Freedom of Conscience and the Rule of Law

Of course the concept of “freedom of conscience” was forged in Europe by Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and many other philosophers. But the freedom of conscience as an individual right that belongs to set of characteristics which defines the rule of law is an American innovation, which later spread to Latin America and to the Old Continent.

This reflection comes from the dispute which has been aroused in Notes On Liberty about the Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience. Now, my intention is not to mediate between Mark and Bruno, but to bring to the Consortium a new line of debate. What I would like to polemize is what defines which rights to be protected by the rule of law. In this sense, might we regard a political regime that bans freedom of conscience as based on the rule of law? I am sure that no one would dare to do so. But, instead, would anyone dare to state that unification of language in a given country hurts the rule of law? I am afraid that almost nobody would.

Nevertheless, this is a polemical question. For example, the current Catalan independence movement has the language of Catalan as one of its main claims, so tracing the genealogy of the rights that constitutes the concept of rule of law is a meaningful task —and this is why the controversy over the Protestant Reformation and the origin of Freedom of Conscience at NOL is so interesting.

Before the Protestant Reformation, the theological, philosophical, scientific, and political language of Europe was unified in Latin. On the other hand, the languages used by the common people were utterly fragmented. A multiplicity of dialects were spoken all over Europe. The Catholic Kings of Spain, for example, unified their kingdom under the same religion, but they did not touch the local dialects. A very similar situation might be found in the rest of Europe: kingdoms with one religion and several dialects.

There was a strong reason for this to be so. Before the Medieval Ages Bibles in vernacular had existed, but the literacy rate was so low that the speed of evolution and fragmentation of the dialects left those translations obsolete and incomprehensible. Since printing books was extremely costly (this was before the invention of  the printing press), the best language to write and print books and constitutional documents was Latin.

The Evangelical movement, emerged out of the Protestant Reformation, meant that final authority of religion was not the Papacy any more but the biblical text. What changed was the coordination problem. Formerly, the reference was the local bishop, who was linked to the Bishop of Rome. (Although with the Counter-Reformation, in some cases, like Spain, the bishops were appointed by the king, a privilege obtained in exchange for remaining loyal to the Pope). On the other hand, in the Reformation countries, the text of the Bible as final authority on theological matters demanded the full command of an ability not so extended until that moment: literacy.

It is well-known that the Protestant Reformation and the invention of printing expanded the translations of the Bible into the vernacular. But always goes completely unnoticed that by that time the concept of a national language hardly existed. In the Reformist countries the consolidation of a national language was determined by the particular vernacular which was chosen to translate the Bible into.

Evidently, the extension of a common language among the subjects of a given kingdom had reported great benefits to its governance, since the tendency was followed by the monarchies of France and Spain. The former extended the Parisian French over the local patois and, in Spain of the XVIII Century, the Bourbon Reforms imposed Castilian as the national Spanish language. The absolute kings, who each of them had inherited a territory unified by a single religion, sowed the seeds of national states aggregated by a common language. Moreover, Catholicism became more dependent on absolute kings than on Rome —and that is why Bruno finds some Catholics arguing for the separation of Church from the state.

Meanwhile, in the New World, the Thirteen Colonies were receiving the European immigration mostly motivated on the lack of religious tolerance in their respected countries of origin. The immigrants arrived carrying with them all kind of variances of Christian confessions and developed new and unexpected ones. All those religions and sects had a common reference: the King James Bible.

My thesis is that it was the substitution of religion for language as the factor of cohesion and mechanism of social control that made possible the development of the freedom of conscience. The political power left what was inside of the mind of their subjects a more economical device: language. Think what you wish, believe what you wish, read what you wish, write what you wish, say what you wish, as long as I understand what you do and you can understand what I mean.

Moreover, an official language became a tool of accountability and a means of knowing the rights and duties of an individual before the state. The Magna Carta (1215) was written in Medieval Latin while the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), in English. Both documents were written in the language that was regarded as proper in their respective time. Nevertheless, the language which is more convenient to the individual for the defense of his liberties is quite obvious.

Often, the disputes over the genealogy of rights and institutions go around two poles: ideas and matter. I think it is high time to go along the common edge of both of them: the unintended consequences, the “rural nomos,” the complex phenomena. In this sense, but only in this sense, tracing the genealogy – or, better, the “nomology” – of the freedom of conscience as an intended trait of the concept of “rule of law” is worth our efforts.

Summing up: the year of irrationality

Brandon says I’ve got one last chance to write his favorite post of the year. But it’s the end of a long semester and I’m brain dead, so I’m just going to free ride on his idea: a year end review. If I were to sum up the theme of this year in a word, that word would be irrational.

