Interpretation is Everything

I’ve got a thing for models. And COVID has meant a lot of cool little models of disease transmission have been coming across my desk. This has been fun for me. But it’s also an intellectual minefield. Models help us tell stories and think through versions of the world that haven’t happened, but could. And they leave us feeling confident that we understand the world we’re operating in.

But it’s worth remembering a key inescapable fact: you always have to use your best judgment. There are no straightforward conclusions you can get for free without taking a risk of being wrong. A model showing that masks are worth it misses knock on effects. That doesn’t mean the model is useless, just that it only captures one part of the world.

Take the humble supply and demand model. We take a couple of lines, add in some other conditions (e.g. taxes, transaction costs, price controls, etc.), do a little algebra, and voila! You’ve got yourself a conclusion: subsidizing a good will result in people buying more (despite the private benefits of those extra units being less than the private costs). If you find some reasonable estimates of the elasticity of supply and demand for a product you can figure out how much impact a subsidy would have. Ceteris paribus.

All models rely on the ceteris paribus assumption in some form. If a model didn’t hold something constant it wouldn’t be a model anymore, it would just be a copy of reality.

In the case of supply and demand we’re rolling pretty much all the interesting things into that all-else-held-equal assumption. Language, history, legal structure, current events, politics, technology, and all the infinite possible interactions between things. Subsidizing face masks in 2019 would have seemed like a mistake, holding constant the state of affairs in 2019. Sure, we could have figured out that there was some sort of positive spill-over for masks even without a pandemic. But we could have also identified any number of other threats competing for scarce resources.

My advice to students: maintain humility. (My advice to non-students: maintain a student mindset.) Economics provides an incredibly powerful set of tools, but it doesn’t make you a god. There’s no getting around the fact that you’ve got to simplify reality to understand it and there’s no fool-proof formula for identifying things that make sense to hold constant in a constantly changing world.

The Blind Invisible Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Worth a read: Reality has a surprising amount of detail

Reality has a surprising amount of detail

Here’s the tl;dr:

At a high level, most things are fairly simple. But understanding the high level (e.g. of carpentry, programming, economics, gardening etc.) only gets you so far. This relates to something I’ve been gradually realizing about wood working: it’s straightforward, but it’s not easy.

Details matter. So what? Those details affect our ability to get things done–from mundane straightforward things like installing a flight of stairs, to fuzzier things like connecting with each other. More importantly, figuring out those details is not automatic, the details I perceive are not the same as those you do, and once I figure out some set of details, they fade into the background…

This means it’s really easy to get stuck. Stuck in your current way of seeing and thinking about things. Frames are made out of the details that seem important to you. The important details you haven’t noticed are invisible to you, and the details you have noticed seem completely obvious and you see right through them. This all makes makes it difficult to imagine how you could be missing something important.


As big a fan as I am of the big picture, we can’t get away from the fact that it’s made out of many smaller pictures. Figuring out the world, and figuring out how to be excellent to each other are straightforward, but they aren’t easy.

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.

 

Pathologies in higher education: a book, a review, and a comment

Cracks in the Ivory Tower, by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness, brings a much needed discussion of the pathologies of US higher education to the table. Brennan and Magness are two well-known classical liberals with a strong record of thoughtful interaction with Public Choice political economy.

Public Choice is an application of mainstream economic concepts to political situations. One of the key points of Public Choice is that people are self-interested and rational. This drives the choices they make. But people also act within formal and informal institutional environments. This constrains and enables some of their choices to a large degree. In other words, people react to incentives.

The Public Choice approach is not so much a normative handbook, but rather an attempt to explain how politics operate. The application of this theory to understand higher education in the US is a welcome addition to a growing literature on the economics of higher education.

It is perhaps surprising how the subtitle of the book stresses an aspect that tends to be extraneous to Public Choice scholarship: “The Moral Mess of Higher Education”. Of course we all draw on moral reasoning and assumptions in order to pass judgment on economic and political phenomena, but normally the descriptive side is kept separate – at least by economists – from explicit value judgment.

