Christianism and Liberalism

In 1929 John Gresham Machen dropped his professorship at Princeton Theological Seminary to establish Westminster Theological Seminary. Machen fought the Theological Liberalism in the seminary and in his denomination (PCUSA) for many years, until he gave up and decided to form a new seminary and eventually a new denomination as well (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church).

Machen’s attitude of abandoning his seminary and his denomination might seem harsh. After all, can’t we all just get along? Theologically he was considered a fundamentalist. His followers are called to this day “Machen’s Warrior Children,” people who are theologically unwilling to compromise.

People have all the right to disagree, but for Machen, some things were not negotiable. That is why he wrote Christianity and Liberalism (1923), a book in which he unapologetically calls Theological Liberalism “another religion,” separated from historical Christianism.

Interestingly, the same Machen who so fiercely opposed theological liberalism was not a conservative regarding politics, because he was suspicious of mixing religion and politics. He found attempts to establish a Christian culture by political means insensitive to minorities. In practical terms, he opposed school prayer and Bible reading in public school. He also opposed Prohibition, something very costly considering that at that time abstinence was common ground among Protestants. In sum, Machen was, politically, a libertarian.

In Road to Serfdom, Hayek observes that Liberal Christians, who don’t believe in the supernatural aspects of the Bible, tend to embrace Social Gospel and tear down the wall of separation between church and state. Machen, on the other hand, was a living proof that a fundamentalist Christian can want nothing but a distance from the government.

Role of a Citizen in Hegemonic Authoritarianism

I want to begin a n-part series on Hannah Arendt. Why Arendt? Because I wrote a paper on her last semester and have been obsessed ever since. I will pick up one theme (or a sentence and sometimes just a phrase) from her work and try to either describe it in contemporary political terms or evaluate it against legal theories, political and moral. All this, I will do under the presumption that there are some political ideals like democracy, constitutionalism, liberalism that exist within the domain of possibility for polities irrespective of their legal culture. What I will also presume is that all political ideals function on a spectrum and it is difficult to accurately pin point exactly when something has turned from being tolerable to just plain rotten.

 

At various points in history, societies become obsessed over a political concept. Every once in a while, societies experience an onslaught of violations. Violations of their personal, maybe innate, sense of justice. I am not going to argue on the nature of this sense of justice. Instead, I will point towards our basest moral instincts. If you agree that there is such a thing as conscience that can not only exist but also develop outside of the legal system, you will see that it relates to how we think about what is wrong and what it right. Ergo, justice.

The violation of justice shakes things up enough for us to evaluate and figure out which political ideal, if protected, could have saved us. Against the Nazi regime it was the Rule of Law, for feminists it is Equality, against the Nanny State, it is liberty, and so on. In a bid to make amends, we compensate by institutionalizing it, giving it a place of honor in public discourse, and protesting all violations, big or small.  Every once in a while, the political concept finds a life of its own – growing differently in different parts of the world, becoming an essentially contested concept. After a point of time, the omnipresence of the principle starts to define the terms of the debate in matters unconnected with it.

Today, it is Authoritarianism. Not one where the ruler does not even wish to keep up the pretense of legality and justice but the kind which creeps up when no one is looking. Hannah Arendt was worried about the latter. She worried not just about the big bureaucratic state with its mechanical application of law and antipathy towards political moral ideals, but also about the citizen under such a regime who observed and obeyed and said not a word because the violations were too minor and too remote to care about.

The citizen who refuses to think is the power source of authoritarian regimes. One can ask if Arendt expects her model citizens to practice constant vigilance, continuously evaluating the judgements of their sovereign for potential violations of some sense of justice. After all, her theory of power is based on a conception of power working through communication and co-operation as opposed to the traditional understanding of power emanating from coercion and commands. ‘Power corresponds to the human not just to act, but to act in concert’, said Arendt. She challenges the notion of power having a mandatory connection with sovereignty.

We must take note of the existing political background to her writings. She, along with half the world, stood against the Soviet Union. Communism was not just a bad word, it was inherently evil. So strong was her position against Marx’s writings that she blamed ‘the social’ for the destruction of the political realm. The political realm was the place for public discourse. Deliberation helped in protecting freedom whereas the urge for leveling down of human life resulted in the destruction of democratic practices. However, what was most egregious was the tendency of communism to regularly violate the autonomy of the individuals.