After 21 months of god awful presidential campaigning, we were finally left with a classic Kodos vs Kang election. The Democrats were certain that they could put forward any turd sandwich and beat Trump, but they ultimately lost out to populist outrage. Similar themes played out with Brexit, but I don’t know enough to comment.

Irrationality explains the Democrats, the Republicans, and the country as a whole. The world is complex, but big decisions have been made by simple people.

We aren’t equipped to manage the world’s complexity.

We aren’t made to have direct access to The Truth; we’re built to survive, so we get a filtered version of the truth that has tended to keep our ancestors out of trouble long enough to get laid. In other words, what seems sensible to each of us, may or may not be the truth. What we see with our own eyes may not be worth believing. We need more than simple observation to actually ferret out The Truth.

Our imperfect perceptions build on imperfect reasoning faculties to make imperfect folk economics. But what sounds sensible often overlooks important moving parts.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Only a small minority of the population will ever have a strong grasp on any particularly complex thing. As surely as my mechanic will never become an expert in economics, I will never be able to do any real work on my car. The trouble arises when we expect me or my mechanic to try to run the country. The same logic applies to politicians, whose job (contrary to what your civics teacher thinks) is to get re-elected, not to be a master applied social scientist. (And as awful as democracy is, the alternative is just some other form of political competition… there is no philosopher king.)

But, of course, our imperfect perception and reasoning have gotten us this far. They’ve pulled us out of caves and onto the 100th floor of a skyscraper*. Because in many cases we get good enough feedback to learn a lot about how to accomplish things in our mysterious universe.

We’re limited in what we can do, but sometimes it’s worth trying something. The trouble is, I can do things that benefit me at your expense. And this is especially true in politics (also pollution–what they have in common is hot air!). But it’s not just the politicians who create externalities, it’s the electorate. The costs of my voting to outlaw gravity (the simplest way for me to lose a few pounds) are nil. But when too many of us share the same hare-brained idea, we can do some real harm. And many people share bad ideas that have real consequences.

Voting isn’t the only way to be politically engaged, and we face a similar problem in political discourse in general. A lot of Democrats are being sore losers about this election rather than learning and adapting. Trump promised he would have done the same had he lost. We’re basically doomed to have low-quality political discourse. It’s easy and feels (relatively) good to bemoan that the whole world is going to hell.

We’re facing rational irrationality. Everyone is simply counting on someone else to get their shit together, because each of us individually is more comfortable with our heads firmly up our asses.

It’s a classic tragedy of the commons and it should prompt us to find some way to minimize the harm of our lousy politics. We’ve been getting better at this over the centuries. Democracy means the levers of power can change hands peacefully. Liberalization has entailed extending civil and economic rights to a wider range of people. We need to continue in this vein. More freedom has allowed more peace and prosperity.

 

So what do we do? I’d argue that we should focus on general rules rather than trying to have flawed voters pick flawed politicians and hope for the best. I don’t mean “make all X following specifications a, b, and c.” I mean, if you’re mad, try and sue someone. We don’t need dense and exploitable regulations. We don’t need new commissions. We just need a way for people to deal with problems as they arise. Mind you, our court system (like the rest of our government) isn’t quite ready for a more sensible world. But we can’t be afraid to be a little Utopian when we’re planning for the long run. But let’s get back to my main point…

We live in an irrational world. And it makes sense that it’s that way; rationality is hard. We can see irrationality all around us, but we see it most where it’s cheapest: politics and Facebook. The trouble is, sometimes little harmless irrational acts add up to cause real harm. Let’s admit we’ve got a problem with irrationality in politics so we can get better.


*Although that’s only literally true in 17 cases.

The Homo Economicus is “The Body” of the Agent

The model of the decision-making agent known as homo economicus is a trivial truth, but not a misconception. All agents are supposed to maximize the utility of their resources – that is true in every geography and in every age. But because it is a tautology, it is a mistake to give to the deductions brought about from this sole model the value of a description of a particular reality. As Wittgenstein had pointed out in his Tractatus, the tautologies do not convey any relevant information of any particular world, but of every possible world. The error consists on qualifying a common note to every possible situation as a distinctive characteristic of a particular set of events. To say that every agent acts to maximize his utility is true, but to state that this observation tells us something of a particular world that distinguishes it from every other possible world is the most extended misconception about the use of the model of the rational agent.

In another post, I mentioned the importance of having a body in order to develop a personal identity. In the same line as Hayek’s Sensory Order, the body enables us with the most elementary system of classification that makes our perceptions possible, or – to express it in a more radical empiricist strain – that brings the experience to happen. Upon this system of classification will sediment more abstract layers, or degrees, of systems of classification. Our knowledge is expressed at a level of abstraction that our mind can handle, whereas the law, the market, and the language are examples of phenomena that might achieve increasing degrees of complexity that mark blurred boundaries to our knowledge. The former are named “simple phenomena” and the latter “complex phenomena” in the Hayekian terminology. Our personal identity is continuously developing on that stratus set between the simple and the complex phenomena.

