Casey Peterson, Cultural Marxism, and the Goliath of the Diversity Industry

For the past several weeks, Casey Peterson, an electrical engineer in prestigious Sandia Labs (one of the hubs of the federal military industry) has been risking his career to fight mandated ideological training that promotes the systemic racism conspiracy theory and requires from white employees to exorcise their “whiteness.” Pushed by “diversity” commissars from equity/diversity departments, this reeducation campaign based on the Critical Race Theory (Cultural Marxism) spreads like fire over our federal, state, and corporate institutions. Any objections to the mandated indoctrination are considered insubordination and involve disciplinary actions. Many intimidated employees of the Labs secretly showed Peterson their support. But the “diversity” commissars retaliated, putting him on an administrative leave and removing his security clearance. Peterson does not give up. Will he become an American Andrei Sakharov? This Soviet nuclear physicist put his career and elite privileges on line to challenge the suffocating communist ideology in the 1970s-1980s; the Soviets retaliated by removing Sakharov from his job, stripping him of his awards, and putting him under a house arrest.

Politically Incorrect Research: What Scholars Have to Say about the Diversity Propaganda Industry

The recent critical research of the diversity industry, which was conducted by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev (2016), American and Israeli sociologists, has confirmed existing concerns about the corrosive effects of mandating this industry.  These scholars, who explored the mandatory diversity programs in 816 companies, came to conclusion that command-and-control diversity quota-oriented programs were counterproductive.  Set to reward, discipline, and punish managers and employees, these programs were in fact breeding fear, animosity, and distrust.   The scholars also stressed that, neglecting an individual merit approach, such mandated diversity amplified gender, ethnic, and racial “tribalism.”  The ultimate verdict Dobbin and Kalev issued was quite devastating for the whole multi-million diversity industry in the United States. 

Particularly, they stressed that, contrary to rosy mainstream perceptions, American experience in enforcing diversity miserably failed, and it could not serve as a policy blueprint for other countries.  The researchers have also suggested that the best possible option in this situation would be to “decentralize” the whole diversity machine and let people on the ground decide for themselves how they wanted to reach its goals.  My assumption is that in each university, corporation, school, and institution people should be free to choose and vote (by a secret ballot) on whether they want and need the “diversity” training.  From what we saw in the Sandia Labs, the employees had no say about the reeducation campaign the corporate diversity commissars arbitrarily imposed on them.

Although wrapped into a cautious academic prose, research conducted by a group of social psychologists headed by Leigh Wilton (Wilton 2018; Jacobs 2018; Good 2018) produced even more devastating conclusions, which in fact had been obvious to any critical-minded person.  For the first time targeting the entire multiculturalism ideology, the Wilton research team set out to explore whether the promotion of “diversity” reduced or enhanced a fixation on race on a popular level. Exploring two large groups of people (students and adult non-students), Wilton and her colleagues found out that making people think about racial and cultural differences on a permanent basis hammered in their minds the idea that these differences were central, vital, and crucial.  Obviously, to safeguard themselves, Wilton (2018) and her team included such disclaimers as “We do not mean to imply that multiculturalism should be universally discarded” and “Neither multiculturalism nor color blindness offers a simple panacea for improving diversity.” Still, they have been adamant in their conclusion that, as an unintended consequence, the engineering “diversity” from above enhanced racial essentialism and that “the primacy of Multiculturalism as a mechanism for prejudice reduction or racial inequality is not without question.” They also stressed that, in contrast to a color-blind approach that mutes the fixation on race, the whole “diversity” message amplifies group differences and may lead to negative inter-group outcomes.

One of the natural political side effects of the persistent cultivation of “non-White” identity, attempt to impose it on the rest of society, aggressive rhetoric against “white privilege,” and the promotion of the systemic racism conspiracy theory was the emergence of so-called alt-right White Power movement – a mirror image of the Black Power, Latino Power and similar identity movements among the people of “color.”  Left writer Anis Shivani stressed that by inflaming and empowering the racial and ethnic identity of the “underprivileged,” the cultural left opened the identitarian Pandora’s box, which naturally leads to legitimization of “blood,” “soul,” and “soil” agenda in American politics. Shivani, who became upset about the identitarian turn of his comrades, has stressed that under those circumstances, it is quite natural that “the rise of each group in terms of recognition encourages countervailing reactions amongst other groups, so that recognition becomes simultaneously self-inflating (breeding reactionism and irrationality) and an impossible ideal to attain. Again, the rise of white nationalism recently is a testament to this tendency, a natural corollary to the very logic of identity politics.”

Intellectual Sources of the Diversity Industry

One of the major intellectual sources of the mandated “diversity,” which has been superimposed on our society, go back to the frustration of the left about traditional class-based socialism that had occupied the dominant position in the old intellectual mainstream.  The ole left privileged the industrial working class (or proletariat, according to the traditional Marxist jargon) as the primary victim of and simultaneously the humankind’s redeemer from capitalism.  To the dismay of the left, Marx’s prophecy about the skyrocketing misery of the proletariat under capitalism miserably failed.  On the contrary, the Western labor dramatically improved its living conditions and lost its revolutionary vitality. 

For this reason, in the 1960s and the 1970s, the Western left were gradually ditching the industrial working class, finding instead new kinds of “noble savages” in the Third World and at home among such groups as people of “color,” women, gays, and later in the alphabet soup of newly emerging groups that too claimed a victimhood status.  Along with the Third World, these segments of population were singled out as the new victims of and simultaneously redeemers from the capitalist oppression. To be exact, since the 1960s, for the New Left it was not so much capitalism but rather the entire Western civilization that became the major culprit.  In contrast to the old left who were fixated on material progress, the New Left, on the contrary, came to criticize progress and materialism as spiritually corrupt to authentic and progressive lifestyles.  Such new attitude helped make an ideological switch from the class-based economic agenda to cultural issues.

Conservatives and libertarians have referred to that cultural turn among the Western progressives as Cultural Marxism.  The current mainstream left, who are frequently not aware of or do not want to be reminded of their genetic links with classical Marxism, object to the use of this term.  Instead, they prefer to operate with such broad expression as “Critical Theory” or with more specific definitions such as “Critical Cultural Studies,” “Critical Racial Studies,” “Critical Legal Studies,” and so forth. For the best critical review of the Critical Theory, its rise, and the present-day state of the woke left, see Helen Pluckrose and Jack Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity-and Why This Harms Everybody (2020). The Critical Theory, which claims the supreme knowledge, is notoriously uncritical toward itself; this brings to mind Vladimir Lenin, the chief of the Bolsheviks who once uttered, “The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true.”