The ‘social’ was not just a command of a sovereign, it was implicit in hegemonic structures through which obedience was guaranteed. Why is this relevant today? It is relevant for its implications on how we judge regimes. Are we to be satisfied with just a form of legality or do we want to prevent violations to whatever principle it is that we have chosen to hold dear, albeit for the century? If we choose the latter, then Arendt’s expectations from a model citizen do not seem too demanding. We must constantly sit in judgment, not just of the laws that govern us (plenty of people do that already) but of the tools of reasoning we use in our political discourse. It is our justifications and not just our positions in a political debate that catalyzes hegemonic authoritarianism.

The Sad Retreat

Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

~ Dylan Thomas

Thomas’ villanelle to his dying father is one of the most iconic English poems of the 20thcentury. It is also curiously relevant today, though not in a literal sense. The traditional American zeitgeist is the willingness to step forward fearlessly into the unknown, and in doing so to illuminate it and to dispel infantile terror of the dark. Sadly, the contemporary spirit is one of moribund confidence and the acceptance of stagnation.

There was nothing more indicative of the American spirit than the opening lines of Star Trek: The Original Series: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” The root of the phrase’s power lies in action, an acceptance that man is capable of seizing control and carrying himself into space. Yet, despite the television series’ timing, the American people were not going boldly into the night, or darkness of space, but rather were starting a retreat that continues into the present.

The retreat is not an apparent one. To all appearances there has been no pell-mell flight from a battlefield with weaponry and protective gear to signal a loss of confidence. To quote Kevin D Williamson, “Nothing happened.” It is the lack of action, the stagnation, that signals a retreat occurred.

In his book Slouching to Gomorrah (1996), the late Robert Bork (1927 – 2012) catalogued the ways he believed America had declined since his youth. Buried among the musings are some anecdotes about Bork’s time at Yale as a young law professor in the late 1960s. In that decade, according to Bork, the university had quietly relaxed its admissions criteria and admitted applicants who would not have qualified under the previous standard. From a position of authority, Bork observed as these young people – mostly men as the problem was concentrated at the undergraduate level and the only women at Yale at the time were graduate students – struggled academically due to lack of adequate preparation. Many of these new students began to flunk as individual faculty refused to dilute their syllabi or grading standards.

As he explained, the stakes at the time were particularly high: in 1968, the time of Bork’s first semester, the draft and deployment to Vietnam would immediately and ruthlessly punish academic failure. Additionally, the students described largely came from middle-America and bore the full weight of their families and local communities’ expectations, causing failure to be particularly humiliating. Although Bork rejected the Marxist and anti-intellectual aspects of the 1968 student protests, he presented a hidden facet to the protestors whom he identified as young people angry at a system they felt had betrayed them and doomed them to failure. The message extracted from a well-intentioned policy change was that these people were ones who couldn’t – they couldn’t keep up with their peers, they couldn’t succeed, and all the indicators of their time pointed toward a truncated future. In short, they didn’t matter; they were not strictly necessary for broader society. Aside from property destruction, the turn toward Marxism and anti-intellectualism was a retreat, a flight from reality. With the rout – entirely self-imposed since the simple solution to the problem was to go to the library and catch up, rather than go burn the books, which is the choice the students made – the United States unknowingly set off on a path of becoming a nation of “cannots.”

To present an analogy, in the training of thoroughbred racehorses, a promising colt is raced against another, less able one in order to build the former’s confidence. The second horse is not only expected to lose, he is rewarded for doing so, but very often at the cost of his spirit and willingness to compete. This analogy is somewhat limited since the Yale student protestors of the 1960s chose the role of second horse themselves, but the result, anger, wanton destruction, and futile rage in the face of their inadequacies, are human indicators of broken spirit and loss of competitive edge. These two traits have, since the 60s, trickled down through all echelons of American society, accompanied by all the symptoms of anger and unnecessary misery. The American people have become the second horse.

All statistical evidence indicates that the quality of life in America is higher than ever before; we have record low rates of crime, better healthcare, and unparalleled access to consumer goods and luxury technologies. Under circumstances such as these, we should possess an equally high level of national confidence and happiness. But this is not the case. Currently, a Gallup poll from late 2017 shows that, despite the country’s increased prosperity under the new administration, subjective, or perceived, happiness has declined since the 2016 election. In other words, middle America is no happier now than it was pre-November 2016: it is less happy. Combined with the rise of “deaths of despair (official term for deaths from addiction or suicide in middle-aged or younger people)” and the mediatized claims of loss of opportunity due to – O tempora, o mores – technology and the new economy, the story is one of surrender, nothing else.