In this sense, we need the conclusions brought about by the rational agent model as the stem upon which lay further strata of increasingly complex analysis. Paradoxically, the more particular the social reality we seek to describe, the more abstract has to be our layer of analysis. Notwithstanding, it would be impossible to us to conceive any image of the social experience if we lack of the fixed point of the rational agent model.

Max Weber’s ideal types could be interpreted as instances of social arrangements based on the rational agent model, which incorporate particular – and abstract – characteristics depending on the historical circumstances under scrutiny. At the bottom of both adventurous capitalism and traditional society, beneath successive strata of different social and institutional designs, we will find an agent who maximizes utility. Perhaps that is why the term “rational capitalism” is so controversial. If rationality concerns subjective reason, then rational capitalism encloses a circular definition.

In this line of ideas, I hope this quick reflection might shed some light upon the old discussion about instrumental rationality and substantive reason. Since the instrumental rationality is common to every possible world, we might look for the substantive reason that gives order to this actual world in the increasing layers of complexity that reach degrees of abstraction that are superior to the subjective reason. Although that does not mean that we will ever be able to find it.

A metaphor for the Socialist Calculation Debate

This week’s episode of EconTalk was fantastic, and in particular drew an important parallel between the complexity of the human brain and the complexity of market economies. The guest was discussing radical nanotechnology (basically the idea that engineers could out do bacteria by applying good design principles in place of random mutation and natural selection), and Russ pointed out that the logic is basically the same as in Socialism. Radical nanotechnology runs into a fundamental problem as long as it ignores the emergent processes occurring at the molecular/cellular level.

Later, the guest discusses the issue of artificial intelligence and points out that the fundamental unit of biological computing is not the neuron (which we simulate on computers using neural networks), but the molecule. In other words, natural intelligence is the outcome of a complex process that isn’t simple enough for us to easily replicate on a computer.

All that in mind, the idea of socialism* is like the idea that we could replace a brain with a pocket calculator. Yes, the idea is to get a very powerful calculator, but the problem is that it’s replacing a computer that’s far more complex and sophisticated.


* i.e. Centralized control of the means of production… socialism has nothing to do with sharing (you’re thinking “Egalitarianism”) and everything to do with control, and particularly the attempt to rationalize complex systems.

Normas, decisiones y complejidad

Hace pocos días, se publicó en el sitio americanscientist.org un ambicioso artículo sobre el concepto de lo aleatorio. El autor, Scott Aaronson, trataba de elucidar bajo qué criterio podíamos distinguir una serie aleatoria de números de otra serie de números ordenados conforme cierto patrón, difícil de determinar, pero estructurante al fin de un orden en la serie. En otras palabras, si una computadora arrojaba “aleatoriamente” un número “9” y luego otro número “9” y luego otro y otro, ¿estábamos ante el resultado del azar, que se juega en cada nueva jugada, o ante un patrón que podía expresarse en una fórmula? ¿Si de repente apareciera en la serie un número 4, eso confirmaría el azar, o nos indicaría que nos encontramos ante un patrón más complejo?

Aaronson propone en el referido artículo, como criterio identificatorio de un número aleatorio, la característica de no ser susceptible de reducción a un algoritmo más simple. La explicación aparece como plausible y tiene un gran poder de seducción. Sin embargo, desde nuestro punto de vista, tal conceptualización no permite distinguir azar de complejidad. Friedrich A. Hayek se inspiró en Kurt Gödel para proponer, como caracterización de un fenómeno complejo, aquél sobre el que, en atención a la heterogeneidad de sus elementos, ninguna teoría puede ofrecer su descripción completa, es decir, que no puede expresarse en un algoritmo más simple.

La noción de fenómeno complejo tiene sus raíces en el empirismo de David Hume: las relaciones entre los términos (una serie de números, por ejemplo) no se encuentran en los términos mismos, si no que son atribuidas por el sujeto (en nuestro ejemplo, le adjudicamos un patrón a aquella serie de números.) Desde el momento en el que el conocimiento general no proviene de los hechos si no que es atribuido a los mismos, tal conocimiento general no nos permitirá agotar el conocimiento de lo particular. En otras palabras, siempre habrá un elemento empírico en toda teoría.

