liberals Suck

This week Kevin Vallier published a new entry on neoliberalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Neoliberalism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It is a well-written, well-researched piece. However, it is also symbolic for the greatest deficiency of American classical liberals: they are unable or unwilling to defend the name, or label if you like, of the ideas they are associated with. Given the influence of American academia and thinks tanks on the rest of the world this is especially important. It has happened before, and it is happening now. It sucks.

This is how Vallier starts his entry:

“Though not all scholars agree on the meaning of the term, “neoliberalism” is now generally thought to label the philosophical view that a society’s political and economic institutions should be robustly liberal and capitalist, but supplemented by a constitutionally limited democracy and a modest welfare state. Recent work on neoliberalism, thus understood, shows this to be a coherent and distinctive political philosophy. This entry explicates neoliberalism by examining the political concepts, principles, and policies shared by F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan, all of whom play leading roles in the new historical research on neoliberalism, and all of whom wrote in political philosophy as well as political economy. Identifying common themes in their work provides an illuminating picture of neoliberalism as a coherent political doctrine.”

The problem is in the words: ‘“neoliberalism” is now generally thought…’’.  Neoliberalism is a hotly debated term, there is certainly no consensus on its meaning. As Oliver Hartwich has emphasized in Neoliberalism, the genesis of a political swearword, it is still most often used as a swearword by the left for all that they think is wrong with capitalism, (classical) liberalism, (more or less) liberal policies by IMF, WTO and World Bank, et cetera. These left wingers are also found in academia, policy and in media circles, which has led to its routine use. However, it is not true that the work of Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan is generally thought to be covered by a neoliberal label. Only those who disagree with it call them neoliberals. It is painful to see that the ideas of these three Nobel Prize winners are now used to explain neoliberalism in a leading online source. They self-identified as classical liberals and just because opponents of their views use a different label is no reason to comply with that malicious practice.  

The worse thing is, it has happened before, also commencing in the US. Fairly recently, classical liberals began to use the label libertarian, as the Cato Institute has been promoting, for example on their (very useful) website, or in David Boaz’ The Libertarian Mind.  Jason Brennan’s Libertarianism, what everyone needs to know is another example. The issue here is that the three aforementioned classical liberals, and others, are now thrown onto the same heap as Rothbard and Rand, to name a few rather different thinkers.

Decades earlier, Hayek and others noted with regret that the Americans were unable to defend the original meaning of the word liberal, with the result that a liberal in the American sense is now what people in other parts of the world call a social-democrat. It is also the reason Hayek and other started to use the name classical liberal.  

The result of all this changing of names is confusion and vulnerability. Nobody knows what label belongs to which ideas, which gives rise to a petty industry on liberal labels, yet without any clarity in the end. It also provides ample opportunity for opponents to negatively attack ideas loosely associated with the (classical) liberal movement, which results in a negative image, which also make liberal ideas less attractive for outsiders. The lack of clarity also makes vulnerable for any kind of criticism. Actually, embracing the swearword other use for you, by offering the ideas of your greatest and brightest thinkers, is a shameful act at least.

American classical liberals should stay firm and defend their ideas under the proper labels. There is no reason for change (see my Degrees of Freedom: Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology), there is only a need for explanation and defense. Giving up clear and proper labels plainly sucks.         

Exit, federation, and scale (from the comments)

I think you make an interesting point, but allow me a bit of push back. The world government would set the rules of how federated entities would interact. This would be like standards and protocols. You are correct that a set of shared standards can allow for enhanced competition, of the good variety (what I call constructive competition). This would be a good thing.

However the same shared standards would lock in the world to one set of protocols, thus reducing the discovery via variation and selection of the shared institutions themselves.

Thus we would see more short range constructive competition between states, and less long term exploration of new and potentially better institutional standards.

This is from Rojelio. He is pushing back against my argument in favor of world government from a libertarian point of view. He’s right, of course. There’s two points I need to do a better job of clarifying when I advocate for world government from a libertarian point of view:

  1. I don’t think federating the entire world is a good idea. I think the piecemeal federation of political units is what libertarians ought to aim for. (I think the US interstate order is the best avenue for achieving this aim.) A healthy “world federation” would govern (say) 85% of the world’s population. This brings me to my second point I need to clarify.
  2. The importance of exit needs to be addressed and institutionalized in a proper federal order. This is difficult to do, but not impossible. My argument is to make exit difficult, but not too difficult. The difficulty of exit should be somewhere on the scale between a constitutional amendment (too difficult) in the US order and Brexit (too easy) in the Westphalian order.

The bottom line is that a more libertarian world will likely be composed of a large federal polity that protects the freedoms of the vast majority of its citizens better than most nation-states do today. The other 15% of the world would live under despotism (which will center around “cultural cores”), or under sparsely-populated democratic republics (i.e Australia), or within free-riding microstates that otherwise rely on the protection of the large federal unit.

