Julian Simon’s life against the grain

I did not meet many of the postwar great thinkers of classical liberalism. There are two exceptions. In 2005 I had a chat with James Buchanan to ask him if I could translate the talk he gave to an audience of graduate students at the IHS summer seminar at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He agreed and I translated and published his ideas on ‘the soul of classical liberalism’ in a Dutch liberal periodical.

The other exception is Julian Simon. Perhaps not in the same league as Buchanan, he was certainly a maverick thinker and a classical liberal great. A navy officer, business man, and advertising expert who turned to academia, he is known, to name just a few, for his arguments in the field of population growth, immigration studies and of course the book The Ultimate Resource. In it he argues that all raw materials become cheaper, while humans are the ultimate resource, among many other issues. He also won a famous wager with his critic Paul Ehrlich, stating that the prices of the raw materials Ehrlich could choose (in fact copper, chromium, nickel, tin, tungsten) would decrease (inflation adjusted) over the period of a decade they agreed upon. But that is just the tip of iceberg of this most interesting man. You should really read his autobiography A Life Against the Grain, whenever you have the chance.

In 1995 a friend of mine and I founded the Dutch Benedictus de Spinoza Foundation, meant to group young people educated in (classical) liberalism. In our first public Spinoza-lecture in 1996 Simon agreed to be the speaker. If memory serves right he was on his way to or from a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Vienna, and was willing to make a small detour. We spent two full days with him, touring The Hague, arranging an interview in a national paper, have a formal dinner with Simon as gues of honor and speaker, and so forth. He was the most congenial guest one can wish. He clearly did not want to be among the hot shots only. In fact he insisted that we should visit ‘the worst neighborhood of the city’. So we went to one of the poorest parts in town, which he found delightful, not because of the (relative) poverty, but because of the multicultural experience and multicultural food at the market.  An other remarkable feature was that in the half hour before we opened the lecture hall, he wished to take a nap on the floor right there!

In his autobiography he is open about his many rejected papers throughout his career, and the way he described how difficult it is to convince academic colleagues of a point that goes against conventional wisdom. No matter how strong the counter-evidence, people will choose to ignore the new facts or insights and keep the author out of the inner circle for as long as possible. I must say it sounds familiar to me, as an author who has attempted to change the views of (classical) liberals and IR theorists on international relations and (classical) liberalism. Even the obvious fact that trade cannot possibly foster peace seems impossible to establish. Alas, reading Simon one also learns to never give up, the truth shall be told, although there is no guarantee of success!

Nightcap

  1. Who wants common sense? Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  2. Theory versus common sense: the Dutch Notes On Liberty
  3. Scotland’s new blasphemy law Madeleine Kearns, L&L
  4. Academic corruption: government money Arnold Kling, askblog

Nightcap

  1. Ron Paul on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (2002)
  2. The chilling effect of an attack on a scholar Conor Friedersdorf, Atlantic
  3. The childhood, schooldays, and death of Jesus Siddhartha Deb, Nation
  4. Andrew Sullivan is going back to the blog New York‘s “Intelligencer”

How much more progressive is the corporate world than academia?

Academia is a hotbed of leftism and has been for centuries. At the same time, it’s also one of the most conservative institutions in the Western world. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Leftists are conservative.

The recent writings of Lucas, Mary, and Rick have highlighted well not only academia’s shortcomings but also some great alternatives, but what about stuff like this? The link is an in-depth story on how senior professors use their seniority to procure sexual favors from their junior colleagues. There is, apparently, not much universities can do about it either.

If a manager within a corporation tried any of the stuff listed in the report, he or she would be fired immediately. Sexual harassment is still an issue in the corporate world, but it is much, much easier to confront than it is in academia. The same goes for government work. The President of the United States couldn’t even get away with a blow job from a teenage intern without dire consequences in the 1990s.

What makes academia so different from corporate and government work? Is it tenure? Is it incentives? In the corporate world profits matter most. In government, “the public” matters most. In academia, it’s publish or perish. I don’t think this has always been the case. I think the publish-or-perish model has only been around since the end of World War II. Something is horribly wrong in academia.