Para continuar con nuestro ejemplo: podemos enunciar un patrón que explique la sucesión de una serie de números, pero estamos expuestos a que aparezca un nuevo número en la serie que nos obligue a revisar nuestra teoría. Cuando aparece un nuevo acontecimiento que se escapa a nuestras expectativas, lo que hacemos es reajustar la noción de orden que le atribuimos a la realidad. Lo que hace que una serie de acontecimientos configure un orden o estructura, y no sea caótica o aleatoria no es, por consiguiente, que las expectativas en torno a los acontecimientos siempre se cumplan, si no que exista un rango de acontecimientos que nunca se verifique, en otras palabras: que determinadas expectativas sean sistemáticamente frustradas.

Igualmente, la confusión entre azar y complejidad puede ser fecunda y arrojar más luz sobre la naturaleza de la segunda. Por ejemplo, Nicolás Maquiavelo culminaba “El Príncipe” con la afirmación de que la iniciativa era la virtud fundamental del político, ya que la fortuna tendía a favorecer más al arriesgado que al cauto. En términos poblacionales, vemos más hombres de éxito con iniciativa que sin ella ya que, para resultar exitosos, se tuvieron que conyugar dos situaciones: la decisión de asumir riesgos y que la oportunidad favorable efectivamente se haya presentado. En el conjunto de políticos sin éxito encontraremos a los cautos y también a los arriesgados (que no tuvieron suerte). Va de suyo que podemos sustituir “fortuna” por “complejidad” sin perder mucho del sentido de la idea.

Asimismo, The Economist publicó la semana pasada un interesante artículo sobre la relación entre la estructura del azar y laestructura de las decisiones. Todo parece indicar que efectivamente existen buenas y malas rachas, pero ello no se debe al azar si no a la estructura de decisiones que se toman frente a una situación difícil o imposible de comprender. Un jugador tiene a la suerte de su lado cuando, luego de ganar la primera apuesta, en las sucesivas va reduciendo su exposición al riesgo. Correlativamente en este caso, a menores riegos, menores ganancias pero también menores pérdidas, con lo que el resultado neto de todo el conjunto de jugadas es positivo. Paralelamente, si un jugador pierde en su primera apuesta, incrementar el riesgo de las sucesivas con la idea de compensar la primera pérdida sólo lo llevará a la ruina. En síntesis, una muy buena estrategia para lidiar con el riesgo es actuar como un sistema de retroalimentación negativa: a cada desvío del promedio estándar, responder con mayor moderación. Después de todo, la comparación con un sistema de retroalimentación negativa era la caracterización que F. A. Hayek hacía de la función del derecho y de todo sistema normativo en general, aportando mayor estabilidad y mejores resultados netos.

Publicado originariamente en http://www.ihumeblog.blogspot.com.ar , el blog institucional de la Fundación Instituto David Hume (www.ihume.org), de Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The concept of “dispersed knowledge” should be a commonplace!

I dare to state that the world would be a better place to live in if the concept of “dispersed knowledge” were a commonplace. Perhaps it is an elusive idea and that is why every now and then political intervention regards itself as the saviour from the “chaos of the market”.

But what most people are used to call “chaos” is, in fact, “complexity”. Every single rational agent is an administrator of the bits of information gathered by him from the limited range of his experience, using devices of perception, such as senses, social values, norms, and technologies. The said devices are mostly common to other agents and thus contribute to make the compatibility of several individual plans, the most of them unknown to each other, possible –and the stability of the social order rests on the degree of such compatibility.

As we said, social spontaneous conventions as language, monetary economy, trade, morals, and law systems –along with many others- are devices used by the these agents to cope with the complexity of an order of things built on a framework of plans of multiple individuals, most of them yet undiscovered. It is a complex order of facts, but it is an order still: spontaneous conventions make of the multiple bits of information from the different individual plans a coordinated set of resources applied to carry out the most of them. It is a complex system of coordination of knowledge, with gaps and perturbations, but it is a system that can deal with a higher amount of information than any individual or committee would be able to do.

Since our concept of rationality is mostly instrumental, regarding as “rational” a set of resources deliberately applied to attain a known aim, it is easy to consider the complex order resulting from spontaneous coordination of individual plans as “irrational” -and this charaterisation gains strength with every new crisis. At this point, what we have to notice is that the net benefits rendered by the extended society –i.e.: the spontaneous coordination of the dispersed knowledge from multiple individual plans and institutions- are higher than what any other alternative system of organization of human beings could bring about. The consequence of the argument is that dispersed knowledge is both a burden to central planning and lever to the open society.

We know that almost the whole work of F. A. Hayek is devoted to this quest, but if I had to choose a single paper that keeps the kernel of this philosophy I would choose “The Use of Knowledge in Society”. This would be a good starting point to make the idea of “dispersed knowledge” part of our cultural background, like heliocentrism or Gödel’s theorem.

Originally published on http://www.fgmsosavalle.blogspot.com