If, say, England, Tamaulipas, and Duyên hải Nam Trung Bộ were to federate with the United States tomorrow, these polities would not be agitating for exit after 10 years of experimentation in self-governance. If, say, Texas or Vermont wanted to exit after 10 years of federation with those 3 polities, they would have to go through a process (via all of the legislative branches involved) to do so. A simple majority vote would be disastrous. It is unlikely, then, that Texas or Vermont would leave such a federation. Pure freedom would be unrealized, but billions of people would be much freer.

Don’t Call Me Doktor

“Don’t Call Me Doktor” in Foreign Policy

If two politicians are equal in every other respect but one was better at basketball… I guess go with that one? I mean, all else equal they’re maybe a better team player or something. But that line of thinking doesn’t mean we should only ever vote for ex-NBA stars.

There are plenty of similar potentially attractive signals: veteran status, success in business and/or being a fake billionaire, academic success, acting, etc. Some signals are stronger, and some imply a smaller pool of candidates. If there are more successful business people in the world we should expect to observe more of them transitioning to politics than, say, world-class bowlers. Likewise, if the signal is more relevant (e.g. law degree vs. paleontology degree), it makes sense to see more of them in the wild.

That 18% of German politicians have PhD’s seems wild to me. Maybe I’m biased because I work in an organization full to the brim with PhD’s. But that many politicians with degrees seems about as reasonable and as likely as having half of Congress be elite athletes.

A touch of optimism

I remember when Obamacare was first being debated. The political right had so many strong arguments to make and they abjectly refused. Instead, Obama was declared a secret Muslim whose secret plan is to turn the frogs gay.

Here we are with that political tribe having ascended to the White House and now the political Left has so many strong arguments to make. And they’re refusing. Instead, the federal government needs to be made more powerful for the next time a Trump gets elected.

2020 has not been kind to my view of humanity. So I’m listening to The Rational Optimist (finally). And I’ve got to say, it’s just what the doctor ordered. Life is pretty good on balance, even with the bad stuff.

I blame all of you

Here we are, 20 years into the distant future, and the newspaper of record now includes musical opinion pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I love Weird Al, but I’m sure he’d agree that a world where he’s writing songs for the Times is a world that’s broken.

It would be comforting to imagine this is the fault of the Illuminati. But the truth is our society is the collective outcome of all of our actions. There are constraints keeping us away from Utopia (limited time and resources, path dependence, etc.), but within the bounds of those constraints we get the outcome that we want. And apparently the outcome we want (i.e. want enough that we’re willing to work for it) is a dumpster fire.

Get your shit together humanity. It doesn’t have to be this bad. But it’s not going to get better if we keep rage tweeting about how awful it is how the other side keeps rage tweeting.

The Blind Invisible Hand

Kevin recently wrote a post that really tickled my brain. It touches on the computational aspect of entrepreneurship. There are a couple points I’d like to follow up on.

First I’d argue that the uncertain entrepreneur is not the analog of the blind watchmaker. This is a minor quibble, but I think it’s good to keep our language tidy and that includes clarifying our metaphors. The Blind Watchmaker is a perfect metaphor for the emergent order in markets. But the watch is the market as a whole. Any one entrepreneur is just a tiny component of the system–potentially an ingenious component, but always dwarfed by the genius of the system as a whole. The watch maker in biology is the process of evolution. In markets, the closest idea we have is the invisible hand–also an evolutionary process.

Second and more importantly, I’d like to poke at the genetic component of the metaphor to show how much harder social evolution is than biological evolution.

Evolution is a process that acts on the substrate of “replicators”. DNA replicates (in genes) and so do ideas/jokes/norms/etc. (in memes). I guess we could just say “a business model is a type of meme!” and be done with it. But even thinking about what Internet jokes spread means stepping away from the abstract genetic alphabet of strings of A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s.

The replicators of entrepreneurial evolution occur at more than one level (as I understand it, the idea of multi-level selection is controversial in biology, but inevitable here): little patterns of behavior make up larger patterns. A burger restaurant is sort of like a buffalo. And the business model (e.g. McDonald’s franchise) is sort of like the species as a whole or perhaps something even broader. All the various ways to market burgers compete across a range of niches, but we don’t have a literal genetic code to analyze. We might, hypothetically, be able to isolate the appropriate atomic unit of economic life, but I’m skeptical it would be terribly useful (at least for human understanding).

Still, what entrepreneurial and biological evolution have in common is that they are, fundamentally, complex sets of computations (in out-of-equilbrium systems) on a non-silicon medium. Entrepreneurs indeed face a different situation than genes, but that’s only because they’re dealing with multiple (tangled) layers of evolution spanning large scale things like:

  • human culture,
  • legal systems,
  • economic patterns and business models,

through medium-scale things like the particular landscape of a particular market at a given time and place, down to micro things like the particular ISO specifications of some particular size of bolt.