In the narrative, especially the one surrounding the 2016 election, the story is one of middle-America neglected and in need of special favors and treatment. As part of this picture, its authors and advocates on both sides of the political aisle sneer at the idea of self-determination, in the way of Michael Brendan Dougherty in the piece that Williamson rebutted with his “Nothing happened.” Technology is a particular target of Dougherty’s ire as somehow destructive to a utopic version of American community and family – his most recent article from May 1, 2018, was an apology for using the internet as a work medium – but ignoring the path to financial independence and economic integration that it provides. Hatred of technology and change, a desire to return to the “good old days” is a symptom of the retreat.

Today the logical and economic fallacy, identified by AEI’s Arthur Brooks, of “helping poor people” instead of “needing them” is dominant. Yet, it is a betrayal at all levels of the American ethos. Protectionism, insularity, and above all else, a desire to justify the degraded state of the American worker, pinning the fault on a wide range of people and things, are all signs of the willful betrayal of the American spirit. Although there are individual Americans who are leaders in technology and new industry, the American people are collectively falling behind, and our policy-makers are rewarding us for becoming the second horse through protectionism and populist speeches that reinforce the notion that there is a wronged group of “left behind.” We are no longer going “boldly where no man has gone before;” instead we are docilely being led into the “good night,” all while thinking that we are raging against it. Without a change, the pasture of irrelevance awaits us.

A quick thought on UBI

I’m still not sure where I land on the issue of Universal Basic Income (UBI), but I just thought of a bit of clarifying language that lead to a thought. I’m sure this thought isn’t original, but I’m also sure it doesn’t come up as often as it ought to.

A UBI system’s appeal stems from the fact that it’s a minimal welfare state (kinda sorta). We all know the old debate between proponents of a minimal state–and the debates about what exactly that constitutes–and those of a welfare state–and again, there’s plenty of disagreement on what that actually means.

On a 0-10 spectrum of “how important should the government be? / how important is the government currently” a UBI is a lateral move with obvious efficiency gains. It strips out all the bureaucracy in our current welfare state, provides a wide safety net, and allows the poor to exercise their own agency using their local knowledge about their particular circumstances and opportunities. No cookie cutter solutions, no lines, just a modest check in the mail and an entire population looking for good ways to use it.

On the other hand, it lays bare some of the worst case scenarios of a maximal welfare state. Subsidizing sloth and dependency, enormous costs, reduction in savings, net negative cultural effects, and who knows what else!

But still, perhaps UBI with some minimal modifications is an improvement over what we’ve got now?

2×2 matrix (robust vs thin welfare state and broad vs targeted welfare state).

The maximal welfare state is robust, and broad. There’s a housing bureau, a food bureau, a work bureau, and nearly everyone is waiting in line at one of them at some point each week.

The minimal state would have no welfare, but the minimal welfare state would have a thin and targeted system. No social workers, no bureaucrats, just a check. And unlike a UBI, this would only apply to the poor. Which might cost it political support.

A UBI is thin but broad. That might require it to be less generous, but could (literally) buy it some votes. On the other hand, what do I know about what makes people vote?

The thinness and breadth of a UBI makes it startling next to the old dichotomy. It simultaneously opens up whole new realms of possibilities–it dramatically increases the opportunity cost of drudgery and bureaucracy and provides an easy enough safety net to allow widespread entrepreneurial activity. If we had the right culture we could do anything! But (!) we don’t get to choose the culture.

That breadth is pretty scary when we consider some of the negative behaviors it will surely breed. The lunatic fringe will be funded by the rest of us. A cult is easy to finance when all your members sign over a government check to you every month.

Here’s a possibility: Imagine a vastly simpler tax code. “What’s your income? Scan your tax/employment card that isn’t as stupid as a Social Security Number.” $X “Thank you, give us f(X). Insert cash or card into the machine.” You could file taxes every month (or more or less frequently if you prefer). In that world, we could just give a refundable tax credit to anyone who had a low enough income.

Mind you, I’m assuming away the issue of designing the right marginal tax rates and setting the level of the tax credit. But such a system could be simultaneously broad (it kicks in for anyone as soon as you need it) and narrow (you only get it if you’re poor… and you end up paying it back if you get rich). I think a simpler tax system would be necessary to make a minimal UBI workable

Revisiting Epstein’s Freedom and Growth


I was fortunate to be invited give the Epstein Lecture at LSE this March. The series is named after the great LSE economic historian Larry (Stephen) Epstein. Here I’ll summarize why it was such an honor to give the lectures. The content of the lecture will be another post.

