What is ‘Good’? What was Arendt pursuing?

Arendt is not the most consistent or coherent philosopher. Her writings display shades of sentimental as well as stoic rationality. Some might scoff at the progression of her thoughts. But the depth of her emotion is what grants her literature the luminescence that we need in times of moral darkness. The world was left waiting for what could have been a monumental work on political judgement when Arendt passed on before getting a chance to complete the final segment of The Life of Mind. The piece entitled ‘Judgement’ was left with an epigraph:

Victrix causa deis placuit, sed victa Catoni.

Taken from Lucan’s Pharsalia, it translates to ‘the victorious cause pleased the gods, but the defeated one pleases Cato.’ It refers to the Roman philosopher and thinker Cato’s life and beliefs. He chose to commit suicide rather than give in to the faction he thought was ‘wrong’. Thus, what is ‘good’ would remain good even if it is defeated a hundred times. His stoicism and moral stubbornness is perhaps what Arendt wanted us to inculcate as a way of moral disciplining of the mind. But also of relevance is the presumption that there is, in fact, something good that is universal and not subject to fluctuations of regions, religion, class or caste. It is like music? Only humans have the capacity to perceive beats, melody, pitch and a number of other variables that combine to make music as we know it. Irrespective of how isolated or engaged our culture might have been with a globalized world, we carry within us the ability to differentiate good music from bad. What differs is our perception of what is happy from sad. A Balinese music for cremation might sound quite happy and serene to the uninitiated. Similarly, perhaps we possess the capacity to ascertain the ‘good’ pursuits from the bad. While culture, upbringing and circumstances of nature might affect the way we perceive the degree to which we are obligated to act upon the thus discovered moral, no (non-sociopathic) human can deny the existence of the goodness of the moral once confronted with it.

I remember asking my professor once about what he thought was that one universal value in constitutions around the world that need protection from majoritarian attempts at amendment. He answered, without blinking, equality. I knew there was something within the wide array of norms that we associate with equality that I know is a good that commands universality. However, there was enough in the substantive affirmations of equality that had room for reasonable disagreement such that as an unbiased spectator I would not be able to dismiss one side over the other. Perhaps the universal principle requires a Humean recognition or a Kantian deliberation. Either way, that it exists and is worth pursuing is an unquestionable precursor to an Arendtian enquiry into the state of things.

There are some hints as to what she might have thought definitely existed within the set (and let us treat it as a set of values/ideals/principles for nothing if not humility about the extent of our understanding and knowledge) of what is ‘good’. Political freedom features quite prominently into her thought. The freedom to participate in public affairs as equals seems to have a place of prominence for Arendt. Not so much the concept of equality extended to realms outside the political. We are not born equal and cannot and should not try to find a natural occurrence of equality for that would require an unjust comparison of the distinctions and characteristics that distinguish individuals. The last blog post talked about Arendt’s insistence on separating the political from social and personal realms. While identity politics is often engaged to make a case for equality, and Arendt had nothing against the ideal of equality, she believed that it is in the political realm that we needed to affirm the ideal of equality most vehemently and zealously. This is because it affects directly our participation in the political which in turn affects everything about our existence in the world.

A better way to read Arendt is to go meta-psychological on her. Perhaps one of the ‘good’  values within the set is a form of communicative rationality, the desire and pursuance of a method of thinking representatively. And perhaps, just as liberation is a necessary precursor to freedom, so is the engagement of Arendtian judgment to finding that which is ‘good’.

The Americanism of Aureliano Cândido Tavares Bastos

Life has been very busy, and so I am not blogging nearly as much as I would like to. Nevertheless, I would like to share my last published paper with you guys. Here is the abstract:

Aureliano Cândido Tavares Bastos was one of the main ideologists of the Brazilian Liberal Party in the 1860s and 1870s. Through several books, pamphlets and articles, Tavares Bastos defended that Brazil should follow a greater political and administrative decentralization, granting greater autonomy to the provinces. Another way to summarize Tavares Bastos’s political thinking is to say that he had great admiration for the United States, and understood that Brazil should, within the possibilities, copy more the political model of this country. Thus, this text interprets the political thinking of Tavares Bastos emphasizing as central factor of this the proposal that Brazil should not only more closely copy US federalism, but also get closer to the US in its foreign policy.

I do believe that Tavares Bastos is a great political thinker in Brazilian history and even beyond. Someone very worth knowing. Today Brazil is turning right, and the debate between Conservatives, Classical Liberals, and Libertarians is getting hotter. That is one reason why I believe Tavares Bastos is important today. A classical liberal, he opposed the nationalists/conservatives of his day. Here is the link for the complete article.