John Staddon, from Duke University, has reviewed Brennan’s and Magness’ book. In his review, he focuses on three main key issues. First, colleges and universities act on distorted incentives created, for example, by college rankings, to recruit students in ways that are not necessarily related to maintaining or expanding the academic prestige of the institution.

Second, teaching in higher education, at least in the US, is poorly evaluated. Historically, it has shifted from student evaluation to administrative assessment.

So why the shift from student-run to administration-enforced?  And why did faculty agree to give these mandated evaluations to their students? Faculty acquiescence — naiveté — is relatively easy to understand. Who can object to more information? Who can object to a new, formal system that is bound to be more accurate than any informal student-run one? And besides, for most faculty at elite schools, research, not teaching, is the driver. Faculty often just care less about teaching; some may even regard it as a chore.

The incentives for college administrations are much clearer. Informal, student-run evaluations are assumed to be unreliable, hence cannot be used to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion. But once the process is formalized, mandatory, and supposedly valid, it becomes a useful disciplinary tool, a way for administrators to control faculty, especially junior and untenured faculty.

This is not necessarily conducive to improvement in the quality of teaching. Perhaps colleges fare better than universities here, given that their faculty is not expected to allocate a large amount of hours per week to research and writing.

Third, Brennan and Magness offer a critique of what is known in the US system as “general education” courses. In their view, it is clear that those courses are unhelpful in a world where academic disciplines are increasingly more specialized. However, offering those courses is a good excuse for universities to grab more money from the students.

This is where Staddon begs to differ:

Cracks in the Ivory Tower usefully emphasizes the economic costs and benefits of university practices. But absent from the book is any consideration of the intrinsic value of the academic endeavor. Remaining is a vacuum that is filled by two things: the university as a business; and the university as a social activist.  Both are destructive of the proper purpose of a university.

I tend to agree with this point, and I do not think it is a minor point. We can do colleges and universities without football, without gigantic administrative bureaucracies, and without the gimmicks to game the college ranking system. I could even go further and argue that we should do colleges and universities without dorms and an artificial second and worse version of teenage years right when students are supposed and expected to behave like adults. Getting rid of those tangential features of US higher education should help refocus on knowledge and reduce the cost.

Colleges and universities in the US are also expensive and unnecessarily inflated because of the structure of the student loans system, which also generates perverse incentives. But this point has been explained and described to exhaustion in the economic literature. This also has to change.

However, I am not convinced that making universities focus on professionalizing their students would be the best way to go. Brennan and Magness raise some important issues and concerns, some of which also apply outside the US, but the Staddon highlights in his review an important counterpoint: higher education, at least on the undergraduate level, shouldn’t be seen 100% as an investment good, but also as a consumer good:

Higher education does not exist for economic reasons. It exists (in the famous words of Matthew Arnold) to transmit “the best that has been thought and said,” in other words the ‘high culture’ of our civilization. Job-related, practical training is not unimportant. Universities, and much else of society, could not exist without a functioning economy. But — and this point is increasingly ignored on the modern campus and by the authors of CIT — these things are not the purpose, the telos if you like, of a university.

Undergraduate education is there to hand over knowledge to the next generation. It can be small and cheap. You need an adequate building, a small library with the best classic books, electronic access to journals, and faculty that excels at teaching. Courses would be general, comprehensive, and interdisciplinary by definition. The program could last only three years. An optional additional year could be offered to those with an academic profile, where they could pursue more specialization as a bridge to graduate education.

This is more or less the mediaeval model. I am not sure we need to reinvent the wheel in order to deal with the crisis of higher education. What we need is to get back on track – back to the bread and butter of college education. This is a reflection that both sides of the story – those who demand education and those that offer it – need to make.


Read more:

In a recent contribution to Notes on Liberty, Mary Lucia Darst has recently commented on the status of higher education during the 2020 pandemic and prospects for the future.

I also wrote about the college trap in the US a few years ago.

On growing up in Brazil, political liberty, and religion

Steve Bishop recently interviewed me for his blog and we talked about my personal background, my Christian faith and my interest in Reformational philosophy, a tradition of thought of which Abraham Kuyper was an early proponent and Herman Dooyeweerd, the main exponent.