Epstein was a historian whose origin field of expertise was medieval Italy. I encountered him through Freedom and Growth. Published in 2000, I first read it a couple of years later, perhaps in 2002 or 2003. At the time I was devoted to a story of economic growth shaped by Douglass North, particularly Structure and Change in Economic History (1981).

The focus of Structure and Change was on transaction costs. High transaction costs limited market exchange and kept societies poor for most of history. Sustained economic growth could only occur once transaction costs fell to a level that allowed markets to expand and the division of labor to develop. On this view, market expansion or Smithian growth was itself a stimulus to technological innovation. But what kept transaction costs high?

One answer North gave was the state. To paraphrase: the state had the ability to both keep a society mired in poverty through predatory behavior and to provide the preconditions for growth by securing property rights. The origins of sustained economic growth for North lay in institutional changes that occurred secured property rights and lowered transaction costs. The most important such institutional change was the Glorious Revolution of 1688.


North’s account received many challenges, but the issue that Epstein honed in on was the assumption that there was such a state, able to either revoke or secure property rights. It was assumed that “rulers rule”. Epstein contested this arguing that New Institutional Economists

“project backwards in time a form of centralised sovereignty and jurisdictional integration that was first achieved in Continental Europe during the nineteenth century; they therefore fundamentally misrepresent the character of pre-modern states.”

North, Wallis, and Weingast would address this in their 2009 Violence and Social Orders. But Epstein’s criticism was spot on in 2000. Epstein argued that alongside the problem of predatory states, a central problem was the lack of integrated markets. He attributed market disintegration to coordination and prisoners’ dilemma problems between political authorities. In so doing, Epstein set the agenda for the subsequent “state capacity” research agenda.

Epstein made several points which continued to be expanded upon by current research (see here). First, he documented that the lower interest rates that the British state paid after 1688 were characteristic of city republics from the middle ages onwards. He argued that the English monarchy in the 17th century was characterized by an anomalously backwards financial system. Lower interest rates after 1688 partly represent a convergence to the Republican norm achieved by Italian city-states centuries earlier.

Second, he challenged the argument that monarchies “overtaxed” cities. There was “no evidence that townspeople paid higher taxes under monarchies than republics”. Per capita taxes were likely higher in Republican city-states.

Third, he disputed that Republican city-states like Florence brought economic freedom noting that “republican subjects faced several limitations to their economic and political freedoms that monarchical subjects did not”. All of this challenged generalizations made by historical sociologists like Charles Tilly and economic historians like North.


Epstein’s historical evidence came from medieval Italy. Late medieval Italy was highly urbanized and prosperous by pre-industrial standards. According to Broadberry’s estimates, per capita GDP in Italy in 1450 was not matched by England until 1750. Like growth elsewhere in the premodern world, it was Smithian growth, driven by trade, market integration, and the division of labor. But unlike in England, this Smithian growth did not continue and blossom into modern growth. Epstein’s explanation for why this did not take place was that late medieval Italy suffered an “integration crisis”.

He saw the late medieval period as characterized by new opportunities for growth and innovation. Urbanization increased. Capital markets expanded and deepened. Interregional trade developed. Proto-industrialization took place. But Epstein contended these opportunities were only seized in areas where political authority was centralization.

In reference to proto-industrialization, he observed that

“Crucially, the success of regional crafts was inversely proportional to the concentration of economic and institutional power in the hands of a dominant city.”

With respect to the establishment of permanent fairs, he noted that

In fifteenth-century Lombardy, new fairs proliferated only after the balance of power shifted decisively from the former city-states to the territorial prince with Francesco Sforza’s victory in 1447.

Market integration was complemented and perhaps driven by political integration. Integrated urban hierarchies were themselves the product of political centralization.

“Centralisation underlies all the major institutional changes to market structures previously described. It lowered domestic transport costs, made it easier to enforce contracts and to match demand and supply, intensified economic competition between towns and strengthened urban hierarchies, weakened urban monopolies over the countryside, and stimulated labour mobility and technological diffusion.”

The more centralized parts of Italy — notably Lombardy — were better able to benefit from these trends than was Tuscany. But in general, political fragmentation and regional diversity were “distinctive features of pre-modern Italy” in general and an impediment to its long-run growth prospects.

Unlike in his analysis of interest rates, Epstein brought little data to bear on these claims and I am unaware of subsequent research on late medieval Italy. As such, the thesis of a late medieval integration crisis laid out in Freedom and Growth remains speculative. Epstein would no doubt have fill in the details had he lived longer. Subsequent research has mostly focused on early modern rather than medieval Europe (see here).  But the larger message: the importance of the state for premodern economic development has been central to subsequent research, including my own work (e.g. here).