The Shelf Life of the Self: Arendt on Identity Politics

Demands for separating one’s public and private identities are neither new nor simple. As the argument goes, many a political philosopher have claimed that to engage in worthwhile and productive politics, we must shed our private identities to better see, so to speak, the concerns that need a more universal outlook. Thus, to better communicate and deliberate upon political questions within a polity, say a nation, the citizens need to view themselves as citizens alone sans any group affiliation based on gender, religion, race and caste. This is not to snub the importance of social identities in general but only in so far as they affect our political judgement. On the other hand, the response to such a proposal has predictably highlighted the benefits, both political and moral, that one’s private identity has on their political participation. After all, the walls between the identities are not quite as impervious to each other as the philosophers are making it to be. Our individual selves are more than just a simple addition of our social, cultural and personal experiences. How we think about political dilemmas is often and quite rightly influenced by what we anticipate from a rival social group. A female advocating the freedom to make reproductive choices is not just assessing the positions of the stakeholders involved, as Arendt’s call for ‘enlarged mentality’ would require of her. The said female also has to keep in mind the gender hierarchies at play around her.

Arendt was famously non-feminist. She believed that the transposition of the private and the social identities into our political identities can destroy the very fabric of political communication and thus, political judgement. To resolve political dilemmas facing our society, Arendt believed we needed the exact opposite of what identity politics has to offer. Our private and social selves come with a shelf life. They end where the political begins. According to Arendt, the politicization of personal and social identities brings to the fore a self-defined and accepted discrimination that takes us away from the equality that politics demands of us. To think representatively, we need to not only be treated as but also feel like political equals.

While identity politics does well to highlight a history of suppression, it also contributes to a further strengthening of political cleavages that prevent us from ever going back to the ideal state that was disturbed by the suppression. Identity politics causes harm to inter-sectionalities because it forces us to choose between conflicting identities. But more importantly, it conflates the many dimensions of our self with the identity that we have thus chosen to speak through, politically. This conflation results in a demonization of everything that does not conform to our sense of identity, resulting in a fear of the unknown (of which Martha Nussbaum has talked about in the Monarchy of Fear). In the creation of this battleground, we forget that the other side is human. Just like us. And it is easy to not think about our moral obligations to each other when the enemy has been dehumanized and reduced to a label.

Arendt on identity politics deserves much greater scrutiny. Especially because of the overwhelming reliance of social cleavages but current political leaders. The era of identity politics has given us a society with walls that mask themselves as political ideologies but are nothing more than a refusal to recognize that the other side is human too. An essential step in Arendtian judgement is to accept the inherent and equal worth of each individual, irrespective of their social identity. We would do well to find common grounds in our humanity, first.

Afternoon Tea: “English Liberties Outside England: Floors, Doors, Windows, and Ceilings in the Legal Architecture of Empire”

We tend to think of global migration and the problem of which legal rights people enjoy as they cross borders as modern phenomena. They are not. The question of emigrant rights was one of the foundational issues in what can be called the constitution of the English empire at the beginning of transatlantic colonization in the seventeenth century. This essay analyzes one strand of this constitutionalism, a strand captured by the resonant term, ‘the liberties and privileges of Englishmen’. Almost every colonial grant – whether corporate charter, royal charter, or proprietary grant – for roughly two dozen imagined, projected, failed, and realized overseas ventures contained a clause stating that the emigrants would enjoy the liberties, privileges and immunities of English subjects. The clause was not invented for transatlantic colonization. Instead, it had medieval roots. Accordingly, royal drafters, colonial grantees, and settlers penned and read these guarantees against the background of traditional interpretations about what they meant.

Soon, however, the language of English liberties and privileges escaped the founding documents, and contests over these keywords permeated legal debates on the meaning and effects of colonization. Just as the formula of English liberties and privileges became a cornerstone of England’s constitutional monarchy, it also became a foundation of the imperial constitution. As English people brought the formula west, they gave it new meanings, and then they returned with it to England and created entirely new problems.

This is from Daniel J. Hulsebosch, a historian at NYU’s Law School. Here is a link.

Small thought on the fundamental revolution of Blockchain

Mankind made a huge leap forward regarding human organization when it implemented the Constitution. Man was no longer to be ruled by kings and despots, but by a document that stipulated the rule of law. Still, we had the issue of who was going to interpret these laws and who was allowed to add new rules.

Now, we have made another revolutionary leap forward in human organization. We don’t need a third party – kings, governments, courts – to interpret the laws anymore if we have self-executing smart contracts that eliminate the need to trust these third parties. Trust is established through mass collaboration and clever code. On top of that, everyone is free to opt-in, to submit new rules, and to participate in a set of rules. No one is forced to participate. You can always secede. We have had many secessions in the blockchain space. Bitcoin Cash seceded from Bitcoin Core, Ethereum seceded from Ethereum Classic etc. It is therefore a peaceful means to organize human beings.