Here is a personal part of the interview that might be of interest to NOL readers. I answer a question about what influenced my intellectual development:

Another influence I should mention came from people and events that taught me to mistrust the hubris of political authoritarianism. My Italian granddad was a child during World War II and his family never joined the Fascist party. As a result, they had much less access to food and clothes and suffered a lot during the war. This is part of the reason why he later decided to try something new in Brazil. I grew up hearing his stories about the horrors of war. My other grandfather was older and he had been drafted by the Brazilian Army to join the allied forces and fight the axis powers in Italy. But, before shipping to Europe, in the Army base, he decided he shouldn’t go fight the war, so he had to hide for a few years before amnesty was granted for defectors. When I was born, Brazil was still under the rule of a military junta, but later transitioned to a convoluted period of democratic transition. High inflation was destroying people’s livelihoods. I remember running in front of the “price man” at the supermarket to get products for the previous day’s price before the new tags were placed in them. My father got his salary and would have to immediately spend most of it by stocking up groceries for the entire month. This was very early in my childhood, until age nine or so, but I still have vivid memories of the national currency changing name every six months or so. By college time, I was already immune to the idea that politicians are more enlightened than the rest of us.
Then, when I read books such as The Road to Serfdom or, say, Orwell’s 1984, they helped me conceptualize what I had already noticed intuitively. I had already grasped Lord Acton’s maxim that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. If you have, let’s say, an Augustinian view of the potential damage we can cause to fellow human beings if unhampered by checks and balances, then you can easily identify some of the naivete about human nature both right and left on the political spectrum, and that can lead you to the normative point that civil government should be limited in scope.
Further on, I talk about current projects:
In 2018 I delivered the Calihan Lecture at the Acton Institute and applied the notion of sphere sovereignty to interpret the crisis we are facing in the public square. This lecture has recently been published in the Journal of Markets & Morality. Last year I finished a project on the classical liberal background of the anti-revolutionary movement. An article summarising the main findings will come out in the Journal of Church and State in 2021. I didn’t want it to be too controversial and deliberately toned down the argument after the first peer review, but the main point is that Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper fall under the category of “anti-rationalist liberals”, together, of course, with figures such as Lord Acton, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and others who were, together with the anti-revolutionaries, very critical of the “rationalist liberalism” of, say J.S. Mill or the French liberals. As part of this project, I wrote an epilogue to the Portuguese translation of Kuyper’s speech on the social question, a book chapter for a South African publisher on Christian ethics and entrepreneurship in an interventionist economy.

This, of course, alludes to F.A. Hayek’s distinction between two kinds of liberal tradition, one of which he rejected (rationalist liberalism) in order to embrace the other (anti-rationalist liberalism).

On Abraham Kuyper’s Political Liberalism

My article “Abraham Kuyper and Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer as Anti-Rationalist Liberals” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Church & State and will hopefully be in print in 2021.

In this article, I explore F. A. Hayek’s division of pre-1848 liberalism into two contrasting worldviews — rationalist and anti-rationalist. I argue that both Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper, two important Dutch Anti-Revolutionary writers, were anti-rationalist liberals.

Both of them are on the record denouncing “liberalism”, but both refer mostly to French liberalism of the rationalist kind. And both admired Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, cited by Hayek as great exponents of anti-rationalist liberalism.

I hope this article will lead to an interesting conversation as to why the contemporary Kuyperian movement seems to be much more left-wing than the original anti-revolutionaries.

A pre-print version of the article can be viewed on the Oxford Academic website.

 

Be Our Guest: “Resolved: Human Government is Despotism”

Jack Curtis is back with another guest post, this time on despotism. Here’s a sneak peak:

All human government is to some degree despotic; if it were not there would be no need for organized force. The more realistic issue seems to be: How much despotism should be tolerated in return for the benefits of human organization? And, with homo sapiens involved, that depends upon whom you ask.

Read the rest. It’s excellent, as usual. If you’ve got something to say, and nowhere to say it, why not Be Our Guest?