In the mean time: corporations, churches, governments (it pains me to say this, but it’s true, especially when compared with academia), and all sorts of other organizations continue to experiment with social arrangements that attempt to make life better and better.

Nightcap

  1. Serfs of academe (but Cracks… is missing) Charles Petersen, NYRB
  2. Leaving NATO, nicely Ivan Eland, American Conservative
  3. Federalism and individual sovereignty James Buchanan, Cato Journal
  4. Lessons of the first automation crisis Steve Lagerfeld, American Interest

Scholars and Public Intellectuals: The Bad Old Days Before Blogging

I am flattered to be in the company Brandon places me in. When I was still growing up, I wanted to be Tyler Cowen then, I figured he moved way too fast for me. I have the utmost respect for Robert Higgs but I wouldn’t dream of mimicking his nearly super-human determination. I suspect Brandon put me on purpose in that flattering company and that he will soon ask me to stay after the meeting to sweep the room in return. Brandon also implicitly gave me permission to do what old dudes love to do (and often do well): reminisce.

I had a mostly but not exclusively academic career. It began so long ago that the hardest part of my doctoral dissertation was getting it typed from its long-hand last draft (yes, “typed,” with a typewriter; do you even know what this is?) Few graduates students knew how to type. Those who did were all females who had taken the trouble to learn in high school,. Below are two things that have changed for the better since those days, changed specifically in connection with blogging.

When I was a young scholar, I quickly discovered that having good co-authors was extraordinarily important. Myself, with one exception I won’t name, I always had co-authors, that is, co-investigators, I did not deserve. The difference in quality, in reach, in scope, between what I could produce by myself and what I did with others was so great that I seldom even tried to go it alone once I had discovered the force multiplier of well chosen others.* But finding potential research partners was costly, haphazard and often disappointing.

Apart from the necessarily limited local offering at your own university, you had to wait for your first high-powered publication, hoping it would draw admirers who would then take the trouble to contact you. Of course, you could do the same with others. To some extent, it involved the same sort of hesitancy one experiences trying to pick up a good-looking person in a public place. And, in some disciplines, publishing an admirable article in a well esteemed periodical may take years, of course. The poor traditional remedy was attending academic conferences, listening to others at formal presentations sessions and then, making advances. This worked to some extent but it was an inefficient system with a piteous yield.

The contemporary blog with a theme, such as Notes on Liberty, offers the young scholar the immense advantage of being able to present in a stress-free fashion samples of his work to many strangers of a similar cast of mind who are also hanging out around the blog in a relaxed frame of mind. Some of these will turn out to be potential coauthors. The blog will give them a social context for reaching out that is less intimidating than most.

Needless to say, the same features of the blog may facilitate being noticed by useful senior scholars. (I said “may” because I have no certainty about the extent to which such august persons go slumming on blogs. I have my suspicions though.)

Next: many people who become academics begin a with a general interest in ideas. Soon, they discover that the organizations that are willing to put bread on their table while they indulge their tastes are mostly universities. This is certainly true in the English speaking world. It seems to me that this is also largely the case in the French speaking world, and in the Spanish speaking world as well.

Once involved in a university career, the same people soon figure out that to progress in that career, or simply to remain in the career, they must publish in scholarly journals at a good clip. Unfortunately, in most disciplines, journals require a much narrower enterprise than the typical aspiring public intellectuals dreams of. This is intentional: Specialization encourages attention to detail in reasoning and it punishes sloppy logic. It also promotes respect for facts. (I mean outside of the post-modern English discipline, of course). Scholarly formats often leave authors unsatisfied in one particular respect, the formal limits they imposes on their discourse. I have often myself been in a situation, – and likewise observed others to be – with an eighteen page empirical paper that seemed to me honestly to authorize fifty pages of innovative narrative. The journal format usually allowed only one to three pages, four, if you played your cards right, or if the editor dated your sister.