It’s true that “unlike evolution, you…are trying to achieve something beyond replication…” as an entrepreneur. But at the end of the day a) your apparently high minded goals are really just their own evolving and replicating memes, and b) your apparently high minded goals are really just setting the stage for the atomic unit of evolution that really matters: the proper size and shape of a paperclip. It’s like Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene: It’s not really the organism (entrepreneur) that matters, it’s the gene (atomic unit of whatever sort of evolution).

The Non-Partisan Movement We Need: Anti-Authoritarianism

Political/ideological debates have a lot of moving parts, and there are a lot of timely issues to address. Given the marginal impact of anything we do in this sphere (e.g. voting, sharing a blog post on Twitter, or being a solitary voter in a vast sea of the entire 6200 people in this country), it’s only natural that we have to economize on information and argument and that results. We can’t help but deplete the intellectual commons.

What are some low cost ways to improve the quality?

  1. Value Intellectual humility.
  2. Devalue the sort of behavior that makes things worse.

It bears repeating: value intellectual humility. It’s not easy. I’m as drawn the confident claims as you are. I’ve got a lot of smart people in my bubble and when they boldly declare something, I tend to believe them. But the “I honestly don’t know” posts deserve more attention and are less likely to get it. Let’s adjust in that direction. I’ll try to write more about things I don’t know about in the future (although I don’t know what that’s going to look like).

It’s a statistical impossibility that, of all of the people burned at the stake for heresy or witchcraft or whatever, nobody deserved some punishment received in an unfair process. Don’t get me wrong, witch hunts are a bad thing in general, but we can’t discount them as entirely (maybe just 99.9%) unjustified. But cancel culture is, like good old fashioned witch hunts is doing a lot of harm to the intellectual commons. I’m they catch more bad guys than 17th century Puritans, but lets not leave cancellations up to Twitter mobs. Particularly when it comes to cancelling ideas.

Bad ideas don’t need to be cancelled. They need to be crushed under good ideas.

Far be it from me to peddle unreplicated psychological research (confirmation bias alert!), but I tend to believe that there’s something to the claim that the extreme poles of the ideological landscape exhibit some unsettling traits: narrow-mindedness, authoritarianism, and apparently Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.

“Narcissistic psychopath” is not a label I’d like to see bandied about because it’s just too close to ad hominum. But “authoritarian” is a term I’d like to see more widely used as a pejorative, regardless of the position taken by would be authoritarians.

Let’s quit with the shouting, cancelling, flag waving, and blindly taking reactionary positions. Invite debate, and invite holding people accountable. But letting Twitter be the last word is as absurd as letting Helen Lovejoy-esque moral scolding decide how things should be.

But then again, maybe I’m wrong.

Real Decision Rights Theory and Political Coalitions

Libertarians understand these two big ideas:

  1. A system of individual rights can allow widespread cooperation and human flourishing.
  2. The world is full of emergent orders, like markets, with aggregate outcomes that are more than the sum of their parts.

But commitment to the first idea often blinds us to the full implications of the second.

Complex adaptive systems involve an infinity of illegible signals involving cooperation and competition in networks so complex that it would be impossible to replicate their success in any conceivable top-down system. The market is a discovery procedure. But the “it” that is the market is a collective thing. It’s a jointly produced phenomenon and it’s impossible to split it up without fundamentally changing it.

Likewise, a system of rights (including the rights underlying a functioning market) is a jointly produced common good.

Why does it mean anything to say that I own my laptop? Because when push comes to shove (if I’m willing to shove hard enough), other members of my community are willing to act in ways (formal and informal) that enforce my property right. (Interesting aside: If I reported my laptop stolen to the local police, they wouldn’t do anything about it. Perhaps this reflects the median voter’s level of regard for other people’s property rights…)

Ownership is not as simple as “I own this piece of property, period.” Instead, to own something is to have some bundle of rights to make particular decisions. I can decide what to plant in my garden, but I can’t decide to build a nuclear reactor in my front yard. I don’t need to go through some elaborate chain of natural rights reasoning to argue that your negative right to avoid externalities supersedes my positive right to do a thing. Doing so might be a useful exercise to see how (in)consistent our ruleset is. But the real system is much simpler (and much more ad hoc). Rights are as rights are enforced.

What am I driving at here? First, that we should be dealing with property decision rights as they are more than we deal with them as they ought to be. Second, individual rights require collective support. This puts constraints on how we move towards our Utopias.