Since in the past the domestic people of “color” in Western countries and the Third World people were the objects of Euro-American racism and colonialism, progressive proponents of the Critical Theory (Cultural Marxism) take it for granted that such things as bigotry, racism, oppression are “white” Western phenomena.  As designated victims, the emerging Third World nations, domestic people of “color” along with sexual minorities are thought to be on the righteous side incapable of any wrongdoing. In other words, the cultural left created the “aristocracy of the outcasts.”  This explains, for example, why the left frequently downplay the brutal treatment of women and gays in Islamic societies and so-called hate crimes (and crimes in general) perpetrated by the representatives of the “victim” groups inside Western countries (for example, Muslim immigrants in France and Sweden or blacks in the United States). To the most ardent proponents of “diversity,” non-Western societies serve as carriers of profound spiritual wisdom and collectivism that serve to educate “rotten” and “materialist” West about better forms of life.

The Rise of the Diversity Industry and the Multiculturalism Ideology

By the end of the 1970s, American administrative and judicial system saw the emergence of “commissars of diversity” – a network of federal, state, and educational bureaucracies that were empowered by laws, institutions, and media outlets to police racial, ethnic, and gender representation both in public and private sector.  The regime of the racial segregation that had existed in the South prior to the 1950s offended American sensibilities to such an extent that both the congress and the “white” majority, driven by the profound guilt feelings, voluntarily accepted special measures designated to correct historical injustice and uplift people of “color.”  Little thought was given to the fact that to fight racism and sexism with racism and sexism was a flawed strategy and that well-meant and benevolent measures did not necessarily produce benevolent outcomes.

The system of job, business contract, and education quotas and preferences introduced in the 1970s through affirmative action programs were thought to be temporary measures that were to “upgrade” selected minorities.  Yet, as it frequently happens, the temporary measures were institutionalized and eventually became a permanent part of American polity, producing an overall corruptive effect on society.  It not only led to the emergence of the alphabet list of new groups that were eager to claim a victimhood status to secure moral, political, and economic benefits, but it also resulted in mass economic and educational fraud.  For example, thousands of dark-skinned immigrants began posing as “black” to fit in the officially established “ethno-racial pentagon” classification that was introduced by the Office of Budget and Management (OBM) in 1977 for policy goals.

This OBM Statistical Policy Directive No. 15 (“Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting”) pigeonholed Americans into specific racial categories, which people were encouraged to fit themselves in: white (WASPs), black (African-Americans), brown (Hispanics), yellow (Asians), and red (Native Americans).  The official goal was to standardize available statistics to conduct efficiently affirmative action and other race-conscious policies.  One can consider the year of 1977, when this directive was introduced, a symbolic landmark when “diversity” became the guiding light for the entire political and economic establishment in US.  Eventually, this ethno-racial “pentagon” system became so entrenched into American polity that it came to play the role of standard lenses through which both Democratic and Republican elites began to screen their decisions on all kinds of economic and social issues. 

At this point of our history, we already can talk about the existence of the mainstream multicultural ideology that crusades against Western values, and that is fixated on promoting group identity at an expense of an individual. This ideology uses the slogan of toleration to maintain itself as the hegemonic force (pardon my leftist jargon) in our society. Consequently, those who object that ideology and call for the treatment of people as individuals based on their merit are labeled as racist and intolerant people. This explains the reticence and fear both in society and especially among bureaucrats to question the dubious nature of the whole project.  By the way, that was precisely the niche that Cultural Marxists from BLM were able to use to wiggle themselves into the mainstream and to successfully intimidate a large part of American society into submission.  

The “diversity” machine and the multicultural ideology created by that machine by now acquired a life of their own. It is a vivid an example of how seemingly benign initiatives, which had been originally established to resolve an specific urgent problem, lead to unanticipated consequences. As such, the whole situation serves as the illustration of the old wisdom: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In addition to influential racial and ethnic lobby groups, this machine now includes a large apparatus in federal, state, university, and corporate institutions.  For example, by 2018, at the University of California, Berkeley, the number of diversity bureaucrats increased up to 175 people.  Many of them generate high salaries. Thus, a diversity chief at the University of Michigan makes $385,000 a year (“The Rise of Universities’ Diversity Bureaucrats”).  For this omnipotent bureaucracy, amplifying identity politics and dramatizing ethnic, racial, and gender issues became one of the major ways to stay in power and secure the continuing flow of finances both from government and private donors.

One can divide the institutions that promote the “diversity” creed in the United States into three large units.  The first is represented by watchdog institutions (Human Resources (HR) and Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) or equity departments) that gather statistics on how well major racial, ethnic and gender groups are represented in all walks of life.  HRs and equity offices are weaponized institutions that not only collect relevant data and set codes of behavior but also police and penalize bureaucrats and individuals who do not comply with prescribed ideological regulations and imposed quotas (Jeb Kinnison, Death by HR (2016).  The HR and equity/OEO desks share the job of supervision over personnel and its activities. Like HR, equity desks and offices exist in all American federal, state, educational, and in many corporate institutions. 

The second group of institutions is represented by various Multicultural desks and offices that are specialized in popularizing non-Western cultures and lifestyles by organizing, for example, various ethnic, racial, and gender festivals and fairs. These cultural events are usually focused on the valorization of selected cultures and their representatives, which are frequently set into the context of victimhood, oppression, and resistance.  For example, my first introduction to one of such festivals, which took place in Ohio in 1994, was a visit to a Latin American multicultural festival that was celebrating generic Latino legacy.  At the entrance, visitors were welcomed by a huge banner with the following phase, “Latin America: 400 Years of Resistance.”  To this, my Puerto-Rican colleague sarcastically remarked, “Why resistance? Resistance to what and against whom?”  A small example of cultural activism supported by those desks is a campaign of moral shaming of people for so-called cultural appropriation. For those who are not yet familiar with this most recent meme of the cultural left, I want to explain that any “white” person who publicly dons “non-Western” garb or attire (e.g. Mexican sombrero, Japanese kimono, Afro-American dreadlocks) automatically becomes a racist “colonizer” who “steals” and “appropriates” from the victims of “color.”  