Feyerabend and the libertarians

I’ve still been reading through Feyerabend’s Against Method, and following along what Rick and Bill have to say about his arguments, but it’s slow going. Sometimes slow is better than fast, especially these days.

Awhile ago Irfan Khawaja, a philosopher who has been purged from at least one libertarian inner circle and blacklisted from several others, sent me a bunch of journals: Critical Review, Raritan, and New Left Review. (I still owe him for the postage. Holla at me Dr K!) These have been veritable gold mines of insider knowledge, and I came across a 1990 article by James McCawley in Critical Review that aptly sums up my own raw thoughts on Feyerabend. Namely, the question of Feyerabend’s own brand of politics. Was Feyerabend unwilling to accept political anarchism even though he was a methodological anarchist?

I still don’t have a solid answer to this question, though the evidence so far points to an affirmative. If he wasn’t a political anarchist, what was he? Certainly not a Stalinist, but my guess is that his politics wouldn’t have been as original as his philosophy. I suspect he was, at heart, a democratic socialist along with most of his peers.

One of the more insider-y aspects of the McCawley piece was Ayn Rand’s dislike of Feyerabend’s methodological anarchism. McCawley points out that Rand read and responded to an early piece of Feyerabend’s, and that if Rand had been a little more tolerant, she and Feyerabend could have some stimulating (though no less heated) exchanges over the years. Alas.

Be Our Guest: “Rights and Government Confiscation During COVID-19”

John A Lancaster has a new guest post up. Peep an excerpt of his definition of rights:

When extended into the realm of human contact, rights must be expressed through voluntary exchange. Any exchange that is not the product of consent necessarily entails an entity seizing use of facilities outside the entity’s personal vessel, which they have no right to do (theft).

Click here to read the thought-provoking rest. And don’t forget: if you’ve got something to say, and nowhere to say it, Be Our Guest!

The state as the illusionary Deus Ex Machina

The 20th century was a century in which societies consolidated the belief that governments should provide certainty and protection from collective risks and developed the expectation that governments are well equipped to do so through large-scale interventions in the social environment.

The image of the state was transformed from that of an alien and often hostile apparatus in the service of the king and nobility to that of a collective organization entrusted with society’s safety and prosperity. This view grew stronger in the years of war-like economy and post-war reconstruction during the 21st century. Nationalism gave it the face of a father taking care of his extended family. Socialism gave it the image of a collective machine serving the interests of the working class. Democracy promised to tame its power, make it accountable to its subjects and harness it for the provision of public goods, whose definition was open to public deliberation.

The image of the state was also shaped by a growing belief in the use of science to give meaning to the ‘common good’ and offer prescriptions as to how a powerful central planner should work to achieve it. The state and science together provided a replacement for the loss of divinity. They offered a rationalization of power as enlightened parenthood. They created a secular Deus Ex Machina. Governments cultivated this paradigm as they were strengthening their role and clout over society through increasing levels of taxation, regulation and distribution, which in turn fostered public expectations for state effectiveness and political accountability. Recurrent failures led to policy re-adjustments some of which were historical political transitions. Yet all these transitions were responses that complied with this paradigm and sought to re-establish confidence in it.

Consider one of the most discussed economic and political transitions, the neoliberal turn. In light of recurrent economic crises, most prominently long-standing stagflation in the 1970s, neoliberalism best describes a re-adjustment of the role of government in the economy through privatizations, a drift away from Keynesianism to monetarism, and the re-regulation of economic structure. In the field of ideology, there was an effort to reshape public perceptions of what the state should not do with the promotion of economic freedom. Governments – most of them very reluctantly, such as both the Conservative and Labour governments in the late 1970s and the Ford and Carter administrations, while others very enthusiastically such as the Reagan and Thatcher governments – adopted versions of a ‘take some economic decisions back to you’ approach.

In the so-called neoliberal era, the state did not become less interventionist overall. Instead, governments redefined the nature of interventions in some areas to forms of surveillance of the responsibilities and individual risks that were given back to businesses and workers. Neoliberalism was a large-scale intervention in itself. It was an effort to revamp the economy and protect the capacity of states to extract resources from the market for political allocation. Governments preserved interventions that privileged the few and maintained those that continued to offer a safety net for the many (such as health insurance, progressive taxation and welfare state spending).