Some will comment that a person can pursue a two-track career with scholarly publications on one side, and more general narratives in other media, on the other. That’s true enough but if you consider the large number of America academics in general compared to the two handfuls nationwide who have a public voice, you will guess that the dual career path must present formidable obstacles.

The one I encountered personally – which I think is quite common – is that the gates of outlets for general well-informed but non-technical narratives were as narrow of those of the most respected academic journals, and also vastly more capriciously opened. And in case, you are wondering no, I am not thinking only of the New York Review of Books. It will take me a long time to recover from the contemptuous rejection I received from the newspaper of my local community college. (That was twenty years ago. I was a well respected scholar by then.)

A good blog with an open editorial policy such as Notes on Liberty will give many a chance to circulate opinion pieces and other narratives not fitting a normal scholarly format. Those may spring, by the way, from the same source as their scholarly production narrowly defined. When I was churning out statistical empirical papers in the sociology of economic development, I felt I had lots of things to say to the general intelligent public, springing from the endeavor of producing those papers, things that never got said.

I am not sure how many of those who read these words are academics, or aspiring academics, or frustrated academics who long to be also public intellectuals. I hope I reached a few of you, all the same. What I can tell you is that my life would have been more satisfying (even more satisfying) if blogs such Notes on Liberty had been available when I was just sharpening my pencils.


* Nonetheless, I wrote alone and off the top of my head a little paper that keeps cropping up in the class syllabi of several military schools forty years later: The distributive state in the world system.” Studies in Comparative International Economic Development, 15-3: 3-21. 1980. (A little harmless bragging!)

Nightcap

  1. Charles de Gaulle’s alternative model for Europe Samuel Gregg, Law & Liberty
  2. Distance from Khe Sanh to Kandahar: 0 Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  3. Fear of the Ivory Tower Jonathon Catlin, JHIBlog
  4. Anarchy and public goods Pierre Lemieux, EconLog

Psychedelics versus modern philosophy

Anyone who studies philosophy has run into the assumption that psychoactive drugs and philosophy go hand-in-hand. Really, after analytic and continental, and whatever other traditions people come up with, there could be another sect, that of “stoner philosophy,” which is something like Mister Rogers, Alan Watts and Bob Ross thrown into a peaceful blender. This is when you’re sitting around getting high, wondering if aliens exist, instead of sitting in a classroom, wondering if other people’s minds exist.

A historical study of this connection, from East to West, would probably scandalize a lot of “serious” philosophers, and show some regular inebriation, but in general, I think the two are opposed (tragically or not). Particularly, the institutionalization of philosophy, when “natural philosophy” and “moral philosophy” etc all became separated some time after Hobbes, is opposed to what it sees as a lay way of thinking about the world. As my philosophy of science professor told me – you become a philosopher when you have your doctorate.

Professional philosophers and “psychonauts” are in opposition to each other. The analytics and continentals have spent centuries building elaborate systems – developing monstrous levels of specificity, so as to make their work completely incomprehensible to the rest of the world – and earning credentials to close the gates of access. Meanwhile, the casual or professional tripper is able to buy a tab for less than $10 and experience, or imagine they experience, market-price existentialism without reading a page of Camus.

The professional philosopher sneers in bad faith at psychedelic profundity because it makes them seem irrelevant.

On the other hand, the inarticulate tripper is not in such a great place. The psychonaut rests on intuition, and is probably not equipt with the critical thinking and logical itinerary to make sense of the journey on the comedown. A trip promises insight but also promises that neither your epistemic priors nor a rational reconstruction will be enough to establish its validity – by its very nature. (Psychedelic knowledge is “revealed,” not “discovered,” right?) You might get an insight that looks good, but is bad, without you knowing it. (I wrote about this in college. Holy shit my writing was bad.)

What happens when you irrationally, psychonautically attach to an idea that’s immune to logical tinkering? If you believe something for irrational reasons you’ll hang on to it for even longer than something that you believed for rational reasons, because new rational reasons can talk you out of a logogenetic idea, but not an irrationally-formed one. Depending on the centrality of the belief, of course.