The third component of the multicultural “diversity” ideological machine is represented by various identity studies departments such as Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Women Studies (Bruce Bawer, The The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the  Liberal Mind (2012). Pioneered in the 1960s as special university-based programs that were expected to inject existing college curricula with non-Western and female perspectives, many of them eventually acquired not only the status of regular university departments but turned into ideological units.  These programs openly declare that their major goal is not traditional academic pursuits but rather activist scholarship.  The latter heavily relies on the above-mentioned Critical Theory methods, which had been pioneered by Herbert Marcuse and like-minded post-Marxist writers

In other words, identity studies are focused on providing an ideological back up to specific racial, ethnic, and gender agendas. The practitioners of identity studies are preoccupied with the critique of what they define as “white” Western civilization and hegemony.  Simultaneously, they valorize non-Western cultures and lifestyles that they define as progressive and spiritually enhancing. From the partisan “diversity” perspective, the cultivation of ethno-racial consciousness and solidarity for designated “non-White” and “non-Western” groups is progressive and desirable, whereas a color-blind individualistic approach is treated as racist and reactionary. 

Moreover, for the past fifty years, mainstream humanities disciplines such as sociology, literary studies, American studies, geography, anthropology, social work, and especially education acquired a similar ideological “diversity” bent that one can find in abundance in the identity studies.  The social scholarship too heavily assimilated Critical Theory into its methodology and became fixated on searching for the signs of racial, ethnic, and gender oppression both in the past and in the present in all walks of surrounding life. 

The threat to our liberty comes from the fact that the greater part of the cadre, which now works in our government, law firms, and corporate world, are former college graduates who internalized memes and precepts propagated by the Critical Theory scholarship and made them the new normal. Many of them are sincerely convinced that they must change the surrounding life according to the ideological prescriptions of “multiculturalism” by promoting the group (racial, gender, ethnic) justice and arbitrarily dividing our society into the classes of the “oppressed” and “oppressors.”  The latter, according to Marcuse who was one of the founders of the Critical Theory, must be shut down and canceled by all means available.  This means that the core values of the Western civilization are now at stake (the rule of law, freedom of speech, checks and balances, and the very institute of elections).

On a final note, responding to the rising tide of mandated “diversity” reeducation programs, on September 4, the US Office of Budget and Management issued a memorandum to stop wasting tax dollars for all race-bating “training” that is based on the ideology of the Critical Theory and that is focused on bashing “whiteness” and Western values. Of course, it is ridiculous to assume that one can simply ban an ideology; it will take years and years to dismantle the “diversity” industry and its ideological apparatus. Yet, as a first step, that measure is essential for our entire political and economic system. The current administration has sent a clear signal to the “deep state” bureaucrats, who are opportunistic by their very nature, that the woke “repressive tolerance” of the cultural left will not be tolerated anymore. If we push further in this direction, there is a hope that we shall overcome.

Game theory in the wild

Game theory is an amazing way to simulate reality, and I strongly recommend any business leader to educate herself on underlying concepts. However, I have found that the way that it is constructed in economic and political science papers has limited connection to the real world–apart from nuclear weapons strategies, of course.

If you are not a mathematician or economist, you don’t really have time to assign exact payoffs to outcomes or calculate an optimal strategy. Instead, you can either guess, or you can use the framework of game theory–but none of the math–to make rapid decisions that cohere to its principles, and thus avoid being a sucker (at least some of the time).

As Yogi Berra didn’t say, “In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is.” As a daily practitioner of game theory, here are some of its assumptions that I literally had to throw out to make it actually work:

  • Established/certain boundaries on utility: Lots of games bound utility (often from 0 to 1, or -1 to 1, etc. for each individual). Throw away those games, as they preferenced easier math over representation of random, infinite realities, where the outcomes are always more uncertain and tend to be unbounded.
  • Equating participants: Similar to the above, most games have the same utility boundaries for all participants, when in reality it literally always varies. I honestly think that game theorists would model out the benefits of technology based on the assumption that a Sumerian peasant in 3000 BC and an American member of the service economy in 2020 can have equivalent utility. That is dumb.
  • Unchanging calculations: In part because of the uncertainty and asymmetries mentioned above, no exact representation of a game sticks around–instead, the equation constantly shifts as participants change, and utility boundaries move (up with new tech, down with new regs, etc). That is why the math is subordinate to structure: if you are right about the participants, the pathways, and have an OK gut estimate of the payoff magnitudes, you can decide rapidly and then shift your equation as the world changes.
  • Minimal feedback/second order effects: Some games have signal-response, but it is hard to abstract the concept that all decisions enter a complex milieu of interacting causes and effects where the direction arrow is hard to map. Since you can’t model them, just try to guess–what with the response to the game outcome be? Focus on feedback loops–they hold secrets to unbounded long-term utilities.
  • The game ends: Obviously, since games are abstractions, it makes sense to tie them up nicely in one set of inputs and then a final set of outputs. In reality, there is really only one game, and each little representation is a snapshot of life. That means that many games forget that the real goal of the game is to stay in it.

These examples–good rules of thumb to practitioners, certain to be subject to quibbling by any academic reader–remind me of how wrong even the history of game theory is. As with many oversights by historians of science, the attribution of game theory’s invention credits the first theoretician (John von Neumann, who was smart enough to both practice and theorize), not the first practitioner (probably lost to history–but certainly by the 1600’s, as Pascal’s Wager actually lines up better with “game theory in the wild” in that he used infinite payoffs and actually did become religious). Practitioners, I would ignore the conventional history, theory, actual math, and long papers. Focus on easily used principles and heuristics that capture uncertainty, unboundedness, and asymmetries. Some examples:

  • Principle: Prediction is hard. Don’t do it if you can help it.
  • Heuristic: Bounded vs. Unbounded. Magnitude is easier to measure (or at least cap) than likelihood is.

  • Principle: Every variable introduces more complexity and uncertainty.
  • Heuristic: Make decisions for one really good reason. If your best reason is not enough, don’t depend on accumulation.

  • Principle: One-time experiments don’t optimize.
  • Heuristic: If you actually want to find useful methods, iterate.