Debating/convincing our intellectual opponents is necessary, but it’s really just a negotiation tactic. Discounting idiotic opponents is reasonable in the intellectual sphere, but we can’t just overlook the fact that those opponents are part of the environment we’re trying to shape. We don’t necessarily have to throw them a bone, but when we don’t make some group part of our coalition, we have to expect someone else will.

Our normative theories will convince us that group A can’t make group B’s lives worse for the sake of A’s ego. But if A perceives the subjective value of that ego boost to be high enough, and if A has the relevant rights, then B had better look out.

Improving the world isn’t simply a matter of making the right arguments well. We have to be entrepreneurial, and keep an eye out for how others might do the same. Political entrepreneurship means looking for the under-priced voters which is exactly what Trump did in 2016. He found a group A full of low-status voters who had been discounted by the political establishment. And because their rights to shape the collective outcome went unexercised so long, it was that much more disruptive when they were finally brought to the table. Likewise, BLM protests reveal that there is a group B that is ready to throw their weight around.

That leaves a big pile of questions. What is the cost of pride? How can we ensure people have enough dignity that they won’t want to destroy what a functioning (if imperfect) society? How do we account for potential political energy (particularly when we remember that voting is only a tiny part of political participation)?

I don’t know the answers, but I know this: we can’t escape getting our hands dirty and engaging in some political exchange. I don’t like it, but I’m not the only one deciding.

Throwing the Bums out is Insufficient

It’s election season (those quite weeks between October and November three years later) which means a resurgence in political economy superstitions! A particular tempting one is the Throw the Bums Out Theory of Governance.

The theory goes like this: things are awful, awful people are in positions of power, therefore we need to get rid of those awful people.

As instincts go, it’s not the worst. But it’s Twitter level thinking. Yeah, it’s worth celebrating the regression to the mean that will be the end of Trump’s presidency. I’m looking forward to the “regular” amounts of corruption and embarrassment. But those “regular” amounts are still problematic. The lesser of two evils still sucks. The mean we’re regressing to is the real problem.

In other words: the political outcomes we get reflect the underlying political reality (give or take). As Mencken said: we get what we want good and hard. Political outcomes involve (mostly bad) luck, but Trump wasn’t some utterly random accident. He happened because enough American voters wanted that (more than the next best alternative, anyways).

Throwing the bums out is cathartic, but there’s no shortage of bums to replace them.

The problem is not the bums, it’s the system as a whole. Trump was able to screw things up so badly because we’ve set up ground rules that a) gave him the ability, and b) required more competence than he was ready or able to apply. But elections don’t choose the qualified candidates, they choose the popular candidates. And if one thing is obvious in 2020, it’s that we can’t count on magically educating our political opponents into having the enlightened views necessary for us to make sure the best candidates are always the most popular.

In the long-run, the task is to make incompetent morons less important–something I hope everyone can agree is a worthwhile goal (#neverHillary, #neverTrump). The current system means ideological tribes have to be constantly warring with each other to make sure presidential power doesn’t get into the wrong hands. Can we please agree that this is a terrible system?

We can lower the stakes. We can push power back to the state and local level (and give people an incentive to actually pay attention to local issues!). Let’s take a break from partisan entertainment–as fun as Project Lincoln is, let’s face it, they’re not convincing anyone–and get to the hard task of being a self-governing society. Let’s ask how we could set things up so we don’t have to worry about the next Clinton or Trump.

Until we change the system, we’re going to keep seeing more of the same. Let’s shift the conversation away from “that candidate’s terrible, how can we defeat them?” and towards “this setup attracts terrible candidates, how can we fix that?”!

From the Comments: Nationalism, conspiracy theories

Isn’t nationalism itself a sort of conspiracy theory?

This is from longtime reader (and honored guest) Jack Curtis.

From the comments: All of the Bad Things that democratic governments do

My general point has to do with this anti-democratic argument:

[…] where are the masses to stand up against war, bank bailouts, taxation, police aggression etc?

These are all Bad Things that democratic governments do, but they are also Bad Things that all governments do. And, in turn, these Bad Things are much less prevalent in democratic societies than they are in non-democratic societies.

In fact, it is only in democratic societies that you can complain about these Bad Things. It is only in democratic societies that you can do something about these Bad Things (even if it’s just blog-ranting).

This simple observation leads me to conclude that anti-democratic libertarians have it back asswards when it comes to democracy. Democracy is a byproduct of liberty. Maybe anarchy would lead to even less “war, bank bailouts, taxation, police aggression etc,” but as of now it is in democracies that these Bad Things have been made less prevalent.

Anti-democratic libertarians aren’t thinking on the margin when it comes to democracy. (Hence the dogmatism you find in certain anarcho-capitalist circles.)

This is from yours truly, in another dialogue with Chhay Lin on democracies, anarchies, and meritocracies. Read it from the top!