A remarkable juncture occurred when the 2009 crisis posed a systemic threat. Governments intervened to patch the financial system from a sequence of cascading events – partly the result of imbalances attributed to its own macroeconomic policies. The management of collective risk came center stage.

Terrorism is another case of the interventionist state. Spectacular terrorist attacks triggered a war-like response that combined the use of the criminal justice system with extra-judicial actions, including the mobilization of security and military forces and the introduction of new intrusive norms of intelligence collection and surveillance.

It is easy to discern that, over time, demand for drastic state action is more pronounced in the presence of dramatic single-source events or cascading events that are traceable as a single sequence. While millions are killed by car accidents and diseases, large-scale massacres such as the 9/11 or unravelling developments from the collapse of a major bank trigger a collective alarm. The public expects the state to intervene and give a heroic fight against the visible threat on behalf of society.

The most extreme version of the protective state is the current general lockdown. Not knowing any way out, governments can only deliver a form of collective protection that requires a general population quarantine. They offer society the kind of shield that a medieval wall and a locked gate offers in times of siege. Society both expects and accepts this.

Yet in the current pandemic governments still cannot deliver a cure. If a safe vaccine is not found, if the epidemic does not recede with growing immunity, if seasonal change doesn’t make any difference with contagion and if an effective anti-viral treatment is not found, governments will oversee their economies in rapid collapse and will soon have to make tough choices about how to turn the epidemic into a chronic manageable condition. For the time being, citizens remain disciplined in their lock-down and are the ones demanding strict measures. Governments know that, like in terrorism, citizens can be overwhelmed by fear as well as managed through fear.

In our efforts to understand what has happened and to make informed guesses about what could happen, metaphors can help or distort our perception. Societies have subscribed to an ideal image of political power that metaphorically resembles the biblical God: omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent. They call for a divine intervention, they express their dissatisfaction when they see no signs of it but they never question its raison d’ être. But there is an ontologically different metaphor. In Greek mythology gods are superhuman creatures struggling for domination and survival with their own moral regards, vices and ignorance as they mess around with the world of humans. They struggle to rule based more on terror than wisdom, imposing justice that serves their order. Humans have to worship them in order to appease them. I find this imagery closer to a realist depiction of government.

Life

Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 12.15.15

No matter how old, frail or vulnerable it may be, a life isn’t something to take or risk at another’s discretion. Nor does it undermine culpability when someone dies as a result of negligence. The common law ‘eggshell skull’ rule reflects this moral principle.

During the Coronavirus pandemic, some erstwhile defenders of the famous Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) appear to have forgotten that natural rights are conceived to protect life as well as liberty and property. They seem to think that the liberties we ordinarily enjoy have priority over the right to life of others. The environment has changed and, for the time being, many activities that we previously knew to be safe for others are not. They are not part of our set of liberties until a reformed set of rules, norms and habits establishes a sufficiently hygienic public environment. To say that bans on public gatherings violate natural rights a priori is as untenable as G.A. Cohen’s claim that a prohibition on walking onto a train without a valid ticket is a violation of one’s freedom.

The clue for anarcho-capitalist state-sceptics that this is a genuine shift in social priorities is that even organized criminal gangs are willing to enforce social distancing. You do not have to believe that the state itself is legitimate to see that the need for social distancing is sufficiently morally compelling that it can be enforced absent free agreement, just as one does not need free agreement to exercise a right to self-defense.

Not every restriction is going to be justified, although erring on the restrictive side makes sense while uncertainty about the spread of infection persists. Ultimately, restrictions have to balance genuine costs with plausible benefits. But rejecting restrictions on a priori grounds does not cohere with libertarian principles. Right now, our absolute liberties extend to the right to be alone. Everything else must be negotiated under uncertainty. Someone else’s life, even two-weeks or so in the future, is a valid side-constraint on liberty. People can rightfully be made to stay at home if they are fortunate enough to have one. When people have to travel out of necessity, they can be temporarily exempted, compensated or offered an alternative reasonable means of satisfying their immediate needs.