  • Principle: Anything that matters (power, utility, etc.) tends to be unequally distributed.
  • Heuristic: Ignore the middle. Either make one very rich person very happy (preferred) or make most people at least a little happier. Or pull a barbell strategy if you can.

  • The Academic Certainty Principle: Mere observation of reality by academics inevitably means they don’t get it. (Actually a riff on observer effects, not Hiesenberg, but the name is catchier this way).
  • Heuristic: In game theory as in all academic ideas, if you think an academic stumbled upon a good practice, try it–but assume you will need trial and error to get it right.

  • Principle: Since any action has costs, ‘infinite’ payoffs, in reality, come from dividing by zero.
  • The via negativa: Your base assumption should be inaction, followed by action to eliminate cost. Be very skeptical of “why not” arguments.

So, in summary, most specific game theories are broken because they preference math (finite, tidy, linear) over practice (interconnected, guess-based, asymmetric). That does not mean you can’t use game theory in the wild, it just means that you should focus on structure over math, unbounded/infinite payoffs over solvable games, feedback loops over causal arrows, inaction over action, extremes over moderates, and rules of thumb over quibbles.

Good luck!

Why the US is behind in FinTech, in two charts

The US is frankly terrible at innovation in banking. When Kenya (and its neighbors) has faster adoption of mobile banking–as they have since at least 2012–it is time to reconsider our approach.

Here is the problem: we made new ideas in banking de facto illegal. Especially since the 2008 financial crisis, regulatory bodies (especially the CFPB) has piled on a huge amount of potential liability that scares away any new entrant. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the data:

bank creation

Notice anything about new bank creation in the US after 2008?

A possible explanation, in a “helpful resource” provided to banking regulators and lawyers for banks:

regulatory complexity

This shows: 8 federal agencies reporting to the FSOC, plus another independent regulatory body for fintech (OFAC/FinCEN). Also, the “helpful” chart notes state regulations just as an addendum in a circle…probably because it would take 50 more, possibly complex and contradictory charts.

So, my fellow citizens, don’t innovate in banking. No one else is, but they are probably right.

The Blind Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs usually make decisions with incomplete information, in disciplines where we lack expertise, and where time is vital. How, then, can we be expected to make decisions that lead to our success, and how can other people judge our startups on our potential value? And even if there are heuristics for startup value, how can they cross fields?

The answer, to me, comes from a generalizable system for improvement and growth that has proven itself– the blind watchmaker of evolution. In this, the crucial method by which genes promulgate themselves is not by predicting their environments, but by promiscuity and opportunism in a random, dog-eat-dog-world. By this, I mean that successful genes free-ride on or resonate with other genes that promote reproductive success (promiscuity) and select winning strategies by experimenting in the environment and letting reality be the determinant of what gene-pairings to try more often (opportunism). Strategies that are either robust or anti-fragile usually outperform fragile and deleterious strategies, and strategies that exist within an evolutionary framework that enables rapid testing, learning, mixing, and sharing (such as sexual reproduction or lateral gene transfer paired with fast generations) outperform those that do not (such as cloning), as shown by the Red Queen hypothesis.

OK, so startups are survival/reproductive vehicles and startup traits/methods are genes (or memes, in the Selfish Gene paradigm). With analogies, we should throw out what is different and keep what is useful, so what do we need from evolution?

First, one quick note: we can’t borrow the payout calculator exactly. Reproductive success is where a gene makes more of itself, but startups dont make more of themselves. For startups the best metric is probably money. Other than that, what adaptations are best to adopt? Or, in the evolutionary frame, what memes should we imbue in our survival vehicles?

Traits to borrow:

  • Short lives: long generations mean the time between trial and error is too long. Short projects, short-term goals, and concrete exits.
  • Laziness: energy efficiency is far more important than #5 on your priority list.
  • Optionality: when all things are equal, more choices = more chances at success.
  • Evolutionarily Stable Strategies: also called “don’t be a sucker.”
  • React, don’t plan: prediction is difficult or even impossible, but being quick to jump into the breach has the same outcome. Could also be called “prepare, but don’t predict.”
  • Small and many: big investments take a lot of energy and effectively become walking targets. Make small and many bets on try-outs and then feed those that get traction. Note– this is also how to run a military!
  • Auftragstaktik: should be obvious, central planning never works. Entrepreneurs should probably not make any more decisions than they have to.
  • Resonance: I used to call this “endogenous positive feedback loops,” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue. In short, pick traits that make your other traits more powerful–and even better if all of your central traits magnify your other actions.
  • Taking is better than inventing: Its not a better startup if its all yours. Its a better startup if you ruthlessly pick the best idea.
  • Pareto distributions (or really, power laws): Most things don’t really matter. Things that matter, matter a lot.
  • Finite downside, infinite upside: Taleb calls this “convexity”. Whenever presented with a choice that has one finite and one infinite potential, forget about predicting what will happen– focus on the impact’s upper bound in both directions. It goes without saying– avoid infinite downsides!
  • Don’t fall behind (debt): The economy is a Red Queen, anyone carrying anything heavy will continually fall behind. Debt is also the most likely way companies die.
  • Pay it forward to your future self: squirrels bury nuts; you should build generic resources as well.
  • Don’t change things: Intervening takes energy and hurts diversity.
  • Survive: You can’t win if you’re not in the game. More important than being successful is being not-dead.

When following these guidelines, there are two other differences between entrepreneurs and genes: One, genes largely exist in an amoral state, whereas your business is vital to your own life, and if you picked a worthwhile idea, society. Two, unlike evolution, you actually have goals and are trying to achieve something beyond replication, beyond even money. Therefore, you do not need to take your values from evolution. However, if you ignore its lessons, you close your eyes to reality and are truly blind.

Our “blind” entrepreneur, then, can still pick goals and construct what she sees as her utility. But to achieve the highest utility, once defined, she will create unknowable and unpredictable risk of her idea’s demise if she does not learn to grow the way that the blind watchmaker does.

In memory of Gerald Gaus (1952-2020)

I was saddened to hear that Gerald Gaus, the world-renowned liberal philosopher, died yesterday. Gaus was a critical developer of a public reason approach to classical liberalism, and powerful exponent of the interdisciplinary research agenda of Philosophy, Politics and Economics. While we met in person only occasionally, he was a significant influence on my approach to understanding the liberal tradition.