On why complexity from simple rules is counterintuitive

“… normally we start from whatever behavior we want to get, then try to design a system that will produce it. Yet to do this reliable, we have to restrict ourselves to systems whose behavior we can readily understand and predict–for unless we can foresee how a system will behave, we cannot be sure that the system will do what we want.

“But unlike engineering, nature operates under no such constraint. So there is nothing to stop systmes like those at the end of the previous section from showing up. And in fact one of the important conclusions of this book is that such systems are actually very common in nature.

“But because the only situations in which we are routinely aware both of the underlying rules and overall behavior are ones in which we are building things or doing engineering, we never normally get any intuition about systems like the ones at the end of the previous section.”

Stephen Wolfram

The deeper you dig into math and computer science, the more Hayekian things look. The impossibility of economic calculation under socialism has important counterparts in Godel and Turing/Church.

How not to argue against gun control

In the aftermath of a mass shooting the familiar arguments are revived once again. The past two years have been enough for a rough tattoo to imprint itself on my eardrums.

I don’t know what my exact position would be, if I had to draw a line in the current system. It is of course nonsense to say “pro-2nd Amendment,” since my interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is no more valid than whatever the basic line of the Supreme Court is at any given moment, and I have to assume some sort of Constitutional hermeneutics which I won’t be able to justify independently.

I know that I argue, most often, on the “pro-gun rights” side. There is, however, an argument I constantly see over on this side which is so obnoxiously foolish I feel the need to criticize it.

I’ve heard it a hundred times in different language. Here’s one version I just saw posted on Facebook in the middle of a really tedious argument:

[“There’s a huge correlation between all these shootings and the fact that people can easily buy guns at wallmart [sic]. Why are so many Americans denying that fact?”]

“There is a correlation between people being able to purchase guns and shootings? That’s enlightening. There is also a correlation between people purchasing cars and car accidents, purchasing fast food and obesity, etc. Go live in your padded room and leave management of society to the adults. There are plenty of examples of mass shootings, knife attacks, poison gas attacks, bombings, running people down with trucks, etc. If you think it’s the tool or method that’s the problem, you have guaranteed that you won’t really address the problem.”

This is an asinine response. It is the argument that “Well, if we ban guns, the killer will just use something else instead. Look at all these examples of spree killings with a blade, or just look at Nice two years ago.”

It says, explicitly, that the type of weapons we allow for civilian ownership do not matter, because massacres will either always happen anyway, or the killer will simply move on to the next legal weapon (which is basically the same thing).

Any time someone seriously makes this argument, we can simply respond, “Okay, so should we let civilians have nuclear warheads?”

Doesn’t it follow from their logic? Or maybe nukes are too non-analogous in terms of possible levels of devastation (like, you know, guns to knives); then we just ask, “Okay, so should we let civilians have RPGs? Or what about military drones? After all, it’s not the tool that matters, it’s the person.”

Of course, Recreational Civilian Nukes have become a sort of ironic platform of libertarianism online, but most of the people making this gun rights argument aren’t people who completely want to abolish the government and privatize the military — even if their logic implies that the scale of massacres won’t be significantly impacted by legalizing all sorts of elite weaponry for the public at large.

School shootings are horrible and frustrating. We should look at solutions first — find out what possible preventative measures are efficacious, if they are any — and only after that determine if they fit with our moral and political compasses. The above argument is clearly something that comes from a commitment to gun rights first and logic second.

And there is another ubiquitous gun rights argument that prides dogma before facts. Often times, pro-gun rights people will bring up how miniscule the percentage of deaths by firearm actually is in the States and across the globe. And when we look into the data on this, we see that the number one cause of death by firearm is suicide — I think 65% of the gun fatalities in the United States. From which, the pro-gun rights person announces, “See, these deaths couldn’t be prevented anyway.”

How absurd, both on the statistics and on simple reflection! The research on suicide indicates that the availability of highly lethal means does impact the decision to commit.

If you were going through suicidal ideation, do you think it might make a difference if your only available means were sharp objects (extremely painful), versus sharp objects and also a firearm? Or imagine if your only available means were pills (low probability of success), versus pills and also a firearm. Less lethal/more painful tools will have a higher ideational threshold for commitment — how much a person really wants to commit suicide — and plausibly lower the chance of someone committing.

There are Harvard studies on the correlation between highly lethal means and suicide rates which I can find if people are interested. But for the moment, I just wish the pro-gun rights crowd was a little more open to thinking about the facts and less about upholding their chosen position through sophistry.