The psychonaut claims easy knowledge, but could have trouble organizing it in the other, orderly web of belief of his coldly-discovered priors. However, this kind of knowledge has taken a high prestige today, with help from accredited social figures like Steve Jobs dosing LSD. In a way, the win of casual inebriated profundity is a “people’s victory” over the esoteric, pretentious toils of the professional philosophers. If you can figure out Truth by serotonin-fucking yourself on any day of the week then there’s no need to study Heidegger… and there’s even less reason to get a PhD in phenomenology, making institutional philosophy obsolete.

So, philosophers will be opposed to the psychonauts because it trivializes their hard-earned degrees (bad faith), and trivializes all their carefully crafted logic (slightly less bad faith). Psychonauts will be opposed to the philosophers for their specialized field which must explicitly reject such spontaneous routes to knowledge. The people taking psychedelics find themselves fighting some sort of anti-scientific elitism war, doing Feyerabend’s work. The tension is worse with the professional, modern philosophical class, but still exists in general.

A survey of history would show a lot of intertwining, but ultimately, I think the newer age of philosophy has a lot more overlap with other drugs than psychedelics (specifically Epicurean as opposed to elucidatory drugs, e.g. Adderall, analgesics, cocaine) — which is its own interesting question.

More Arabs in the US? Yes, please!

I hope y’all had a chance to check out Ussama Makdisi’s essay on Ottoman cosmopolitanism from one of the nightcaps a few days back. It was excellent, and serves as good complement to Barry’s work on the Ottoman Empire here at NOL.

It’s especially good for a few reasons. First, it has a useful explanation of the mandate system that London and Paris experimented with. Second, it’s comparative and brings in lots of different modes of governance. Third, there is an interesting discussing about citizenship (consult NOL for more on citizenship, too). Lastly, it explains well why the Arab world continues to wallow in extreme inequality and authoritarianism.

Makdisi represents a shift in thinking in Arab circles away from victimization and towards self-determination and responsibility: no longer are the French and British (and Jews) to be reviled and blamed for everything that’s wrong with the Middle East. There is a shift towards internationalist thinking. The Americans now play a positive role in what could have been (and still might be) a freer Middle East. The British and French have factions now and some of them were supportive of Arab voices, some of them not. Arab scholars are finally benefiting from the American university educational system, probably because there are so many Arabs studying in the US now.

Makdisi’s piece is not a libertarian interpretation, but it’s a start.

Learning Academic English Through Leftist Propaganda

Yesterday, in a large bookstore Apollo (part of the major shopping mall) in Tartu, Estonia, in a section “English books,” I stumbled upon a bunch of leftist literature.  It is offered as the mainstream political and social issues books to those Estonians who learn English and those English-speaking people who live in the country. Among this literature is virulently biased Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward (Trump as a “Russian asset,” “fascist,” and so on), then a diary of the leftist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (progressive profs usually force their sociology students to love this “classic”), and a primer of the identitarian left Racism: A Critical Analysis by Mike Cole. The “crown jewel” of the shelf was Crowds and Party by Jodi Dean, a rising star of current aggressive college leftism. In this book, she seeks to exonerate communism and class warfare, and to rekindle the Leninist concept of the vanguard communist party as the alternative to “evil” “neoliberal” capitalism. Of course, one could not see any conservative or libertarian literature on those Apollo bookshelves to serve as an alternative. 

To me, this choice of social and political issues literature, which I frequently observe during my travels at airports, shopping malls, and major bookstores around the world, serves as an inspiration to fight on to change this “mainstream.” I also hope that the young YouTube generation does not pay attention to this paper garbage. What worries me is that some well-rounded Estonians who might purchase this propaganda in hope to learn non-fiction and academic English might internalize the leftist jargon and receive distorted picture about what is going on in US. 