His perspective was deeply pluralist. One observation that really struck me from The Order of Public Reason (and that I still grapple with today) was that a society could function more effectively (in fact, might only function at all) when citizens have a range of moral attitudes towards things like rule-following, and especially eagerness to punish rule-breakers. For society to progress, you may need both conservative-inclined individuals to enforce moral norms and liberal-minded people to challenge them when circumstances prompt reform.

He applied this idea of strength through moral diversity to the political system too. On Gaus’s account, one of the strengths of liberal democracy is its ability to shift from conservative to liberal, and left to right, through competitive elections. Social progress cannot follow a straight and obvious path but requires, at different moments, experimentation, innovation, reversal and consolidation. Democracy helps select the dominant mode from a diversity of perspectives.

This depth of pluralism is counter-intuitive within the discipline of normative political theory that increasingly avers a narrow set of ideological commitments as acceptable, and rejects even fairly minor variations in social morality as possessing little or no value. Indeed, the last time I saw Gaus was early this year when he gave an evening talk at the Britain and Ireland Association for Political Thought conference. He presented a model for seeking political compromises among very different moral ideals. His commitment to treating the whole political spectrum as worthy of engagement drew a few heckles. The prospect of engaging with Trump supporters, for example, evidently nauseated some of the audience. Gaus was the very model of the liberal interlocutor, ignoring the hostility, and responding with grace, civility and ideas for going forward productively.

His approach to scholarship and discussion embodied his commitment to liberal toleration and the fusion of ethical horizons. That’s how he will be remembered.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect on stature

With the collapse of a false sense of stature comes a disintegration of perceptions of personal dignity. The Dunning-Kruger Effect says that a person’s incompetence masks his or her ability to recognize his own (and others’) incompetence. Building off this concept, I hypothesize that many of the social tensions we are experiencing today are a result of a type Dunning-Kruger Effect wherein those who are incapable eventually become aware of their inability or unsuitability.

In 2010, Dr. David Dunning, now retired from Cornell University and one half of the Dunning-Kruger name, gave an interview to the NYT on the eponymous Effect. The genesis of Dunning’s research came when he read about a bank robber who made no attempt to conceal his face, resulting in his being apprehended in less than a day. During his interrogation, the man revealed that he had covered his face with lemon juice, having developed the notion that lemon juice would make “him invisible to the cameras.” He’d even tested the concept beforehand by taking a picture of himself after putting lemon juice on his face. He wasn’t in the picture (Dunning suggested that perhaps camera was pointed in the wrong direction) and concluded that the idea was sound. As Dunning put it, “he was too stupid to be a bank robber but he was too stupid to know he was too stupid to be a bank robber.” As the story of the robber illustrates, though, there always comes a moment of reckoning, where the reward of stupidity, unintentional or willful, is paid.

When I was a recent music grad, I obtained a position as a fellow with a small liberal arts college orchestra. Ostensibly, the school was one of the best of its type, but its weaknesses became apparent fairly quickly. During one rehearsal, what began as a discussion of the minuet form evolved into the conductor having to introduce the students to Jane Austen. The students all assured the conductor that they “had taken” Literature 101 and 102. As it turned out, only one of the students had read Jane Austen, and the girl had done so on her own time as Austen was no longer taught in the curriculum.

The conductor queried the students as to why they thought they could play music while being ignorant of its broader cultural setting. The students became surly in response, retorting that “she isn’t on the reading list,” as if such a statement was all the justification needed. The dynamic in the ensemble was already rocky as two weeks before all but two students had skipped rehearsal to attend a varsity soccer match. The conductor had chastised them for their unprofessionalism, pointing out that missing rehearsals is cause for termination in professional ensembles. As a defense, the students cited college regulations which said that all sports events took precedence over other commitments. In other words, the conductor could not discipline skippers if they missed to attend a sports event.

At the end of that year, the conductor resigned, and I followed one term later. I made the decision to leave after two students for whom I was responsible said in front of me, “at least this one [the new conductor] respects us. [The old one] always treated us like we were stupid, didn’t know things.” As someone who was present, I can testify that the conductor was a model of patience and positive leadership. The students truly didn’t possess the basic knowledge reasonable to expect from third years at a supposedly good private liberal arts college. And they had no interest in remedying their deficiencies. They saw any situation where their ignorance displayed itself as a “gotcha” setup.

Technically these students didn’t fit the Dunning-Kruger pattern as they possessed enough knowledge to know they didn’t know. There is, perhaps, a similarity to the bank robber’s lemon juice in that the students made a blanket assumption that completing college-assigned reading was sufficient to turn them into literate people. Where this notion originated is beyond me, as it is common knowledge that extracurricular reading is a vital component for success at elite institutions. Just like the robber’s, the students’ ignorance was appalling – and much less amusing.

For our non-American readers, it is a conceit of small private liberal arts colleges that they are educating/raising (this is key) the leaders of the future. There is some justification for this view since these colleges can provide a door into better institutions. It is, however, rare to find a national-level politician, industry leader, or public figure who hasn’t at least finished his or her education at one of the über-competitive, big name schools or universities.

The stars of this particular anecdote were convinced that they were destined for great things. A challenge to their knowledge base was an assault on their identities, and therefore their sense of stature. Granted, their unprofessional behavior had already cost them their dignity, but they didn’t know that. The sense that dignity might be a distinction to be earned and not granted through entitlement escaped them. In a modification of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the students had no dignity because of their ignorance and unprofessionalism but they were too stupid to know that they had forfeited their chance to be respected. 

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.

Slate Star Codex and the rationalists

Rick first alerted me to the end of the popular rationalist blog Slate State Codex. Then it was all over my internet. I have never been a huge fan of the rationalist community, mostly because they don’t do history very well, but this is a big deal.

It has also produced some great conversation on both sides of the American cultural divide. Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote an excellent meta-piece on the whole affair. Lewis-Kraus uses “Silicon Valley” as shorthand for the intellectual right. This is more correct than wrong, even though the region votes Democrat, because Silicon Valley is more of a mindset than a geographic place.

Lewis-Kraus’s Silicon Valley is a new, decentralized informational ecology. He contrasts Silicon Valley with the old media: big corporations trying to maintain a stranglehold on “the narrative.” (Lewis-Kraus readily admits he’s part of the old media.) For Lewis-Kraus, Silicon Valley is trying to build an alternative mediascape. Big corporations such as the NY Times are fighting back.