This is, in my opinion, the fundamental revolution of blockchain: a peaceful trust machine for social agreements and human organization.

Blockchain trust

Economic Liberalism and (Re)Building Europe after WWII.

It is important to understand that economic recovery and growth in Europe after World War II is not as tied to Keynesianism, unfunded welfarism, and corporatism as is sometimes assumed.

The Glorious Thirty Years of European recovery from world war and subsequent growth were not due to ‘Keynesianism’ etc. The Thirty Years ended because the influence of liberal policies had weakened and the costs of other policies had accumulated to create an obviously dysfunctional system. Left-wingers (and communitarian-corporatist conservatives) who think ‘market fundamentalists’ overthrew a well functioning social and economic settlement which was behind all the economic growth and associated institution building (post-war national recovery and European Union construction) are in error. It is a major error to ignore the influence of Austrian School liberals (see the discussion by a leading current practitioner of Austrian economics, Peter Boettke) and the related Ordoliberalismus of the Freiburg School.

My remarks on what the major terms and schools in this paragraph refer to have become uncontrollably long, so they are relegated to the bottom of the post. I hope readers will have the patience to reach them.

The key points are that the German post-war Economic Miracle came from Ordo-liberal policies, while economic growth in France after Charles de Gaulle came to power for the second time in 1958 comes from the policies of Jacques Rueff, a civil servant, judge, and economist who participated in the 1938 Walter Lippmann Colloquium in Paris, a decisive event in the revival of liberal economic thinking attended by Hayek and many other notable liberal thinkers.

Such ideas have had a lot more influence in France than lazy propagators of clichés about statist France and liberal America understand. Of course, if we look at the French and American economies we can see notable ways in which the US economy is more liberal, but that should not obscure the reality that France has had good economic times and that these have come about because liberal economic policies were applied, even where, as under de Gaulle, the political narrative of the government was not liberal. The France of 1958 and after was able to stabilise institutionally after a real danger of the collapse of constitutional democracy and have a good economic period because of neoliberal economic ideas.

Some on the left think the relative revival of market liberalism in the 1970s can be rooted in the Chilean Coup of September 1973, after which economic policy was to some degree influenced by Chilean economists with doctorates from the University of Chicago. This revival of market liberalism is known as neoliberalism, a potentially useful term which came out of the Lippmann Colloquium (see below) that has unfortunately collapsed into an empty term of abuse for any kind of market thinking in government policy, wherein even the most modest accommodation of economic rationality is labelled ‘neoliberal’ and therefore extreme, authoritarian, and based on the narrow greed of the rich. It is sometimes accompanied by attempts to read enlightenment liberals as somehow ‘really’ left-liberal, social democratic, or even socialist.

The reality is that neoliberal ideas were first obviously influential on Continue reading

The Incomplete Counterfactual Fallacy

Mariana Mazzucato has some interesting ideas, but her basic thesis (which I’m guessing based only on her recent Freakonomics interview) forgets a simple fact: had the government not made GPS, not only would we not have GPS, resources would have been allocated somewhere else.

In other words, she’s right that without government involvement we’d miss all sorts of valuable things like the basic research it turns out government has financed, physical infrastructure (no matter how neglected), GPS, the specific form the Internet we got, etc., etc.

But that’s only half the story. What happens if DARPA closes shop just before starting on GPS? Those engineers end up somewhere else, the money for the project goes somewhere else, the steel and titanium for the satellites they would have built end up in some other shop.

If we could know that nothing else would have happened at that point, then GPS is a free lunch–some bold committee scooped up a handful of clay, handed it to brilliant engineers, and created something from nothing.

More likely some of those engineers would have made dozens of other projects a little bit better, and one or two of them might even have, through some series of unpredictable events, ended up creating some totally different innovation that would have put us on to an entirely different path.

Which is the better path? There’s no way to know. The people on that other path exist in a completely different paradigm from our own. It’s comparing meta-apples with meta-oranges. We are where we are and we ought to appreciate all the costs and benefits of the system we’ve inherited. I think Mazzucato is right that many of us have underrated the government. (Certainly 23-year-old-Rick was guilty of the over-complete counterfactual fallacy.)

She makes a compelling argument that Solyndra doesn’t look like such a boondoggle when you take the wider view we would expect of the smallest venture capital investor. But if it’s true that pointing at government failures is invalid, then so is pointing at government success.

What’s important is improving the future performance of our current institutional mess. To do that, I think we’re better off backing away from her broad claims and focusing on her more sensible (and jarring) arguments about how the current system encourages destructive rent seeking through intellectual property protection of basic research that might be better left in the public domain.