Nightcap

  1. The eye of the needle, again John Quiggin, Crooked Timber
  2. The audible universe Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex
  3. They don’t want the wage system to go away. They just want to run it.” Thomas Knapp, TGC
  4. The making of Soviet Kazakhstan Joshua Bird, Asian Review of Books

Nightcap

  1. Thoughtcrime and punishment at a Canadian university Lindsay Shepherd, Quillette
  2. The prophet of envy Robert Pogue Harrison, New York Review of Books
  3. Ominous parallels? Stephen Cox, Liberty Unbound
  4. Georges Washington & Marshall: Two studies in virtue David Hein, Modern Age

Nightcap

  1. American Nightmare: the story of a prime FBI suspect in 1996 Atlanta Marie Brenner, Vanity Fair
  2. The disappearing conservative professor Jon Shields, National Affairs
  3. Why the British love the oak tree Philip Marsden, Spectator
  4. Russia, Turkey, and the fate of Idlib Ömer Özkizilcik, Cairo Review

What should young libertarians do?

(Continuing the tradition of not finishing a draft and instead creating a whole new post.)

Several months ago I was able to present an essay at symposiums in Georgia and Utah, confident that I was entering the academic world, beginning to make connections. My academic references are even better than my professional. I know I would like teaching because I love tutoring, and I can guess with mild confidence that I wouldn’t get bored with the same material.

Four years of college seemed to be moving me toward grad school and teaching. But now, I’m part of a pool of internship concurrent- and post-students working academic programs, and I couldn’t imagine their lives. I’m one of few activists in the group, where my job is talking to non-libertarians, and theirs is all too often preaching to the choir. Programs like these build our professional skills and cultivate young leaders for the philosophy, but near everyone chose to go the route of policy instead of activism. Why? Is ground work too manually exhausting? Do libertarians lack good people skills? (I don’t even need to ask that, really.) Is activism considered “lowly,” and policy work prestigious? Are there not enough liberty-aligned activism groups and an imbalance of policy/media organizations?

Our project at my group right now is getting good people elected. That requires doorknockers to talk to people. Where are all the young libertarians to get out the vote? Waiting in line for a policy job, it seems. This is not to reject division of labor and say that the academic side isn’t contributing to the success of liberty — we’re winning all the time, about as much as we’re losing. It’s to say that the kid in the classroom who’s always arguing, obnoxiously and persistently, the libertarian case, is suspiciously missing out in the field. The people who can quote Mises and Hayek ad nauseam aren’t prepared to help get a candidate elected who isn’t Mises or Hayek. They are prepared, however, to read more Mises and Hayek.

In politics, nothing moves unless it’s pushed. We need movement, bodies, material, out in the neighborhoods and city blocks; words on a page can only do so much. And maybe this anti-intellectual cynicism will extinguish as the time grows since I last read Feyerabend. But for now, young libertarians are highly frustrating. I’ve tasted victory. And the thing preventing new victories is nothing but a lack of people.

Battling Time and Ignorance: Mario Rizzo at 70

Last week my friend and colleague Mario Rizzo, a scholar central to the revival of  contemporary Austrian economics, turned 70. This occasion prompted a spontaneous outpouring of praise for his work, as well as messages of gratitude for his support of students and fellow academics over his decades as an intrepid professor with his home firmly at NYU. They are collected over at ThinkMarkets. Jeffrey Tucker has written an excellent summary of Mario’s intellectual contributions at the American Institute for Economic Research. Below is a segment of my birthday message:

In my home, the United Kingdom, classical liberal thought has until recently been virtually unheard within much of academia. As a student and think-tank researcher ravenous for liberal approaches to public policy, I gorged on Mario’s blog posts from ThinkMarkets. Together with Marginal Revolution and Cafe Hayek, ThinkMarkets was a critical lifeline for me facing an intellectual world dominated by various visions of authoritarianism and only slightly more benign variants of paternalism.

Thanks to Mario’s selfless contributions to the revival of Austrian economics, that intellectual world is changing, even in the UK. His co-founding of the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics and hosting the Program on the Foundations of the Market Economy at NYU has provided support and inspiration for countless young scholars.

I am very fortunate to be among that multitude.

IMG_5104