It’s an interesting cultural war to follow, if you’re in to that kind of stuff. I can’t seem to shake my uneasiness about the rationalist community, though. As I mentioned, they don’t do history, or they don’t do it well. They are also into communes, which I distrust immensely. Utopian and communitarian experiments are bad for all of your healths (physical, emotional, etc.). I don’t know how the rationalists ended up on the side of Silicon Valley. My guess is that the big corporations didn’t like what the rationalists had to say, or how they lived, so the rationalists found solace in the decentralized ecology of Silicon Valley.

I think the verdict is still out on who the victor of this cultural war will be. The big corporations have government backing, and they own the narrative bought by most of the American public, but the old media has shown its true colors in how it covers Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for the guy but it’s obvious his administration is not being reported on by the old media; it’s being slandered and attacked, with lies or with small untruths, rather than objectively reported on. The rationalists and their decentralized allies in the Silicon Valley informational ecology at least have truth on their side. Not the truth, but a commitment to the truth by way of discussion, the sharing of information, and fighting to protect the freedom of everybody’s conscience, rather than just their own team’s conscience.

We live in interesting times, and this makes blogging – a decentralized activity if there ever was one – all the more important.

An aspirational paradox

In general, contemporary society disparages people extremely focused on their careers, labelling them as “careerists.” No real objections are presented; instead there is simply a vague simmering contempt for “careerists.” When an anti-careerist manages to articulate an objection, it is usually couched as a social justice problem: careerists cause unfair societies by being ahead of everyone else. When practiced appropriately, i.e. looking after one’s own best interests, “careerist” mentalities and behaviors, such as discipline, planning, and diligence, are necessary for prosperity, both personal and societal.

During the early stages, the opposite of careerism isn’t drifting: it’s aspirational behavior. An illustrative anecdote: a pre-med major in my year failed part of her science requirements repeatedly, mostly due to partying. Despite her inadequate academic record in her major field area, she applied to Harvard Medical in her final year. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t accepted. As a mutual acquaintance said: “one’s going up against people who’ve been working to get into Harvard Medical since middle school; they [Harvard] don’t need someone like her.” Although the result was only to be expected, it came as a complete shock to the girl and her parents since they had all believed that she was destined to attend Harvard Med. To listen to the former pre-med student talk today, she didn’t get to go to Harvard Med. It is as if some external force denied her a chance.

As a quick explanation to non-American readers, because the US system requires that students take courses outside of their major field, there is a high tolerance for poor marks in general education requirements; the trade-off is that one is expected to earn reasonably high marks in one’s own field in order to advance to the next level. For an institution such as Harvard Med, that a pre-med student earned anything below average marks in a science course would be unacceptable, unless there was a very good reason clarified in the application statement. A good reason would be a family tragedy or some life event beyond one’s control, but not partying.

The sheer reality is that my friend was right: Harvard Med receives applications from candidates who shown single-minded focus in pursuit of a goal since age twelve. In comparison to that, a twenty-three-year-old woman whose transcript screams “unfocused” is not a prize. Even the act of applying to Harvard would count against her since assessors would conclude that she hadn’t bothered to read the guidance and fit sections, i.e. the pages where expected grades and MCAT scores are listed, on Harvard Med’s website.

The case of Fisher vs. University of Texas 2013 and 2016 (the Supreme Court heard the case twice) is an example of the dichotomy between aspiration and careerism. Abigail Fisher applied to University of Texas – Austin but was turned away as her grades, though above average for her public school, were below the university’s automatic admission standards. The crux of her suit was that UT – Austin both didn’t take into account her extracurriculars and replaced her with an affirmative action candidate. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled – both times – that although UT – Austin ought to have been more transparent in their admissions process, there was no evidence that the university had discriminated against Fisher.

The aspirational part of this story was that Fisher’s extracurriculars, Habitat for Humanity, local youth orchestra without holding a principle position, and miscellaneous charitable activities, were not genuine distinctions in a candidate pool such as that commanded by UT – Austin. Based on my own experience as someone who was in youth orchestras from middle school until college – if one counts my first training ensembles, then I’ve been in orchestras from the age of six up – should an applicant wish to use music involvement as proof of merit, then youth ensemble participation is a simple expectation. Unless one was a section leader, youth orchestra membership is not a sign of exceptionality. According to Habitat for Humanity’s North America page, the annual number of volunteers is around two million. Volunteering with the charity is generous and worthy, but doing so does not make the volunteer stand out in a candidate pool.

While society can discuss endlessly the merits and demerits of affirmative action, the Fisher case indicates that the policy has taken on a role no one could have predicted: scapegoat. The policy has become an escape hatch for aspirationalists seeking to avoid facing their own inadequacies and lack of proper preparation or career focus. Instead of blunt conversations about the real reasons a person didn’t qualify for a desirable professional school or first-choice university, aspirational individuals can offload blame onto the policy. While one can hardly blame the policy for being a scapegoat, one must acknowledge that such use has potential to be very damaging to the social fabric.

The View from New Delhi: China’s post-pandemic belligerence

Introduction

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the increasingly belligerent behaviour exhibited by China in South Asia and South East Asia, and China’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, it is interesting to see the tone of the English language media on China.

Yet a genuinely comprehensive peek into the Chinese view on crucial political, economic, and geopolitical issues requires a perusal of the Chinese language papers. This is imperative. The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, is important because it covers the views of Chinese academics and strategic analysts who, through their opinion pieces, provide a deep insight into China’s approach towards those aforementioned crucial issues.

From the opinion pieces at the Global Times over the past few months, one thing is evident: that with the US becoming increasingly unpredictable under Trump, China is virtually invincible. There is a growing belief that Beijing is formidable both in the economic and strategic context. Strategic analysts and journalists writing for the English language daily have also tried to drive home the point that Beijing is in a position to take on the US and its allies, and that any attempt to isolate China would not be taken lying down.

Other articles in the Global Times warn against anti-China alliances, and explain why these alliances will not be possible due to the fault lines between the US and other countries. It has also not refrained from using strong language against countries like Australia and Canada by insinuating that they are acting as mere appendages of the US.