A PPE pandemic reading list

I haven’t written for a while – other duties get in the way – but I’d like to suggest this reading list in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics for the present time of crisis and perplexity. The main reason is that everyone seems to be an expert in Economics, Epidemiology, and Political Philosophy these days, assuming that from “facts” we can easily derive “values” and answer the question, “what is to be done?” I think this is at best a naïve attitude and at worst the same rationalistic hubris we experience everytime a political issue is simplified and reduced to a matter of “science”. Yes, there are facts and they shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not easy to decide what is to be done, morally and politically, in light of those facts.

The first item on the list is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. A classic, and a reminder that people choose all the time to sacrifice some degree of liberty in the altar of survival (or a chance to survive), but also a reminder that Leviathan may turn from friend to foe, from protector to persecutor – and there is very little we can do about it. The second item is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which then explores this topic in light of the fact that civil government shouldn’t have absolute power. It makes an attempt to show us how that power can, or should, be limited within a certain sphere of responsibility. Though it’s still there to protect us.

In this time of pandemic, people feel tempted to panic. People and politicians are calling for dramatic measures, and one reason is that the use of government coercion – which, according to Locke, ought to be limited – might be necessary to force people to cooperate, for example, by staying home. This is a proposed solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by the problem that some may “free-ride” on the rest, and, as a result, the disease will keep spreading, frustrating any attempt to slow it down. Against dramatic, desperate and, perhaps, arrogant, use of political power, and in favor of prudence and wisdom, Edmund Burke’s collection of writings from the period of the French Revolution can be a beacon of light. On the other hand, explaining the dilemmas of collective action and suggesting ways of solving them, Mancur Olson offers an insightful look at incentives and group behavior in The Logic of Collective Action.

However, the idea that government coercion is the only solution to dilemmas of collective action (such as imposing a quarantine, for example) doesn’t hold water. In fact, other economists follow Olson in saying the problem is real and challenges a strict individualist way of thinking, but, adding to Olson’s point, they also acknowledge the role of private action and sanctions in fostering cooperation. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is a wonderful study that opens up a number of possibilities for private enforcing of collective action to preserve and promote the frugal allocation of common goods. This can be complemented by The Quest for Community, an overlooked work by sociologist Robert Nisbet, where it becomes clear that, between individuals, the state, and the market, there’s room for other associations and communities that strengthen civil society – particularly in this challenging time. Nisbet’s lesson invites liberty-loving people to reflect on whether a hyper-individualistic view of the world ends up pitting helpess individuals against Leviathan instead of offering the buffer zone of community in between. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in the 19th century.

And just for the sake of dealing with the issue that “is” doesn’t easily lead to “ought”, and that science might have facts and an explanation for them, but does not easily conduce to a proper discussion on values policy, I must finish this PPE pandemic reading list with F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. On Chapter 4, for example, Hayek introduces a constrast between “rationalist liberalism” and “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Rationalist liberals assume too easily that knowledge of the facts on the ground will give them what they need to re-design a society governed by reason. Hayek warns us against this technocratic assumption and offers a defence of “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Anti-rationalist liberals understand the importance of spontaneous order and of constraining power (even at a time of crisis) while prudently balancing the values of liberty and safety in light of past experience and tradition.


Three Additional readings:

Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997). In a liberal democracy, the state steps in suspending some civil liberties only if it can persuade citizens that there’s a threat that justifies it. This book offers a framework to interpret how such threats are constructed in official and non-official discourse, and to what extent this construction of a threat can be effective.

Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (2013). 25th anniversary edition. Looks at US history and how government employed crises to its advantage and the advantage of the ruling elites. In particular, security and economy related issues are dealt with.

Sanford Ikeda, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy (2002). Shows that a time of crisis might be a time for further interventionism in the economy, as Higgs (see above) suggests, but might also be a time for disintervention, as seems to be the case with part of the agenda today (FDA deregulation, etc.) This is based on Ludwig von Mises’ view that interventionist economies are not very stable and are always swinging as a pendulum between socialism and capitalism.