Aggressive stance vis-à-vis countries which blamed China for lack of transparency with regard to the outbreak of the pandemic

Beijing has been scathing in its criticism not only of the US, which took a firm stand against China in regards to the suppression of crucial information pertaining to the pandemic, but also Australia, which had the temerity to ask for an enquiry into the origins of the deadly pandemic. The Global Times lashed out and labelled Australia as a mere appendage of the US, even dubbing it a ‘poodle’ and ‘dog of the US’.

It has also warned other countries, especially Australia, of the economic consequences of taking on Beijing. An article titled ‘Australia’s economy cannot withstand Cold War with China’, written by Wang Jiamei, concludes by saying:

‘…..If a new Cold War leads to a China-Australia showdown, Australia will pay an unbearable price. Given Australia’s high dependence on the Chinese economy, an all-around confrontation will have a catastrophic effect on the Australian economy’

China has followed this harsh rhetoric with sanctions on imports of certain Australian commodities, like barley, and suspended the import of beef. China has also issued warnings to students and tourists that ask them to reconsider travelling to Australia.

This was done days after China’s envoy in Australia, Cheng Jingye, in an interview to an Australian media outlet, had warned of strong economic repercussions (the envoy was referring not just to the impact on Australia-China trade, but on Chinese students pursuing education in Australia and tourists visiting Australia) if Australia continued to adopt a strong stance against China on the issue of an enquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic (Australia reacted very strongly to this threat).

Beijing unsettled by emerging alliances?

One interesting point is that while commentaries and reportage in the Global Times try to send out the message that China’s rise is inexorable and that Beijing is not daunted by emerging alliances and emerging narratives of reducing economic dependence upon China, it seems to be wary of partnerships and alliances which seek to challenge it. The newspaper repeatedly warns India, the UK, Australia, and various EU member states about the perils of strengthening ties with the US. Even in the midst of recent tensions between India and China, Global Times tried to argue that India would never openly ally with the US and if it did so, this would be damaging. An article in the Global Times states:

It won’t be in the interest of India, if it really joins the Five Eye intelligence alliance. The role of a little brother of the US within a certain alliance is not what India really wants.

The article also tries to dissect differences between the US and India over a number of issues, which are not wrong, but the piece forgets that the two countries do not have differences over strategic and economic issues.

Strong language against Canada

It is not just the US, Japan, Australia, EU member states, and India that the English-language daily has recently threatened. The Global Times has also adopted an aggressive posture vis-à-vis Canada. One article, titled China-Canada ties wane further as Ottawa becomes Washington’s puppet over HK’, suggests that Justin Trudeau was in the ‘pole position in the circle of bootlickers pleasing the US’ and castigates him for the measures he has taken after China tightened its control over Hong Kong via the imposition of National Security Law. Steps taken by Trudeau include suspension of the extradition treaty with Hong Kong and a decision to end the export of sensitive military items to the region.

Cracks in the bilateral relationship had begun to emerge between Canada and China after Canada detained the CFO of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou, on a US extradition warrant (at the end of May, a Canadian court had ruled that Wanzhou could be extradited to the US, much to the chagrin of the Chinese), while Beijing in return has detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavlor (both were charged with espionage in June 2020). It would be pertinent to point out that Beijing has signaled its displeasure with Canada by reducing imports of Canadian products like pork and canola oil.

Conclusion

While Beijing itself is becoming more aggressive and belligerent, it cannot expect other countries to stick to their earlier position on crucial strategic issues. It is somewhat unfair to assume that the Global Times, the mouthpiece for China’s Communist Party, can cover the fact that China is on the defensive. Other countries are now finding common ground in the strategic and economic sphere. While the results may not come overnight, partnerships are likely to concretize and gather momentum, because Beijing seems in no mood to give up on its hegemonic mindset and patronizing approach. Yet, other countries and regional blocs also need to have a clear vision to counter China and divergences over minor issues will not help. It is true that a zero-sum approach vis-à-vis China is not beneficial, but for that to happen Beijing too needs to act responsibly, which seems doubtful given its behavior on a number of issues.

Nightcap

  1. On being black in Europe Chris Bertram, Crooked Timber
  2. Prudence, protests, and pandemics Greg Weiner, National Affairs
  3. Cambodia’s first national health service? Joanna Wolfarth, History Today
  4. Between German culture and Nazi culture Moritz Föllmer, OUPblog

A paradox

You know those little floaters on the surface of your eyes? They drift into view, catch your attention, then when you try to focus directly on one it disappears from view. They’re only really there if you don’t look straight at them.

Goodhart’s Law tells us that “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” The same basic logic applies to two of my favorite things: the Internet and college.

The Internet is still a magical thing, but we’ve killed some of the magic by trying to take the Internet seriously. The Internet ceases to provide output worth taking seriously when people actually take the Internet seriously. When you only keep it in your periphery, it’s actually worth taking seriously

Ditto for college. The basic problem with the current system is that we’re all taking it too seriously. That leads to all sorts of specific bad behavior. But it all comes from this root problem. College is only worth taking seriously if we don’t. When college is back in the ivory tower, separated from the “real” world, it’s a place where people can be creative and make non-obvious connections. But once we recognize “hey, that’s a pretty neat thing, let’s make it a one-size-fits-all solution to all of our problems” we kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

My advice for getting the most out of the Internet: don’t take it too seriously. It was only ever meant to be a place for weirdos to do weird stuff.

My advice for getting the most out of college: don’t take it too seriously. It was only ever meant to be a place for weirdos to do the sort of stuff that the rest of the world doesn’t have time for.

How I understand left and right today

One of the things that I discussed in my Ph.D. dissertation some five or six years ago was the concept of left and right in politics. In the context of my dissertation, the discussion had to do with the fact that 19th century Brazil had primarily two political parties, the Liberal and the Conservative. I was trying to find ways to make sense of these two parties. My advisor said that the Liberals were the left, and the Conservatives the right. I came to the opposite conclusion, but mainly because we were using different criteria to define what is left and what is right.

At least in my experience, people call left something that is closer or more sympathetic to socialism. Right is something that is opposite or aggressive towards socialism. This explains why most people believe that nazism and fascism are far-right movements: they are perceived as archenemies of socialists. Liberals (in the American sense) are also considered left-wing, although true liberals would not go so far as to embrace full socialism. Conservatives and Libertarians are in the right because they are more opposite to socialism. The left is also identified with revolution, for wanting to radically change things, while the right is perceived to be conservative (with a small c) or even reactionary.

Even when I was in high school, learning these things for the first time, I found them to be somewhat confusing. Really, what is the difference between Hitler and Stalin? How can it be that one is on the far-right and the other on the far-left if I perceive them to be so similar? In my 15 or 16 years old mind, a possible explanation was that left and right are not in a straight line, but in something that resembles a horseshoe, with the extremes very close to each other. I thought about that sitting in my high school History class before I read it anywhere, and it served me well for many years. All I had to do, I thought, was avoid the extremes, for they end up being equally totalitarian. For many years I thought of myself as a social democrat, in favor of a substantial welfare state and some level of economic intervention by the state, but only when market forces were unable to do their job right.

Since I truly started learning about classic liberal, conservatives and libertarians, my horseshoe theory started to make less sense. I think that the traditional way to think about left and right already makes less sense because we have to bend the line like this for it to work somehow. But also, I think that this model has a problem because we use socialism as a reference: we classify things and people as left or right depending on how they relate to people and things like Marx, Stalin, Lenin, and the USSR! Intuitively I think that there is something wrong with that. And that’s when I started to think that we should classify things as left and right according to how they relate to individuals.

Today I think of left and right according to how much freedom we are willing to give to individuals. In my mind, far-right means maximum freedom. Far-left means minimum. That’s it. Of course: Rousseau will say that people are not really free until they are free according to his definition of freedom. In a Rousseauian state you might believe that you are in chains, but you’re actually free and your process of reeducation is still ongoing. Granted, Christians think something in similar lines: you’re not truly free until you serve God. However, I think that this is mistaking freedom and flourishing. You can have whatever understanding of what human flourishing (or happiness) really means, but the point is that if you want people to be free, you can’t force it on them.

And so, that is it: when I think about left, I think about forcing on people your concept of human flourishing. When I think about right, I think about letting people free to figure this out by themselves. I don’t think it’s a perfect system. After all, am I not forcing upon people the concept that they have to find their flourishing ideal by themselves? But I avoid thinking about that. Of course, this model might make some conversations harder, because I’m thinking about Hitler and nazism as far-left movements, while a lot of people (maybe the majority) learned to think about them as far-right. But on a personal level, it has helped me to think about politics. On my part, I believe that a society where people are in general free to choose (Milton Friedman) is a better society. Generally.

 

What I learned in my bachelor’s degree

I took my bachelor’s degree in History between 2001 and 2005. All the people I asked told me that the course I took was the best in the country. I suppose they were right, but today I understand that they were predominantly talking about the graduate program at the same school. A department with a good master’s and doctoral degree does not necessarily translate into a good undergraduate degree, in the same way that good researchers and writers are not necessarily good teachers. Most of my professors were very bad teachers. I hope to be saying this without bitterness or arrogance, just realizing that although they were good academics, they were mostly not good at imparting knowledge.

Perhaps one of my professors’ difficulties in transmitting knowledge was precisely the constant questioning about the validity of transmitting knowledge. Brazilian pedagogy is strongly influenced by a form of social-constructivism created by educator Paulo Freire. Freire strongly insisted that teachers could not be transmitters of knowledge, but that students created knowledge on their own, and that teachers were, if at all, facilitators of this process. At least that’s what I understood or is what I remember from my pedagogy classes. Paulo Freire’s pedagogy is admittedly a translation of Marxism into the teaching field: students are the oppressed class, teachers are oppressors. Freire wanted pedagogy to reflect a classless society. The result, in my view, was that teachers were terrified of being seen as “the owners of the truth”.

My bachelor’s degree had the bold goal of training teachers and researchers at the same time. In my view, this created a difficulty: students needed to learn to cook and be food critics at the same time. It was not an easy task for people of 18, 20 years of age. Most classes ended up being quite weak. Another problem is that my post-Marxist professors wanted us to have a critical attitude: we needed to be critical of everything that was understood as “traditional”. This ended up creating distrust in the students’ minds: if everything is to be criticized, what should I believe? Of course, contradictorily what professors said should not be criticized, especially the proposition that everything should be criticized. In general, the program tended to generate people of 18, 20 years boisterous or confused. Or both.

Another experience of my bachelor’s degree was the encounter with party politics. In my high school, I had little contact with highly politicized people or student unions. The same cannot be said of my undergraduate studies! I met many people who were already involved to some degree with political parties, always on the left. Some people say that Christians are the main reason churches are empty. I can say something similar about my undergraduate colleagues. It is largely thanks to them that I became conservative. The hypocrisy, the aggressiveness, the arrogance of many of them made me suspect that there was something very wrong with the left. It took a few years, but eventually, I discovered classic liberal or libertarian authors and found my intellectual home.

But there were positive things about my undergraduate studies as well. Undergraduate was my first great opportunity to leave home a little more. I met some people with whom I am still friends today. And I had some good classes too. Some professors were more conservative, and largely ignored the department’s directives. Their classes were more traditional, more expository, more dedicated to informing us about things that happened in history, without much questioning. I remember a quote from my professor of Contemporary History I (roughly equivalent to 19th century): “when writing your paper, don’t say “I think … ”. You don’t think anything. When you are in the master’s or doctorate, you will think something. Today, simply write “the so-and-so author says …”. Be able to understand what the authors are talking about. That is enough for you today ”. There were also professors who were able to introduce a more critical perspective but in a less radical way.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment with undergraduate is that I almost didn’t get to teach History. The education system in Brazil is essentially socialist. The government assumes that everyone has the right to free, good quality education. And you know: when the government says you have a right to something, you’re not gonna get it, it will be expensive and of poor quality. The life of a teacher in Brazil is quite harsh. I have several friends in the teaching profession, and I am very sorry for them. Maybe I should have listened to my mom and study engineering.

But I don’t want to end it bitterly! I studied History because I really wanted to be a teacher. I still think that being a teacher is a beautiful vocation. Unfortunately, in Brazil, this vocation ends up being spoiled by the undue state intervention. I also studied History simply because I liked History, and I still do. If I had the mind I have today, possibly I would have studied something else. But I didn’t, and I am grateful for the way my life happened.